The first step is to be aware of the beat. Many students do not keep track of the beat while playing. They play from note to note without a sense of a steady pulse. Longer rhythms are approximated, and the overall performance fluctuates in tempo.
However, awareness of the beat is not enough. True music is created when a musician learns to internalize the beat. Mere application of a steady beat can feel robotic and lifeless. When the performer's attention is focused on following a metronome (or tapping foot), the other aspects of the performance suffer.
When we reach a place of feeling the beat pulse through our body on a subconscious (automatic) level, we become free to truly perform the music. This subconscious pulse acts as an engine that drives the pitch and rhythm through its natural course. However, our mind is free to express every feeling and emotion that is connected to the performance.
Even many adults have difficulty expressing themselves in a recording studio while trying to play to a click. They become accustom to performing with a loose sense of beat, and become restricted when asked to keep a steady beat. Of course, an organic performance may pull or push on the beat at times, but is always returns to the natural pulse by the beginning and end of phrases. When this can effortlessly be achieved, we have reached the level of truly feeling the beat.