Teaching Students With Special Needs

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We sat down with Master Ricardo to talk about his experiences teaching students with special needs, in his 20+ year teaching career in martial arts.

Q: First off, tell us about what kinds of special needs your students have had over the years.

I’ve taught students with a variety of special needs, both physical and also cognitive or behavioral. Students with cerebral palsy, with missing limbs… students with one arm, no arms, prosthetic legs. I’ve had students at different places on the Autism spectrum. All the way from cases where it’s virtually unnoticeable to an outside observer (where you might just think the kid was a little shy or even bratty), all the way up to much more pronounced cases. Take for example, one little boy who was totally unable to sit still or walk in a straight line. It took us six months to get to the point where he could do anything close to a jumping jack. And after that, the boy’s father came to the gym in tears because he never thought he would see so much visible physical progress in his child. I’ve had kids who were so shy they couldn’t speak. Students with epilepsy. Students who were so morbidly obese that they couldn’t sit in a chair, but were trying to get their lives back on track. I’ve had a couple deaf students, and some legally blind.

Q: Do you think that Taekwondo has particular benefits for kids with special needs?

I do feel like Taekwondo is a better fit than traditional sports (soccer, swimming, etc). Students do need physical activity; there is certainly benefit just in that by itself. But that part only helps you so much. Now, I’m not going to go the other way either, like some of these martial arts schools that don’t teach any practical technique. They’ll say, “Oh, but you learn confidence, and compassion, and how to be a better human being.” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But that’s not what’s special about Taekwondo. You can get that from a church group; you can get it from the Boy Scouts. That’s not it. I think the key is the structure, the way that martial arts are taught.

I struggled in school. It was hard to keep me focused; it was hard to motivate me to do the work; it was hard to get me to learn the lessons. But at Taekwondo, I was a great student. And people will say, oh, you were just interested in that so you tried harder there. I think that’s a cop-out. I think the difference was in the methodology of the teaching. I think the way we teach, the way we structure things in martial arts is more in line with the natural learning process. The proof is when you take a child with emotional/behavioral/cognitive disabilities who can’t walk normally or say his own name, and via Taekwondo he becomes able to do both of those things. All you’re teaching him specifically is kicks and punches and blocks, but the changes that are happening in his body and happening in his mind are the evidence that the way we are teaching works.

I have a student with cerebral palsy. Coming in the door, there was a list of things that she “couldn’t do,” none of which were put in her head by me. And I never showed her how to do those things. But I showed her how to do Taekwondo, and now she can do all those other things. I think it’s the structure of the Taekwondo – how they receive it – that makes it better.

Q: What strategies do you use when teaching students with special needs?

The primary thing is to never forget that they are a kid first – a person first. Kids need structure and education. So often people say “They’re just kids” as another way to say “Oh, just let them do what they want.” This is a mistake, because kids don’t know what they want, let alone what they need. I think the downside of being a compassionate person is that, once you’ve said to yourself, “This person has a Special Need and I need to help them because they can’t do it,” you’ve wiped the table of all the normal kid things they do.

Take my kids with Autism, for example. I find that so many of the things they do, their parents have been told by experts “that’s the Autism making them behave that way; they can’t control that.” I think that’s often false. I see typical children do these same kinds of things. So for example, when any of my students – kids with CP, kids with Autism or ADHD – exhibit what I take to be “bratty kid” behaviors, I treat them like bratty kids. If we just write the “kid” part off, we’re limiting ourselves in what we can expect of them, and in how we can best help them.

Don’t use the special need as an excuse to lower your expectations. If you have any child come in to the gym, they need to learn about appropriate behaviors, and rules, and structure, and consequences. If you have a child with Autism come in, they also need to learn about appropriate behaviors, and rules, and structure, and consequences. The difference will be how you teach it. A child with Autism might legitimately be having an issue fixating on something, and before they can learn anything you need to get them away from that. So push-ups isn’t going to work. Taking their belt away isn’t going to work. But we need to keep our rules and expectations like we would with any kid; they don’t just get a pass on that. And we can’t write off the possibility that some percentage of their behavior is due to regular kid stuff.

Now, for kids with physical special needs like a missing limb, it’s the same. If you have a kid come into class with no hands, obviously you’re not going to teach him punching. But he doesn’t get a free pass. He still needs to do the techniques that require punching. It’s my responsibility to come up with another way for him to achieve the result. And when we do pushups in class, he doesn’t just get to sit around and watch. No, I have to find a different exercise for him to do, and not just feel sorry for him and say, “Oh, he just can’t do that because of his special need.” That’s taking the easy way out, and it doesn’t help the student.

Q: How has teaching these students challenged you as an instructor?

What I like about it is that it’s challenging. It forces me to evaluate and better understand my subject. Same example: how do I teach the kid with no arms to punch? I need to understand my subject matter well enough to come up with a practical solution to the problem. Anyone can take a kid who is natually gifted and really athletic and really smart and tell them, “Okay, do it like this.” And they do it, and it’s amazing, and the job’s done. We can all go home now. But now, if I’m going to hold this other kid to that same standard, it’s my responsibility to get them there.

Likewise, if I have just any old kid who’s being disrespectful, it’s my job to teach them about self-control. But now, if I have a kid who has Autism, who is exhibiting behaviors that are “disrespectful,” I also have to teach him about self control. But the reason he doesn’t have self-control is completely different from the reason the first kid doesn’t have it. Both need to learn it, and it’s my job to figure out how to get both of them there.

I spend hours when I’m at home by myself thinking about these kids, and thinking, “How am I going to get this kid where he needs to be?” And I might think I’ve seen all the angles, but then I go into class and, boom, there’s a new angle that I didn’t see. I like spending that time continuing to evaluate what I might otherwise write off as a subject I already know. People can say, “I’m a master, I already know that,” or “I’ve been in Taekwondo since the 70s, I already know this.” Okay, now teach it to this kid. Teach punching to the kid with no fists. Teach situps to the person who is so overweight they can’t sit in a chair. Teach a kid to stand on a leg they don’t have. Teach a kid to calm down whose nervous system is wired in a way that’s telling them not to calm down. And don’t do it with some other means. Do it using the martial arts that you know. That makes it exciting, to continue to assess and reevaluate my training. That’s what I love about teaching them.

Now the downside is yes, it takes more time. It’s harder. Sometimes your gut or your intuition or your guess is wrong. And when it is, it’s brace yourself and change course as quick as you can, and try to get back to square one. And the most important part, try not to confuse or mess up the student. You can make a mistake that you didn’t think was a huge problem, but now you’ve completely ruined that student’s technique or behavior, and you’ve got to fix it. That part is hard.

Q: What do you enjoy most, and what do you find most frustrating?

Like I said, I love the challenge. In society now, we are so misguided, everyone is telling us the same thing. The media tells us, parents tell us, even teachers tell us: don’t do it if it’s hard. Don’t do it if it’s going to be stressful. That is something wrong in our society. So, when you tell someone, “Here’s how you’re going to get good at this: get tired, and struggle, and put yourself under stress, and be frustrated, and put 1000 efforts into this.” People think that’s insane! But that is correct. That’s how we should be doing things. That’s the only way we’re going to progress. That’s what I teach to my students, and it applies to me as well. I like students who challenge me as an instructor. I like that it’s hard, and that I have to work at it, and that it takes an extra effort. I even like that there’s a chance I’ll fail. I love that I have to apply myself in a different way to teach these students.

The frustrating part is when I do fail. Because you will make mistakes. If you fight long enough, you’ll get beat. It’s part of it. But what you do after that is important. And that’s not just what I’m saying now about my own work, it’s also what I’m teaching these kids. It’s okay to fail. Get your ass up and try again. Not because you’re a “special needs” kid and you’ll need that in your life, but because you’re a person and EVERYONE needs that in life. If I were to feel sorry for those students and let them slide, that would be robbing them of that necessary lesson. I need to hold them to a standard the way I do all my other students. If you want the same recognition, you need to be held to a standard like everyone else. But then the ball’s back in my court. If I’m going to hold them to the same standard, it’s my job to get them there. To make them good enough to be held to that standard.

Q: How do you decide whether a student with special needs is ready to advance belts? Is there ever a case when you would decide: this student just cannot be a black belt?

I think it’s unfair and self-serving, and really a lie, to tell a student, “Well, you have the spirit of a black belt, but physically you’ll never be a black belt.” I think that’s insane. That is your failure as an instructor, not theirs. What you’re telling them is, “I don’t want to put in the time to teach you.” So when you’re setting the standard for a student with special needs, you have to look at your standards carefully. You shouldn’t have any doubt about your standards, but you need to really clearly understand what’s behind them.

Imagine to move from white to orange belt, you require students to break a board with a punch. (That’s not what our requirement is, but just hypothetically.) A student says, “Well, I can’t do that, can I just have the belt anyway?” And you say, “No of course not.” Because that’s the standard. Well, now I have a student come in without hands, and my standard is break a board with a punch. So I need to think about my standard. Is the goal of the standard to teach them to physically take their right hand and ball up all four fingers with their thumb wrapped around, and then hit the board with their first two knuckles? Is that the goal of the standard? Or is the goal of the standard to teach them a way to physically use their body to break that board into two pieces? In this example, let’s say we decide the goal is the second one. This kid doesn’t have fists, so he can’t do the punch. But could he break that board? Of course he could. So now it’s up to me to teach that student a way to use his body to break that board.

I can’t go to the armless kid and say “grow arms.” That I can’t do. But I can say, “See this board? You’re going to make it into two pieces. How are you going to do that? The safest, most physically efficient way possible.” That student does a kick, and he does it the way I’ve taught him, and the board breaks. It’s by assessing your standards, and determining what the goals are and what they are not, that determines what adjustments you can make for a particular student while still maintaining the integrity of your requirements.

Consider the kid with Autism who worked so hard to do the jumping jacks. We got that student to the point where he could break a board for his next belt. It took him far longer than it typically takes other students, but he got there. And the concessions that we made for his special needs were extremely minimal, and were limited to what we learned about him during that time and what he legitimately physically could not do.

When you understand what you’re doing, you can apply that to anything. You can apply it to the cognitive differences; you can apply it to the physical differences; you can apply it to the emotional differences. And your decisions are informed by each individual student and what their needs are. You might have three different students who all have Autism, but they might have three very different sets of behaviors and needs that require different things. So, you understanding your standard is how you will come up with the appropriate requirements for each student.

Imagine if I had a student who was missing both arms and both legs, you better believe that person is going to be doing all kinds of head butts, and body checks, and he’s going to use his hips and his shoulders and even his teeth. But he’s not going to say, “I just can’t do this, Master Ricardo. It’s impossible.” He doesn’t get to say that. If he does, he doesn’t get to be a black belt. And that doesn’t have anything to do with his body. That has to do with his teacher failing him, and with him not being willing to do what black belts do. It’s not special if everyone does it. It’s special if everyone CAN do it, but only the few actually do. That’s what makes it special. When you talk about the spirit of a black belt, that person is going to do what normal people refuse to do. They will do what others say is crazy and can’t be done. And it’s my job as an instructor to motivate them to do that and enable them to do that.

Q: I posed the previous question because of a post on a martial arts teaching discussion group. An instructor had asked about how to determine whether a special needs student could be awarded a black belt. Among the responses was a post from another instructor describing a student at his own school who had polio, and could never be awarded a black belt because he could not complete the standards as set by their founding masters. Do you think any student with the right attitude can advance to black belt?

The short answer is yes. I think that it was a failure of those instructors. You need to assess and understand your standards, and understand what the goals are. Sure, a student may have a physical limitation where they might not be able to kick someone in the head if they’re standing upright. But could you teach that student to tackle the guy and kick him in the head while he’s on the floor? I think the answer is yes.

So the question is, what is the goal of your standard? Some might say, “Well, it’s Taekwondo… If you can’t roundhouse someone in the head, then you can’t do Taekwondo.” I would argue, punch them in the stomach, then when they bend over, roundhouse them in the head. That’s solving the problem, and that’s Taekwondo. Is the standard roundhouse to the head, or is the standard stretching? Sure, in a perfect world you want them to do it the way you did it. And when you did it, you had a more or less perfect body with good flexibility and you roundhoused to the head. But what is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Some martial artists would say, “Well you’re changing the style.” And I would say, you don’t understand the problem. All martial arts were born to answer a question, a very open-ended question about self-defense. What do I do if X happens? Maybe X is what do I do when big strong mountain invaders try to take over my village and steal my crops? The answers to those kinds of questions over hundreds of years became martial arts. One guy said: kick them, and that became Taekwondo. And another guy said lock up his joints and break them, and that became Hapkido. And one guy said, use his weight against him, and that became Aikido. And one guy said, pull him down and roll around and get all sweaty with him and be Brazillian, and that became Jiu Jitsu. You have to understand your standards and where they came from. You have to understand what you’re actually asking of your students, and then it will become clear how to get there.

Then you don’t have to make up some excuse like, “they have the spirit of a black belt but not the skill.” No, they might have the right attitude to become a black belt, but if they’re not a black belt it’s because you failed to teach them how to become one.

If a boxer beats the crap out of me, then that boxer is more of a black belt than I am. Even though he can’t kick, and he can’t joint lock, and he can’t choke, and he can’t fly through the air, and he can’t kick me when I’m standing upright with his one leg all the way up to my face. But he can use what he has, which is his punch, and he knows how to use it to get the job done. You need to understand your standards, and then you’ll understand what is acceptable to pass or not pass. When I make an adjustment for a student, it might seem like I’m giving them a pass. No, I understand my standard. So if I need to make an adjustment to get you there, it’s still valid.

Q: What would be your advice to other instructors, in the martial arts or otherwise?

I said this in the beginning, but it’s important. Don’t forget that they’re children first, people first. And I don’t just mean that from a compassion standpoint, I also mean it from an authority standpoint. For example, when you have a disrespectful kid in class, treat them like a disrespectful kid. Don’t let them slide, or cave to it, that doesn’t do them any favors. But at the same time, remember that they’re students. Which means that it’s your damn job to teach them. Even when you’re frustrated, even when you’re upset, even when you’re at your threshold of I’m-not-putting-up-with-this; it’s your job to teach them. I think half of the bad experiences I had in grade school were due to teachers who were quick to write me off as a bad student. You don’t have the luxury of writing me off. I need to learn these things, and it’s your job to teach them to me. So grow up, get over yourself, and never forget that it’s your job to teach them.

When I’m talking with my master buddies, occasionally we get on these rants where we are venting about our students. Yeah, it happens, don’t tell anyone. And guys are like, “I can’t believe they do this, or I can’t believe they do that.” Well, that’s your job. If they don’t know something, or if they’re bad at something, it’s because you haven’t done your job teaching it to them.

And remember that, just like your own 6-year-old will try to sucker you for candy, or try to get out of working, a kid with Autism or ADHD will too. The kid with CP will too. Because they’re just kids. And don’t forget that, because it’s important. You can’t let them get away with it; it’s your job to disuade it. But at the same time you can’t take it personally. It’s their job to test the fences and push the envelope. You need to expect that. But that doesn’t mean let them get away with it. It’s your job to show them the right way.



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