Why Martial Arts Are Best for Special Needs

Why Martial Arts Are Best for Special Needs

It’s no secret that a traditional martial arts program is one of the best extracurricular activities a child can participate in.  For children with special needs the benefits are invaluable because of the inherit structure and discipline the arts bring to a child’s daily life. All children need structure, some more than others. Some might need to be reminded more often or a different approach might be necessary, but in the end it's all the same.

Why is it better than another sport or activity? Let me start off by saying the words "art" and "sport" are quite different. An art is "any activity regarded as a medium of imaginative or creative self-expression."  A sport is "an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others."

The unique component of martial arts for children with special needs is the competition within themselves, not with others. Children with special needs must work on life skills, not competing with others for a trophy. That’s not to say they shouldn’t compete and receive those same rewards, because they should! However, the criteria must be carefully considered and achievable. I am not a proponent of "everyone wins" because failure is part of life. Life skills are why you should consider martial arts, and if that’s all you receive you are a winner!

Let’s talk about some benefits right now. Consistency and repetition create familiarity and, therefore, children on the autism spectrum do well with classes.  Repetition of the same location, same faces, same curriculum, and knowing what to expect are all part of the recipe. With continuous structure, discipline and fun exercises, even the child with multisensory issues almost immediately rises to the occasion.

Most children with special needs receive therapies on a weekly basis. Adding a traditional martial arts program to their existing therapies can only assist them in reaching their goals faster. Think about it; when an instructor focuses on YOUR child’s needs there is no doubt the results are immediate. Focus, concentration, balance, tone, awareness, self regulation, core strength, reduced anxiety, and spatial awareness are just a few of the benefits your child will receive when you find the right do-jhang (studio).

Many programs for typically developing kids are not suited for every child with special needs.  Either the game cannot be played slowly enough, enough time cannot be devoted to learning the rules, adaptive equipment is not used, etc. So what should we do? Prepare the child in the most non-restrictive way, which is one of the life skills we must always keep in our minds. Everyone feels good when they know "something," so let’s prepare our children for life before tossing them in an unfamiliar situation.

I am sure you want to know the differences between one martial art and another. There are several styles of Martial Arts and programs available so getting educated is very important. Here are a few things to look for when selecting a location for your child:

1)     Reputation and experience in the industry

2)     Programs specific to your child's needs and not just "we handle special needs"

3)     Adult and experienced instructors on the floor always

4)     Ample assistants and coverage on the floor

5)     Therapists or teachers on staff, or instructors with backgrounds of such are a plus

6)     Small rooms, small groups and less distractions

7)     Offer inclusion programs and advancement opportunities

8)     Opportunities to attend two or more times per week

9)     Private lesson packages (not semi-private) that provide an opportunity for the instructor and child to become familiar with each other prior to decision making

10)  Rank advancement

11)  Backed and supported by a national organization

12)  Flexible tuition schedules due to changes in therapies and unforeseen personal issues

13)  Studio events that provide social interaction with other students

It is my belief that all styles of martial arts are good; the question is which style is the right one for your family. If the instructor is compassionate, patient, understanding, experienced and willing to dedicate his or her life to your child then that’s the place to be. Regardless of the child’s needs, learned behavior can only be achieved through behavioral momentum.

Thank you for taking the time to read my first in a series of articles. Look for a new one each month as many of your questions will surely be answered!

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Written by: Paul Del Sordo, Chief Instructor, Pediatric Martial Arts, Hwang Martial Arts & Wellness and Del Martial Arts LLC See other articles by Paul Del Sordo, Chief Instructor, Pediatric Martial Arts, Hwang Martial Arts & Wellness and Del Martial Arts LLC
About the Author:

Paul Del Sordo started training in the Korean discipline of Soo Bahk Do® Moo Duk Kwan®  in 1986. He earned his 4th degree black belt and Master Instructors Certification in 2003. He began instructing special needs children under the auspices of Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s Pediatric Occupational and Physical Therapy Department in 1995. He now consults special needs professionals and teaches both in schools as well as at his two studio locations.

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