If you’re thinking that teaching a kid how to kick and punch and scream “Ayah!” is the last thing you’d want for someone with ADD/ADHD, I can relate to that. 

When Action Karate first started over 20 years ago, the thought was that kids with ADD were not a good fit for training. At first, we offered them private lessons so they didn’t disrupt other kids.

Now the reality is this: The kids with ADD are often the leaders in class, the first ones to understand complicated moves, the most creative and the most enthusiastic about practicing. If they were removed from classes, martial arts training would not be as dynamic or energized. 

Our instructors have found that harnessing the energy and attention of kids with ADD/ADHD helped them become stellar students at karate as well as outside of the karate school. I’ve always considered myself a student of my students — learning from them and trying to improve based on how they respond. Over this time, I’ve changed and evolved my teaching style to maximize the skills and talents of kids with ADD/ADHD. 

Here are 4 common symptoms of ADD/ADHD and how martial arts seamlessly integrates accommodations into typical classes:

  1. Interrupting. Few things will sink a class more than a student who keeps interrupting the instructor. Other kids can’t hear. It’s distracting. It’s frustrating. It creates a balloon effect where other students also start calling out. No matter how well I’ve prepared for a class, everything goes out the window when someone shouts ‘Hey! I saw Spiderman’ to a room full of 20 third-graders. One method we employ to avoid interruption is to have the kids count out loud as they do various exercises. Giving them the opportunity to verbalize what they are doing and focus on counting helps them stay on task. In addition, the loud counting covers up interruptions. An instructor can then individually address the interruption without affecting the rest of class.
  2. Trouble waiting their turn. In karate, physical challenges give children something to do while they’re waiting. As a result, it’s like they’re not waiting at all. They are doing arm circles, or balancing on one leg, or holding a plank. These are all physical exercises that keep their bodies active, but also hold their attention so they are concentrating and staying in one place. We also structure the class to organize “turns” in a circular pattern so that going to the next station does not feel like waiting in line, but rather, moving to the next spot of a course. The next strategy to help with this is to actually to give them more turns! For example, an instructor will have a line of students and each one gets to do a kick on the target. Afterward, the student has to run to the back of the room and do 5 push-ups. If the student runs fast and does solid, quick push-ups, the student can get back to the instructor quickly for another turn. Students going at a slower pace don’t miss their turn as they go at the speed that is best for them. This strategy rewards speed and serves as positive reinforcement for excited kids.
  3. Fidgeting. One of the best ways martial arts addresses fidgeting is by assigning a task to the student’s hands and feet — how and where to stand, how and where to hold the hand. By getting into karate stances, the child is able to avoid fidgeting. In addition, repetitive movement in martial arts helps fulfill the need to fidget. Opening and closing a fist. Extending a foot for a kick. Raising an arm to block. All of these movements can adequately replace fidgeting. 
  4. Lack of focus. Karate class includes ‘focus anchors’ during transitions. Transitions are the hardest time to keep control and it’s easy for students to start wandering off or losing interest. Focus anchors such as “criss cross applesauce” or standing with their hands in fists and arms straight out help kids get through transitions. We are committed to our focus anchors and we use them dozens of times each class. Children expect them and they are prepared. As a result, students know what to do with their bodies during transition and they are able to stay in the same spot and stay engaged for the next activity. On that note, students do look forward to the next drill, which encourages them to remember their focus anchor. Karate is fun. You get to learn cool things. 

Instructors do not point out the unwanted behaviors as much as they spotlight the desired behavior. When the instructor says, “Wow look how nicely little Johnny is sitting right now,” it encourages the other students to do what Johnny is doing.  It’s a lot friendlier than saying “Johnny, stop spinning in circles!” in front of the class. Johnny is looking for something to do with his energy and we provided it. 

The best part of these solutions is that they do not call out the diagnosis or the behavior. They simply allow for an atmosphere that children can experience their symptoms, limit their struggles and thrive in a structured setting. 

I realize these strategies won’t work in every setting. There are times a child simply has to wait their turn for a ride or for dinner or a doctor’s appointment. However, the martial arts class is building their self-esteem to succeed around other children and adults, reducing their frustration. They are also learning ways to get out their energy so they are more likely to be confident in other situations. 

I always thank parents for bringing their ADD/ADHD kids to martial arts because they bring so much to our classes, they always capture our attention.

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What style is best for your child? What if the kid likes to fight? What if they’re competitive? If they’re bullied? For self-defense? If they have ADD/ADHD? If they hit their siblings? If they need more exercise? If they love ninja turtles or Bruce Lee? 

The answer to these is simple: Style doesn’t matter. Go to the one that brings out the best character traits in your kids. Join the one that you are willing to go to at least twice a week. Judo, shotokan, Jui Jitsu, Kenpo. They’re all good depending on what interests you and how well it’s being taught.

It’s not the style or the length of time it takes to get a Black Belt. It’s which one brings out the best qualities in your kid. Think of it like a school: there’s no one size fits all school and no major that’s right for everyone. What’s best? That could be community college or Ivy League/ engineering or biology. Martial arts isn’t a lifetime commitment for everyone but it does take time to see improvement in important life skills like focus and discipline (months not 6 weeks). It works for a lot of people. 

That being said, here are some questions to ask before you commit to a martial arts program. 

  1. Quality of flooring/equipment: Thick matting helps protect knees and joints from repeated jumps and falls in martial arts training. Look for professional equipment.
  2. Ongoing Instructor training: An instructor can have a lot of martial arts experience, but it doesn’t make them good teachers. Choose a martial arts academy where the instructors are certified and go through routine training to maintain and improve their skills. 
  3. Budget: There is a range in prices for martial arts training. Some questions to ask when budgeting: How many classes can a student take? Are there fees for new belts? Are there fees for leadership training? Are there additional costs for competition and equipment? 

Here is a general outline of price points, though not all schools will fit into this formula. You have to actually check a place out to see if it’s right for you.

  • The low-cost community programs tend to be a casual activity of kicking and punching, taught by part-time teachers. This is best for people who want an “activity.”
  • If you want to use martial arts to develop life skills and reach goals, you should seek out a professional school with full-time instructors. Ask if character development is part of the curriculum.
  • The highest-cost martial arts programs are often run by experienced big names with the goal of creating competitive students. If the student is a little older, self-motivated and has the goal of competing, this kind of martial arts school will likely be right for you.
  • Location: Is the school clean? Is it convenient for you to attend? If not, are there alternative classes available on Zoom or online that will work with your schedule? Are there suitable Covid practices in place.
  • Family atmosphere: Do you feel comfortable walking into the karate school? Are the instructors welcoming and friendly? Do they know your name and your goals?
  • Kid-specific goals: Is there enough of a physical challenge in class to give your kid a challenge without making the child feel defeated? Do the instructors have experience working with kids who have a diagnosis? Do they have experience teaching specific ages? Does the class structure create a positive atmosphere for kids with ADD, autism, OCD or another diagnoses?

Would following these guidelines steer most kids to Action Karate? Hopefully. But definitely not all. That’s why there are so many martial arts schools. If you didn’t succeed at finding one in your first effort, try again until you find the best fit. 

No matter what style you choose, always be open to learning more. I grew up doing karate, but for a time I moved to South Florida. I checked out a couple of karate schools and didn’t find one that fit my interest. Then I found boxing. I liked the fighting, the atmosphere, the rawness, the grit. I was there 10 hours a week. I still love boxing, but I’m a mom now and recommitted to training and teaching karate full-time. My kids train at my karate school. I share this to show that training in different styles, at the same time or at different stages in your life, is a good thing. I’m able to apply my boxing knowledge to my karate training.

Even though my karate school is based in Kenpo, we teach and train in multiple styles to add to our knowledge. Being open to learning as much as you can makes you that much better of a martial artist.

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