10 Strategies for Teaching Martial Arts to ADHD Children

by Sang H. Kim

The behavior problems associated with ADD and ADHD tend to lead to other problems. Children who are disruptive in school are quickly labeled troublemakers, ruffians, bullies or just plain dumb. Children at the other end of the ADD spectrum are labeled lazy, stupid, underachieving or spaced out. To make things worse, these children often have trouble understanding why their behavior is wrong. This explains the ADD child’s tendency to look genuinely shocked when he gets in trouble. One of the biggest challenges to improving the behavior of the ADD child is teaching him to recognize the consequences of his actions and to see things from other peoples’ point of view.

There are some steps you can take to help manage the behavior of students in your class with ADD or ADHD including:

1. Identify problem behaviors.

Objectively identify what problems are the biggest impediments to the child’s learning. These may not be the most annoying behaviors or the ones you would most like to correct, so take an unemotional inventory, perhaps involving other instructors or the child’s parents. Making a chart can help. For each item, list the behavior, when it most frequently occurs, what triggers it and how disruptive it is on a scale of one to ten. Try to be as specific as possible. For each problem, write down at least one strategy from this report for eliminating or changing the behavior.

2. Identify problems in the class environment.

Look at the way you and other instructors treat the child. Are you overly harsh? Do you “expect” the child to misbehave and punish him more quickly than others? Have you eliminated as many distractions as possible? Is class active and upbeat with lots of short periods of activity and little inactivity? Are the children closely supervised, especially when working in pairs or groups? By looking at the way you teach and the class environment, you may be able to quickly eliminate some undesirable behaviors.

3. Model Healthy Behavior.

Demonstrate behaviors that you want the child to follow like not speaking when others are speaking, putting equipment away after using it, talking in a polite quiet voice and not being overly critical.

4. Partner for difficult tasks.

If a child is struggling with learning or remembering a skill, partnering him with a responsible older child or an assistant instructor can be very helpful. Remind the older child that his job is to be a role model and a helper so he will be a bit more understanding.

5. Count your feedback.

Try keeping track of the amount of positive and negative feedback you are giving an ADD child in class. Although much of the feedback is negative, actively look for areas to praise so you don’t come across as mean or nagging.

6. Be specific.

Give an ADD child specific action messages and instructions. He does not grasp the subtlety of a statement like “Hanging on the stretching bar is dangerous.” He also does not translate “Pay attention” into “Stop hanging on the stretching bar and get back in line.”

You have to spell out, word for word, what you want him to do in the exact way you want it done. If you want him get off the stretching bar, tell him exactly that. If you want him to stop playing with his toes and look at you when you talk, tell him to look at you. By giving instructions that include specific actions, you remove any room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

7. Use rewards correctly.

There is a temptation to “bribe” children with ADD into good behavior by lavishing them with material rewards for every good behavior. While material rewards are often appropriate, look for other options first.

Rewards can include praise in front of the class or the child’s parents, a simple “thank you” or “good job” that is well timed or the opportunity to hold a special position in class, like line leader. Rewards are also more effective when the child has a say in what he gets for good behavior. And you might be surprised at what he asks for. Some children are just as happy with a sticker to wear on their shirt as they would be with a much more expensive reward. If a child is set on a material reward, stretch it out with interim rewards of stars or tickets, of which the child has to earn a certain number to get the larger material reward. In doing this, each star or ticket becomes a mini-reward.

8. Use a “when-…then” sentence.

If a child is not performing a specific behavior like sitting still or practicing quietly, try using a “when…then” sentence like “When you sit down and stop talking, then I’ll explain the rules of the game we’re going to play” or “When you are doing that kick well, then we’ll kick the heavy bag.”

Obviously, the “then” portion of the statement should sound rewarding and hopefully be directly related to the child’s good behavior, a positive natural outcome of his behavior. Always use when, not if, because when implies that child will do something and if implies that he has a choice.

9. Don’t use ADD as an excuse.

Resist the urge to use ADD as an excuse for the child’s behavior. If you exempt a child from punishment, responsibilities and expectations because he has ADD, you are doing him a disservice. It may be easier to use ADD as an excuse than to enforce the rules with an ADD child, but that is tantamount to giving up on him. Taking the time and effort needed to help the child is time consuming at first, but pays big dividends in the long run.

10. Speak pleasantly.

If you want an ADD child to listen to you, try speaking slowly, quietly and briefly. Children who are used to getting yelled at tune out the yelling just like instructors tune out children who whine and complain all the time. It also helps to make eye contact before beginning to speak so you know you have the child’s attention.

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