Pediatric Performance Anxiety: Helping Your Child Try New Things
In my role as an instructor for SKILLZ of Patchogue and lead consultant for SKILLZ Worldwide, I have the opportunity to speak with a lot of parents about their concerns for their children. As a parent myself, understand that parenting can be tough at times, especially when our kids are facing challenges.
Recently, in a parents’ group curated by fellow SKILLZ instructor Tim Flynn of Kato Karate in Mankato, MN, a parent expressed some legitimate concerns over some struggle her ninja was facing in his martial arts class.
Here is what she asked about her child’s anxiety:
I am seeking some advice pertaining to my seven-year-old. He is an incredibly bright boy, and his school assessments prove that. He is reading at a level well above his age group, and even his math skills are above average. In other words, he typically never struggles to remember anything; however, he appears to struggle immensely with self-confidence and is typically afraid to attempt anything new (fearing he will make a mistake).
This was blatantly obvious last night when attempting to learn more of his form. He started crying, refused to even try, and informed me, “I’m too stupid. I’ll never remember this. This is too hard!” The other instructors and I have tried to encourage him as much as possible, and we have offered to teach the form to him literally one move at a time (if necessary); but we seem to be making little headway with positive reinforcement. He does love karate, though; and says he wants to go to class (so it’s not like I am forcing him). Any recommendations?
This is actually a fairly common experience, though not always expressed in the martial arts venue. In a SKILLZ program, we look at four separate aspects of child development: physical, intellectual, emotional, and social. Most kids develop relatively evenly across all four areas, with some areas being better than others. Some children, however, develop unevenly, and this can often present challenges for adults who try to understand what is happening.
For example, a child who is above average in intellectual development, as with the child mentioned above, may be below the typical stage of emotional or social development. Instead of balancing out, this imbalance can often magnify difficulties the child faces. The child may have trouble empathizing that peers don’t understand, or the opposite may be true with the child intellectualizing emotional fears, resulting in anxiety.
With this in mind, here was my response. Perhaps it will help with similar anxiety issues your child is facing.
There’s a ton to unpack there, and much of it is more about long-term strategies than any particular tactic to gain compliance. Of course, this will all be very general as I have no relationship with the child or family, so take it with a grain of salt and use a “if the shoe fits” kinda approach
First, 7 years of age is very early to be looking for major competence in forms training. That isn’t to say they can’t do it, simply that many of the concepts we use in forms training simply may not be well developed in a child this age.
By modifying our expectations of what is needed, we can help relieve some of the performance anxiety. At 7, pretty much any effort is a good effort. If it becomes too difficult, there will be major pushback.
Further, kids at this age are primarily driven by their own sense of ability. If they believe they can, they’ll try, even if we adults know better. Conversely, if they believe they can’t, it is very difficult to convince them otherwise.
Also, if there is major anxiety, that anxiety needs to be addressed first. Anxiety and learning often go hand in hand, but an imbalance inhibits the ability and desire to learn. Along the same vein, some positive mentoring about self-talk and how it affects us can be invaluable. (Do some reading about the Reticular Activating System and how positive affirmations work.)
Now that we’ve set our expectations realistically, let’s look at two areas we can help: Self-efficacy and Motivation Theory.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their competency. As mentioned above, a 7-year-old child is just entering a stage of development that is firmly rooted in self-efficacy. While it is difficult to influence tactically (in the moment), we can take a strategic approach to build self-efficacy over time.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN KIDS
There are 5 main drivers of self-efficacy, and we can influence each. Let’s start from the least impactful (yet easiest to apply) and work our way up:
- Social Persuasion
- Physical and Emotional State
- Performance Experience
- Imaginal Learning
- Vicarious Learning
1 – Social Persuasion
Social persuasion includes everything from a pep talk to peer-driven encouragement. It is easy to rationalize and encourage, ad important to do so, but this is also the most external influence and least likely to sway a child’s belief in themselves without reinforcement from other avenues. This is usually where coaches and parents start and stop, which is often why we struggle.
2 – Physical & Emotional State
Thinking a bit more broadly, ensuring that the child is well-nourished, clean, hydrated, generally happy, and feels well-loved and important in the lives of those around him has a major impact on how well they will be able to rise to challenges. An extreme example of this is trying to teach a toddler who missed snack and is overdue for a nap. Good luck 😁. Even the state of a child’s uniform can impact their belief in their ability to achieve. When we look good we feel good, and when we feel good we do good.
3 – Performance Experience
It can be helpful to face current challenges by relating them to past experiences. This can be as simple as responding to a child who says something is hard with, “Yes, you’re right. It IS hard. It’s a good thing you can do hard things.” Often, a child will need you to help connect the dots for them. It becomes the mentors job to recognize similar challenges, and to refer to them in a positive way. “Remember when you first started, and it was hard to remember all 3 blocks? It made you anxious, but with practice, you were able to do it, and then you felt very proud of yourself. Learning your form is the same way. Let’s see if we can break it into smaller pieces to help you feel more confident.”
4 – Imaginal Learning
similar to Performance Experience, Imaginal Learning uses the mind to project success. In the above example, we labeled the emotion, tied it to a past experience, then use mood induction to help the child recall how good they felt after achieving the challenge. Now we can use the imagination to project that past experience into the future. We can use guided imagery to help the child not only remember how they FELT, but to then imagine how they WILL feel once they make it past this current challenge. Once they can already see their success and feel the relief, we can work backwards to craft a plan of action by working on smaller and smaller goals until we reach something that is immediately actionable without causing anxiety.
5 – Vicarious Learning
This is a child’s ability to learn by watching others. This can be as simple as having them sit with the instructor and watching the other children. After a while, they can be asked to help their friends by pointing out one thing that is correct about each move, or one thing that can be better. Eventually, the child may even verbally assist peers with remembering moves. Each of these activities requires the same mental processes as performing the activity, and at 7 years of age, forms is far more about intellectual development than physical performance.
Each of these methods, when used together over a period of time, can help the child feel more confident about trying, and can help the adults discover the true root of the problem so they can help better.
Now, none of these will help if the child is not motivated to try. Realistically, learning cannot be forced, only encouraged.
So, let’s look from the child’s point of view and see how we can build the intrinsic motivation necessary to encourage learning.
The child is already anxious, and to overcome that anxiety, we will have to provide a very valuable motivator. Most people will immediately try bribery, rewards, and punishments. “If you just try the first move, I will leave you alone/buy you ice cream/not punish you.” Each of these is based on the adult’s need and actually makes things worse as they put the focus on the punishment or reward rather than the child and their ability to learn.
The first thing we have to address is the value of the forms to the child. What do they get out of it? Why do they even need to learn the form?
At 7, they should have the intellectual development to recognize the symbolic nature of the forms, though this is absolutely worth investigating. However, they may not be able to recognize the benefits of the form. Does the form help them do something besides earning a stripe or belt? Do they clearly recognize the path from performance to goal acquisition?
Once we’ve assessed and corrected any gaps in the “WHY” we can start to work on building the intrinsic motivation that is so important to this age group.
There are three main components to building intrinsic motivation:
A child needs to feel connected to their mentors, to their peers, and to the lesson. If we try to force or cajole compliance, we actually stress this connection. They must feel safe and be able to trust us before they want to learn from us. Additionally, we can reinforce a child’s sense of connection to our “in goup” (a small community of people who identify themselves as a distinct unit, such as a family, peer group, or team) by praising in a way that enhances inclusivity. “I saw you do a strong block. That’s what good martial artists do. That shows me that you are a good martial artist, too.” The more connected a child feels, and the more they self-identify as someone who does the things being asked, the more likely they will be to want to do those things.
Kids need the freedom to self-determine. We can’t force them to learn, they need to want to do it. It can be useful to let the child guide the way forward in a way they see fit, then the adults become guides to help bring that exploration around to the end goal of participation. This can be as simple as asking the child how they would like to practice forms, or even how they think they can practice Concentration. So long as it’s safe, let them get started, then bit by bit, through Socratic questioning and suggestion, we can guide them to forms practice. There is no rush. If a child is struggling to learn something, they are simply not ready to learn it, and it’s up to us to give them the time and create the environment to help get them there. By allowing the child to lead, their need to feel autonomous is fulfilled and progress is being made.
If a child is struggling with the big things, they may not have a firm understanding of the foundational aspects. It may be useful to leave forms alone for a while and instead focus on basics and combos. Or, thinking in terms of skill vs technique, spend more time developing working memory, proprioception, and overall confidence levels. The forms can also be taught “sneakily” while working on other things. If just practicing combos is working, keep increasing the number of moves in the combo until the child is doing 5 moves that just happen to be the first 5 moves of the form.
When a child feels connected, autonomous, and competent, they will be motivated to attempt the activities that build those feelings.
One final note is that a child who fears to fail may simply learn to need how to fail. This doesn’t mean we fail them just because. Rather, we want to provide them opportunities to see us fail, to see us learn from those failures, and to hear us be excited to fail because it means we can learn and get better. This can be shown in games when we play with the kids and get out, or through storytelling. Also, a child who fears failing may also have an adverse reaction to too much praise. If the praise isn’t real, and meaningful, and tied to something legitimately praiseworthy, it can actually create MORE anxiety. Be honest, and let them see that failure is a good thing, while also letting them know that praise is not the only reward… sometimes the reward is the accomplishment itself and the connection to the group that comes from that accomplishment.
Good luck, and keep at it! The perseverance and resiliency your child learns over the next few months and years will set the tone for the rest of his life.
If this sounds familiar, and your child is struggling to balance thoughts and emotions, a powerful child development program like SKILLZ, which uses science and psychology in a fun, martial-arts-themed environment, might be exactly the thing to help your child grow physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
To apply for our program and schedule your child’s free SKILLZ evaluation, click the button below:
SKILLZ OF PATCHOGUE
380 East Main St
Patchogue, NY 11772
Author: Michael A Evans
Michael is a 6th-degree black sash under his teacher, Moises Arocho, and has been training in martial arts since 1985. Michael has a degree in Massage Therapy from NY College of Health Professions. He is the co-owner of 4GK Martial Arts in Patchogue, NY, and Skillz of Patchogue, a childhood development facility using martial arts and other movement modalities as the vehicle for kids’ growth and success. Michael is also the Lead Consultant for Skillz Worldwide.