At a Glance
Exercise is great for every kid. But children with learning and attention issues can have a hard time finding a sport or physical activity that suits them.
They may not have the social or physical skills to participate on a team. They may not have the coordination for activities like skating or ballet. They may find it too hard to follow rules, or they may be bullied or left out.
Many families discover that martial arts are an excellent option. Read on to learn about what martial arts are and why they can be a good fit for kids with learning and attention issues.
What Martial Arts Are
Martial arts are an ancient practice from Asia. They were originally meant for self-defense. Today, lots of people practice martial arts as a way to build physical and mental strength.
There are many different forms of martial arts. Some—like karate and tae kwon do—focus on striking and blocking. Others—like judo and jiu-jitsu—focus on wrestling and grappling. All use deliberate and repetitive motions and emphasize the connection between mind and body.
Many parents believe the benefits of martial arts are more than just physical for their kids. They say martial arts can help to improve kids’ self-control, attention and other executive functioning skills.
There is some research supporting this, says Kimberley D. Lakes, Ph.D., of the Pediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. However, she warns, most studies have been done on schoolchildren in the general population. Few have focused on kids with learning and attention issues.
What Martial Arts Can Offer Kids With Learning and Attention Issues
There are lots of reasons martial arts can be a good match for kids with learning and attention issues. Here are nine potential benefits:
- They focus on individual growth, not on team competition. Many kids with learning and attention issues struggle with the pressure of having to compete with other kids. So traditional sports may not appeal to them. But in martial arts, the focus is on self-improvement. There’s no “letting down the team.”
- They offer concrete, attainable goals. Some kids with learning and attention issues may feel like they never “win” at anything. In martial arts, kids work at their own pace. They’re awarded a different colored belt every time they reach a new skill level. This can boost self-esteem and keep them motivated.
- Routines are broken down into manageable chunks. A technique or form in martial arts can have dozens of different movements. But kids learn gradually, repeating and adding steps as they go. They learn to anticipate which step comes next and eventually put everything together into fluid movements. All of this gives working memory a workout, but in a way that kids may find manageable.
- They emphasize self-control and concentration. Attention is central to martial arts. Kids must stay focused to learn and to perform. When a child’s focus drifts, instructors will often ask them to take the “ready stance.” This position allows them to reset and ready themselves for what’s next.
- They can help with coordination. The deliberate, repetitive movements of martial arts can help kids develop a better feel for their body in space, which can be useful to kids who struggle with motor skills. This may also help some kids understand the power of the mind over the body, which some find to be valuable for kids with ADHD.
- They provide structure and clear expectations for behavior. Good martial arts instructors have clear rules and constantly reinforce them. They also emphasize good behavior in and out of class. Some even send kids home with behavior charts their parents must sign. (If you like this idea, here are printable behavior contracts you can try.)
- They can provide a safe outlet for excess energy. Contrary to what some might expect, martial arts don’t encourage violent behavior. In fact, instructors often emphasize that fighting is a last resort. At the same time, kicking and karate chopping can allow kids to work out frustration or anger, while also practicing self-control.
- The environment is accepting and communal. Respect is a core value in martial arts. Students are expected to show it for their instructor and their peers. Negativity is generally not tolerated in class, and students are encouraged to support each other.
- They’re just plain cool! Kids with learning and attention issues can often feel awkward or socially out of the loop. But lots of kids think martial arts are cool. It’s hard not to feel special when you’re wearing martial arts gear and breaking boards in half.
What to Look For in a Martial Arts Class For Your Child
Your neighborhood may have classes for many different kinds of martial arts. Some, like mixed martial arts (or MMA), are more aggressive and are generally not the best choice for kids.
Most youth classes teach tae kwon do or karate. The type you choose for your child, though, isn’t as important as how a studio approaches instruction, Lake says.
Before you sign on, meet with the head of the studio. Be honest about your child’s challenges. Explain what you’re hoping he can get out of the class.
For the best experience, the school you choose should:
- Take a traditional approach that focuses on character development.
- Provide a pre-evaluation so the instructor can assess your child’s strengths and challenges. You can also see if your child and the instructor are a good fit.
- Have a low student-to-teacher ratio. Ideally, each class would have at least two instructors. If there are too many students, your child will not get the individualized attention he needs.
- Have experience teaching kids with learning and attention issues. While it’s important for instructors to push students, they should also be supportive and understanding about your child’s challenges.
Martial arts provide a great opportunity for your child to develop higher self-esteem, find community and experience success. Learn how to ease your child’s way into sports. Get more ideas for sports for kids who struggle with focus, motor skills or social skills. And read a personal story from a young woman who debunked the myth about nonverbal learning disabilities and sports.
- Martial arts focus on engaging the mind as well as the body.
- They emphasize respect, self-control, focus and individual achievement.
- The type of martial art you choose for your child is not as important as a studio’s approach to instruction.