I teach human mustangs. Cute, smart, spastic, and energy-charged kids. Some with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some with just too much sugar in their system.
More than a few children with ADD/ADHD have bowed into my Taekwondo classes over the years. I can spot them easily now: Mostly male, they are rail thin. Uber energetic. Excited and talkative, spouting a million questions and usually not waiting for an answer before they’re on to the next observation or curiosity. They need lots of refocusing and redirecting. Some instructors will label these problem students, find them annoying, and lose patience. Teachers want these kids to act like their peers so as not to expend extra energy redirecting or reeling in wandering minds. I find these kids a fascinating challenge.
The parents of ADHD kids also have identifying markers. They follow their children around in blue healer herding fashion. They’re typically fatigued yet hyper-vigilant, trying to control their kids' every movement and avoid embarrassing questions and situations. They all pray for pretty much the same thing: a peaceful pause to the standard NASCAR-like, fast-paced day.
Martial arts is great for kids with ADHD. There’s order and discipline in every class, and these kids slowly learn that, yes, they will be heard and, therefore, they really can control their tongue and flailing body—wait for a pause in the lesson, raise their hand, and politely ask a quick question.
Over the years I’ve learned by intuitive trial and error some effective ways to teach children with ADHD: For instance, any time they stop a spontaneous thought from coming out of their mouths is a victory—and that feat should be celebrated. Everyone wants to be heard, and these students are no exception. I use that knowledge to my advantage. The first lesson every ADHD student learns is that if they blurt out a question or make a comment while I’m talking, I won’t acknowledge them. It would be rude to the other students, so there’s no use wasting their breath.
“It’s in my personal martial arts contract,” I told a boy one day.
“I won’t answer you unless you follow the same rules of respect that your classmates follow. But I guarantee you that if you hold your question until I call on you, you’ll be heard and you’ll have a chance to have your say. I know it’s hard, but you can do it!”
A hand popped up one day from a focused-challenged yellow belt. He had come a long way; he used to not raise his hand at all.
“Is it a question or a comment?” I asked. I always stop to answer questions.
“Well, I was just going to say…,” he began.
“Hold that thought. If it’s not a question, then wait and tell me about it after class. We’ll spend as much time as you need. But questions only right now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded.
Simple as that. ADHD kids are smart that way.
For the hardcore cases who, despite coaching, continue to repeatedly interrupt, I assign push-ups—without looking their way. Even the students who act out to get attention don’t get attention, and they still have to do push-ups. Eventually, these students get the routine. And the more they control their bodies and mouths—practicing the Taekwondo tenet of self-control—the more I celebrate their accomplishment.
Because it’s a huge feat, people.
Teaching kids who struggle with focus issues is a challenge; not every instructor is cut out for it. You can’t teach these kids the same way you teach their peers, but you can expect the same results. You just have to be patient and compassionate. You have to see that the child before you is stoked about taking martial arts, but doesn’t know how to get the most out of it. This may be the same ADD kid who washed out in soccer and baseball because instead of watching the ball, he was admiring the jumping skills of a grasshopper. Since in martial arts you are only responsible for your own performance, this simplifies everything. Peers, coaches, and parents are not angry at the kids for their lack of focus.
The key to teaching ADHD kids is finding the key. Oftentimes, I try a variety of motivational tactics to reach them, to slow down their brains, mouths, and flailing bodies. When compared to the progress of the rest of the class, these kids appear to be making baby-step progress. Yet they are huge strides. So I give them loads of kudos when they are polite and respectful. That works for me.
Stripes work for me, too: Little pieces of multicolored electrical tape can motivate the most undisciplined, unfocused student.
“Son, if you can go an entire class without interrupting me—if you can demonstrate self-control—I’ll award you with a red stripe on your belt tail,” I told a new student one day. “Think you can do it?”
“Umm, well, I was thinking…”
“Yes or no? Think you can do it? I think you can!”
“Yeees, ma’am,” he finally said.
Lo and behold, that boy held his eager tongue for an entire 60 minutes—and I kept my promise by wrapping a red piece of tape on his white belt. He was so proud.
I always try positive reinforcement first. Oftentimes this technique works. I didn’t even realize it was a technique until I read Tony DiCicco’s book “Catch Them Being Good.” Again, I was amazed that I intuitively knew what to do in situations that baffled me. The “Catch Them Being Good” philosophy works wonders for typical young martial artists—even adult students. For the ADHD kid, though, you first have to get their attention. Oftentimes, they won’t even hear the positive reinforcement because they’re off doing or thinking about something else. In these cases, I assign push-ups—with a positive spin.
I’m not a harsh militaristic instructor like some of my predecessors, but I do assign push-ups to help rope in attention. Many ADHD students are wiry yet strong. For those who can do push-ups all day, I assign laps around the dojang. But some ADHD students are natural-born marathoners, so sometimes I ask them to hold a horse stance for three minutes. (This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. Try it the next time you watch your favorite television show.) My goal isn’t to find more and better ways to punish students who struggle with focus. I’m just searching for a physical way to hit the pause button on the ADHD students’ mind. Just a break in the action.
Long ago, I discovered that with ADHD students, you have to find the “in”—their personal carrot on a stick for which they’ll work really hard. Once you discover what motivates them, you can use it to help build focus, and then the number of push-ups decline dramatically.
Fred was a new student and it seemed that he was always doing push-ups.
“How many push-ups did you do today, son?” I asked one day.
He stood in calculating thought, his eyes focused on the ceiling’s dark brown rafters. “Sixty!” he shouted.
“Oh, my goodness!” I shouted in return. “That’s 10 fewer than you did on Monday! That’s fabulous!”
“I know it’s hard for you to focus," I said. "I see how hard you’re working. Keep trying, because there’s so much I have to teach you. On the days you find it hard to focus, I’ll hold on to all my wisdom until the days when you have a better rein on your mustang spirit.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Fred said proudly.
As he and his mom readied to leave, I added, “You’re either going to learn to improve your focus, or you’re going to have some really strong arms from all the push-ups you’ll do. Either way, you’re going to be a better, stronger young man and martial artist for it.”
His mom mouthed a silent “thank you.”
Parents are amazed. Many have been so accustomed to hearing nothing but complaints from their sons’ and daughters’ public school teachers that they are surprised when I tell them their kids are doing well.
“I hope he wasn’t too out of control,” a mom said one day after her son’s first week of class. “He can be a little much sometimes.”
I nodded knowingly. “He did great! He’s right where he’s supposed to be at this stage of development. He’ll get it.”
Her face softened as she released a deep sigh. She’d likely been unconsciously holding her breath the entire time her son was on the mat. For her—and for other parents of ADHD children—a few words of comfort go a long way. They’re so exhausted most of the time. They’re so used to their kid being labeled the troublemaker. It’s a relief to hear once in a while that their children are not only improving but also thriving.
“He’ll get better,” I told the mom as her son breezed by and stopped to do a hop-scotch dance beside her. “For only having done this a week, he’s learned a lot and come a long way.”
She looked at him lovingly, stroking sweaty clumps of brown hair out of his eyes. “What did you learn today?” she asked him.
“This!” he replied, then began a wild combination of kicks and punches.
The mom smiled as she looked at me, then turned lovingly back to her son. “That’s gr—”
“And Miss Cathy can’t talk to me when she’s talking to the class!” he blurted. “Oh, and look how many push-ups I can do, mom!”
He lowered his frail body flat to the lobby floor and began a set of slow, steady up-and-down movements.
Impressive as those push-ups were, I knew he wouldn’t have to do too many for too much longer.
ADHD kids are smart that way.