Walking into a martial arts school for the first time can be both confusing and overwhelming. You come in with lots of questions and the instructors seem to have all the answers, or do they. Like most major purchases in life you need to do your homework and not put all your faith in the salesman. Yes I said salesman. Because that’s what most instructors are. I’m not faulting them, to own and operate a commercial school you have to be a salesman on some level. I’m simply warning that not all instructors are as genuine as they seem. Here are some suggested steps in finding the right school for your child.
1. Scout location
2. Observe a class
3. Interview the head Instructor/owner
4. Sign up for a demo class
5. Look over pricing
While a school close to your home is certainly convenient it’s probably not the best way to go about choosing a school. Here is a guide on location.
Malls/Strip Malls/Free Standing Buildings
These are the most common and they are also the ones you should do the most research on. These places for the most part are businesses first, martial arts school second, though they may tell you different. They have to pay the rent and utilities and of course need money to do it. The electric company doesn’t care if the owner is a 10th degree grandmaster national champion, it will shut his power off mid class if they aren’t paid. Don’t get me wrong there are many great schools and great instructors that operate out of commercial locations, just be aware they need to make a money to exist so expect some up selling. The good thing about these schools is that they have the freedom to make there own schedules. Many have a wide variety of programs and classes for specific experience levels and interests.
Community Centers, Schools, Churches, YMCA’s
Schools that run out of a non-for-profit location are pretty common and easily accessible. Lots of times they have support from the group that owns the building and class sizes can be on the bigger side. They pay a minimum for the space so tuition and fees tend to be lower. The biggest con of this type of school is that the class times will be limited because it is a shared space. This also means that there most likely will be only one program to choose from. You’ll see classes with a broader range of age and experience combined into one.
Many colleges and universities will have a martial arts program but the majority will not have a kids program and be intended for adults only.
Programs in gyms have a tendency to be a combination of first two types of locations I talked about. Fees are a bit higher and there is a limited class schedule. Again most are geared towards adults but some do offer kids classes. Be wary though, classes in gyms may require you to join the gym in order to sign up for the class.
Observe a Class
This is probably one of the most important things you can do. Every school will let you and your child observe a class or two. I suggest to observe at least 2 classes. While the class is going on also observe your child. Does your child seem interested in what’s happening on the floor? This is a good immediate way of seeing if your child likes what they see.
Observe the class your child will be participating in.
This sounds silly but its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to observe an adult class or an advanced kids class. If your child has limited or no martial arts experience you should go observe the beginner program if the school has one.
Things to observe:
-Are the kids having fun?
This is the most important thing to look for. If the kids in class seemed to be engaged and are having fun then your 90% of the way there. In any successful kids program the kids will listening to the instructor and learning but having fun at the same time.
-Who is teaching the class?
Many larger schools will have the lower level black belts and even brown belts run the kids classes. This shouldn’t be a red flag for you. Even the best instructors had to have started somewhere and generally the kid’s classes are where it was. Children are not technically demanding as far as technique goes. So if a junior instructor makes a technical mistake while they’re teaching, the kids won’t question it or even pick up on it. This is ok, the junior instructor will eventually pick up on their mistake and correct it. Its more important to watch and see if the kids are listening to the instructor and responding in a positive way to what he/she says. Also does the instructor seem to be enjoying himself or herself. Teaching a lot of kids classes can wear on even the most seasoned instructor. A good kids instructor will have at least or even more energy than the kids. If the instructor seems to be “phoning it in” then it’s probably not the right school for you.
-Are the classes organized?
Does the class seem to have an organized structure or is the instructor making it up as he/she goes? While there is a certain amount of improving that is needed when teaching children, the class should be run in a relatively organized and cohesive fashion.
-How technical is the class?
Do the instructors spend too much time talking and explaining the every intricacy of every move? Or do they spend little to no time on techniques and focus more on games and activities? No class should lean to far to one side or the other. The mixture of the two will vary depending on the age level of the class. With 4-6 year olds the split should be around 90% games 10% techniques while 12-14 years olds should be more around 20% games and 80% technique. Even though the youngest will play a lot more games the games should be based on basic martial arts techniques.
Interview the head Instructor/owner
A lot of time the head instructor and the owner will be the same person but don’t surprised if they are not. Since in majority of schools they are the same person this advice is based on that. Don’t be afraid to take notes. In fact I recommend it.
Questions you should ask:
-Is your school insured? By who?
-Who is/was your instructor? Are they still teaching? Where?
-Is your school associated with any national/international organization?
While being associated with a major organization is not a deal breaker it does help add to the legitimacy of a school. Most major organizations will have a website with a list of affiliated schools.
-What is your philosophy when teaching kids?
This is a pretty loaded question for any instructor and you’ll likely get a wide range of answers. Key things you’ll want to listen for are: discipline, self-control, build confidence and have fun. Things you don’t want to hear: defend him/herself against adults, become a champion, learn to fight.
Sign up for a demo class
This is the ultimate test. You may find a great school with great instructors that everybody likes, but if your child doesn’t enjoy themselves the school isn’t the right one for them. All schools offer free trial classes so take advantage of them and don’t be afraid to try more than one school. Your child will let you know when they find the one they like. Be wary if the school hands your child some kind of rank after the demo class is over. White belts are a dime a dozen for schools to purchase. So if they hand your child a white belt and then proceed to give them a tip (colored piece of tape representing a rank on the belt), you may want to second think the school.
Look over the school pricing
Here is where things can get complicated. Standalone schools tend to use contracts while non-for-profits generally use a month-to-month system. Most schools offer an introductory rate that you should take advantage of, just be aware of the regular rate when the intro period expires.
This is the most common form of membership for new students. The pros to a contract system are: lower rates for longer memberships, makes the child commit to what they are doing and a frozen rate. The biggest con of course is that you are locked into a set length of time weather your child enjoys it or not. Also make sure to read the fine print. Some things you’ll want to look for are: cancellation fees, late fees, contract suspension in case of injury and any additional fees that may be involved.
The biggest benefit of this style of payment is that you are not locked into paying for a certain amount of time. If your child ends up not enjoying it, you can just pick up and leave. Schools that have this style of payment generally have a higher student turnover rate. Often attendance during the summer months tends to drop off. Month-to-month schools tend to drop off more because there is no payment commitment. The hardest part for schools is then to get these students to come back in when the summer is over. Because of this schools that have month-to-month also have higher rates to make up for the low seasons.
Remember once your child is signed up there will be other expenses such as a uniform, sparring gear, weapons, testing fees, etc.
I hope this short guide helps you find the right school for your child. Martial arts promote healthy living and an active lifestyle for your children but only if they are taught properly in a well established accredited school.