8

Is it ever appropriate for an instructor to take away a student's belt as discipline?

Two 12 year old students were outside the class engaged in horseplay. One had been told previously that if the instructor had to talk to him about horseplay again, he would take away his belt and he would have to earn it back. This is a 3rd year student with a purple belt. Another student walked by the two, saw them horseplaying, went inside and told the instructor who came out, took away the belt from the one, and made the other do push ups.

I've never heard of this being done as discipline and was wondering if it is an appropriate form of discipline to use.

On a side note, the student was so upset about his belt being gone after 3 years of work, he quit. Not the best reaction but it happened.

10

Sounds fine to me. The kid was told exactly what would happen if he disobeyed his instructor one more time. In fact, had the instructor not followed through on his threat to take away his belt, the kid would have learned that his instructor makes hollow threats, and that would invite even more insubordination.

There's a reason for this harshness.

At 12 years old, boys are maturing into adulthood. They're still not adults, but they're beginning to realize they're no longer children, either. With increased physical size and strength comes greater responsibility, especially in the martial arts.

Martial arts instructors begin to transition kids into adult classes at about this age. What was once a fun, playful experience for the children changes into something more mature, serious, and disciplined. That's the difference between child classes and adult classes.

In addition, purple belt is usually right before advanced colored ranks like red, brown, and black belt, depending on which martial art we're talking about. The transition from intermediate to advanced rank is similar to the transition the boy is making from childhood to adulthood. With advanced rank comes greater responsibility, maturity, and discipline.

And so, what I suspect the instructor was trying to do was to nudge the kid into taking it more seriously and to act more maturely. This is in preparation for adult classes and more advanced rank.

I doubt taking away his belt meant anything for real. Probably the teacher would give him back his belt after a short period of time, as soon as he saw the boy's behavior had improved.

It's a pity the kid in question decided to react negatively to it and quit. It's probably not too late for him to come back. He would need to apologize and ask if he could return, and he would have to be humble enough to accept a lower rank, even a white belt. The instructor might even give him back his purple belt if he did, because just that act of apologizing and humbling himself might show he has made the necessary progress.

And for the record, I have seen this sort of discipline happen many times before in different martial arts schools. Kids and even adults can be demoted for bad behavior. It's rare, but it happens. And usually it's quite appropriate. It's either that or tossing the student out completely, but usually just threatening to demote someone is good enough to snap them into shaping up.

Hope that helps.

  • 1
    That helps immensely. It was not made clear whether the rank was lost or the actual belt and it would seem that makes a difference as well. Thanks for taking the time to help with this. – Ken Feb 28 '16 at 0:25
  • Great answer happens all the time. I had a few belts taken when i was young :( – YesTeacher Mar 21 '16 at 20:11
  • Something this answer dances around, but does not mention directly: many Martial Arts are, at least nominally, taught as a discipline rather than a sport - etiquette and behaviour being as important as the techniques. (In my Dojo, "behaviour" is literally one of the 8 assessment categories on the grading sheet, and failing it would fail your grading.) By showing that they are incapable of maintaining the discipline or behaviour expected of the grade, the students are showing that they are no longer able to hold it - much like if they suddenly completely forgot how to punch. – Chronocidal Jul 4 at 16:25
6

I've been in your instructor's position a few times, and I've threatened to demote. But I recognize that taking away a belt can be detrimental in several ways (call me a snowflake if you want).

First, a kid works hard for the belt. Then you take it away (or prevent him from wearing it). That's embarrassing. And what have you done? You've let a single incident (of typical behavior for that age) take precedence over a few years of otherwise hard work. Bottom line: not really that fair. You focused on the negative, and no so much on the positive. I know the counter argument: I didn't really take it away - the kid caused it to be taken away. But that's a nuance lost on 12 year olds, I think.

Second, you run the real prospect of losing that student, who will then turn around and bad-mouth you to his friends. Then you have a reputation to deal with. For some instructors, not a big deal, especially in a large town or city. But for others, that reaction is cause for reconsideration, if it causes you loss in business. I don't teach for a living, so, they can bad-mouth me all they want, it's not going to change me.

Third, what have you taught? I mean really: what have you taught? Say you taught them a form/kata. Now you demote them. Think about what the belt really means. To them, it's a marker of achievement. But to you, it's a means to divide up a class: White belts in that corner, green belts in this corner, and red belts go over there. You've just made your teaching structure that much harder by removing your tool to measure who needs to learn what. Maybe you can deal with a single student with the off-belt (do you really have dozens of students with demotions, even in the largest schools I think probably not. LOL).

Fourth, who are these kids? In my case, I have many a student who, shall we say, "don't fit in a box". They have issues. Because of the environment my school is in, most have behavioral issues. Others come from broken families. Others have issues only they would know. For better or worse, my classes are my classes. That is the hand I am dealt. I can kick them out, expel them, or I can suspend them. Or I could make them a better person for it.

For me, I have a rigid set of standards of behavior I expect of all my students and instructors. But they are never threatened with expulsion (except in obvious egregious cases, which I've never had to do). I have special tasks they have to volunteer to do, such as cleaning the dojang floor, putting away the equipment, washing down the mirrors. Those with behavior issues are "voluntold" ahead of those who volunteer. In one case, I had a student mouth off to one of my assistants. His "punishment" was to come to classes early or stay late to read a book. During class, he participated as if nothing happened. When he was done with the book, he and his mother came to class, and he had to explain his behavior, and why he read the book. He also had to explain what he read. Of course, he had a sit-down with the assistant and me, and we discussed why it's wrong to mouth off the way he did. Sometimes, the instructor is wrong, or doesn't know how best to deal with emotional-needs students.

I have kids in class who constantly use colorful vernacular to each other. I accept that it is cultural, and not of my own culture. But if I demoted or expelled every kid who used the n-word, I wouldn't have a class at all. Indeed, for some I also have their parents as students: do you think I'm going to teach an old dog new tricks? Instead, I make it a point to teach them about respect for each other, and to be considerate of those who may overhear. This is a constant battle, and therefore, is a significant part of my teaching. In fact, it's a subject I begin and end nearly every single class. Usually, I begin each class with a short dialog on respect for others, hoping that will rub off during class. And I end a class with a short dialog on respect for themselves, hoping that will rub off at home.

Can you demote? Sure. But before you go down that road, remember there are several stakeholders in that student. There is the student of course, but there's also the (paying) parent. By working with the parents, you can safeguard against the quitter, who ultimately is the loser because he didn't get a chance to reflect, to learn, and to improve. That quitting student might have quit at the behest of the parents, who didn't feel the need to pay for a student to be demoted.

In the end, I think positive discipline begets more respect in the long run. It may take awhile for some. I have many kids with many issues, and they all know each other and each sees each other making mistakes. Dumb mistakes. But they also see that I try to help them, guide them, and mentor them. I respect them, I do not bully them or judge them. And I accept them. By demoting them, that (to me) is demeaning. I would rather be more constructive.

So I said all that to say this to answer your question. Is it ever appropriate? In my book, no. I think there are always better methods. I think that everyone loses in a demotion, and no one learns. IMHO, the teachable moments are much more desirable rather than the punitive moments.

4

From a strict discipline situation, this makes sense, as Steve states, as it's following up on a previously promised punishment and the kid should be learning proper discipline at that rank. However, from a legal and business perspective, it has issues.

First, who owns the belt? The way that most promotion ceremonies are performed, the belt is given to the student when they pass their test. Most people would argue that the student owns the physical belt at the end of their test. Taking, and keeping, that belt is tantamount to theft or private confiscation of private property, the as if a teacher at a public school took and kept a student's textbook or an award that they won.

Of course, the teacher might not have so much physically taken the belt as told the student that they can't wear it until they show an improvement in behavior. This is a bit more legally defensible as standards of uniform are often in the contract. From my experience as a child who was in such a contract is that many parents will still give the instructor hell over it if they feel it was unjustified, and that might still be problematic.

And ultimately, that's a large issue for modern martial arts schools. Many of them involve legal contracts, and parents have money invested in those contracts. Naturally, they're probably not going to just roll over when an instructor gives what may seem to them to be an arbitrary decision that their child can't take the classes that they paid for. Depending on how the contract is worded, they might even have a good case, but even if they're not, it's more trouble than most schools want to deal with.

  • 1
    Nice point of view on legal side. But that's largely what's wrong with this world today. The 12 year olds are at sensei's responsibility, while the sensei has little options to discipline the kids. Anyway, I think the instructor did not intend to "take away" (as in take ownership of) the belt, but rather make it clear that the student no more has the rank. Here in Finland demotion is not even possible (I think) because graduating ranks are reported to an umbrella organisation, and the student could just continue training his earned rank at another dojo. – diynevala Feb 26 '16 at 15:24
  • {nods} Although I'd argue that this is also what's "wrong" with a commercial setup for martial arts schools. I certainly don't begrudge instructors a living, but the introduction of money into the equations tends to lead to mandatory testing fees, McDojos, the need to retain marginal or troublesome students for financial purposes, etc. – Sean Duggan Feb 26 '16 at 16:25
  • In some schools, it's customary to take a student's belt when the student receives the next rank. This is even after a "belt fee" where the student pays $20 for the belt itself. If you read the contract, the instructor has the right to take those belts away for any reason at any time. At least with those schools. It's not exactly theft, since the student agrees to the terms and conditions of the contract. What you're paying for, then, is not the belt but the ability to wear the belt. I doubt anyone would sue, though, over a $10-$20 belt. :) – Steve Weigand Feb 26 '16 at 18:06
  • @SteveWeigand, I know we're only talking about colored ranks here, but black belts can cost $100+ for registration fees, monogramming, etc... Who typically "owns" those belts? Does the contract specify ownership over a physical belt? – The Wudang Kid Feb 26 '16 at 20:23
  • I think it's probably a legal grey area. By the way, most karate and TKD schools award 1st degree black belt "recommended" at first (no stripes), and then 1st degree black belt "decided" (one stripe) after testing again. The "recommended" black belt is seen as probational. If you do not test for and achieve the "decided" rank within a certain amount of time after receiving the "recommended" rank, your black belt is supposed to be taken away, and you are automatically demoted to non-black-belt status. Whether they actually physically take the belt, it's up to them. – Steve Weigand Feb 26 '16 at 22:36
4

I think there are times when demotion of belt is valid as a form of punishment. It would seem in this story that the pupil had been warned this would be the consequences, he chose to ignore it, and paid the price, then got crabby because the punishment threatened was actioned. Suggesting his parents may not usually follow up with the consequences the threaten with.

It also depends just how much the person would have to do to get it back. For example, a lot of clubs have a minimum time period between gradings, if he had to wait 6 months, that would probably be harsh. If there was a reasonable chance that he could get it back by end of class, or within a week or so.. Depending on the horseplay, thats really not a big deal.

Its especially true with children, that ive seen them gain a belt, but the standard of karate and more importantly etiquette has often not reflected their grade, a bit of a knock back, in life is common, and with the whole "deferred success" cos god forbid kids "fail" these days, it really is a good thing that kids learn somethings need earning, and deserving.. Not everything is a right.

4

I will give a bit of a different opinion here even though this already has an accepted answer pointing in the other direction. I think this is wrong.

Not so much in the legal sense as Sean Duggan already covered that part. However I think the child's reaction to quit is very much understandable and at the age of 12 I might have done the same.

It is common practice in many martial arts schools to discipline students with individual punishments, e.g. extra push-ups. Speaking from personal experience this helps short-term as it will usually get the children to be more quiet and obedient for the reason of the lesson. However it dies not fundamentally change the behaviour of the children. Problematic kids that get punished remain problematic. This is due to how punishment feels for children.

Most kids that are problematic to train get told exactly that a lot. At home, at school and also at their hobbies. As a result their self esteem is low and they start to think of themselves as problematic. This leads to them putting even less effort into fitting in as they get so used to being punished that this occurring again and again seems only natural to them. Punishment does not give the child an easy way to improve it just shuts them down short time and makes them feel bad about themselves. For a more literate view of this please read the books from Thomas Gordon book link (or this article about his view on discipline: article link)

What effective parenting does (and we as instructors basically take over the parent role for a short time) is it influences the child to become a better human. However not by forcing them to obey but by developing their own personality and helping them understand why doing what they do is wrong. Severe punishments such as taking away a hard earned belt do not help with this goal.

So yeah this gets done a lot in martial arts and has a long standing tradition. But I do not think this is enough to justify this behaviour.

  • Awesome response, and a great article link. – Andrew Jennings Jul 10 at 12:13

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