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What works in an inclusive martial arts class

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

By Rochelle Brenner

A kid ignores the instructor in favor of staring at a ceiling fan. Another refuses to put on the new uniform, throwing it on the floor and stomping on it. Another wants to touch everything in the room before consenting to a single martial arts move.

These are all different kids, with varying diagnoses, and their families are hoping they can do martial arts despite these behaviors.

The reality is they can do it. They all have the potential to be martial arts athletes. To gain functional strength, core control, focus, social emotional growth, confidence and joy in belonging.

Action Karate has taught martial arts to children and adults with special needs for over 20 years, with a slate of educated, experienced experts leading the curriculum and approach. Instructors are trained on common behaviors and expectations with the goal of meeting students where they are and determining the best educational setting for them.


What is the best learning environment for my child?

The intro procedure and assessment is simple: We bring them in for a lesson, have them work with an instructor with an adult present, and get started step by step. The answer to what works best isn’t clear in the first lesson, and in that case we will schedule another one. But we have to start somewhere. It takes 7 things to figure it out:


  • A no-pressure introduction - the first meeting is an attempt to get to know each other, hear your goals, gauge the student’s interest/attention/ability and do a couple martial arts moves that can be anything from touching a target or tapping it like a drum or jumping on it in a lesson with a parent or caregiver present the entire time.

  • Time - it takes time to get to know someone and see them through ups and downs with gradual upward trends.

  • Trial and Error - you don’t know what works until you try it and we will always offer the possibility the students will exceed our expectations.

  • Personal connection - working with the same person in a comfortable environment a few times gives you an opportunity to recognize the signs that something is working and what motivates them.

  • Conversation - this can include the parents, caregivers or the student themselves if they are verbal to say what’s motivating and what’s not.

  • Consistency - the ability to train regularly in a routine without long breaks will result in the most progress, and predictable expectations and results.

  • Change - the opposite of consistency, this is part of the journey that includes challenges, adjusting the length and frequency of lessons, and being flexible.

Special needs parents are often more attuned to their child’s needs and serve as their advocate. Maybe it’s that they experienced so many places that didn’t know how to handle them, they’re worried about getting kicked out or singled out or put down unnecessarily. We share this to reassure people that we are receptive and qualified.


There are going to be hard days, when quitting seems like the best option. But there are many enduring reasons to get started and stay committed to martial arts.


Did you know:

  • One of the highest ranking black belts is a 6th degree black belt from Action Feasterville named Chad with Down’s Syndrome who has passed every test over the last 27 years of consistent training.

  • Action Karate has one of the only martial arts programs designed for athletes with special needs in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

  • Athletes with special needs have the opportunity to earn a black belt

  • Action Karate has taught programs in schools for autism, the deaf and other different learning settings, including care facilities for older adults.

  • The class designated for special needs is known as “Tiger Sharks” – a moniker selected by the families of the athletes.

  • There is a special needs ring at every tournament in which athletes are able to compete, one of the few local events outside of the Special Olympics that affords such an opportunity

The leaders

Top special needs instructors advise all staff on best practices. Meet some of the experts of Action Karate:


Jess Schultz, who has a bachelor’s degree in special education and grew up with a younger brother who has autism. She’s an instructor at Action Karate Quakertown


Casey Heimbach, Instructor at Action Karate Bethlehem, leads the special needs program for martial arts in the Lehigh Valley.


McKenzie Fagans, Program Director at Action Karate Newtown, trained under a martial arts educator who wrote a PhD on the benefits of martial arts for students with autism.


These martial artists are dedicated to sharing their knowledge because they know what karate can do for athletes that have special needs. Many of the families have sought martial arts after getting a recommendation from a doctor or therapist. That is a humbling vote of confidence.


Instructor Jess Schultz points out that while there are some broad observations, every class is an opportunity to assess and adjust. She offered some guidance for when to intervene and when to let it go.


“If they’re spinning on the floor, and throwing hands, correct the behavior. If they’re kind of looking around and they need a brain break, let them look around a little bit. It’s not going to hurt anybody. Same thing with touching things in the room. They learn with their eyes and their hands.”


Instructors go into each class trained on balancing these challenges. Instructors are armed with many techniques that help create a more nurturing learning environment. Utilizing these tools are essential to the program:

  • A silent signal for a break.

  • Bringing in another member of the team

  • Pairing students with a helpful leader

  • Star charts

  • Sticker charts

  • Prizes

  • Pre-frame what’s going to happen the entire class so there are no surprises

  • Make the class predictable for easy successes

  • Include distractions in the curriculum (tell kids it’s time to spin!)

  • Sometimes kids have a bad day. Give them a chance to get through it.

  • Sometimes it takes a few weeks to turn the corner.

  • All behaviors don’t need to be corrected.

  • The goal is to get them to do what they can do, better.

  • Try to selectively ignore manipulation or attention-seeking behavior.


Ultimately, it comes down to some of the most simple acts of consideration and being a caring teacher.


“You really need to know your students. You need to understand who they are and what they need. Do they need to be in the front row? Are they able to be more free in the back row?” Schultz said.


When it comes to hard days, she said the best response is to give it time. Don’t react or overreact or give up. Wait until a good day to figure out how to work through it, applying a crucial life skill.


“Wait until there’s no emotion attached to it, when everyone’s calmed down, talk about what happened, let’s do this instead so if this happens you know what to do.”

Instructor Casey Heimbach said, “It’s about the individual and making it work for them.” One of her students lives two hours from the studio and trains 100 percent virtually. For this particular student, the comfort and convenience of home without the distractions or social expectations was the perfect environment to thrive. After three years, this adult with special needs earned a black belt in person and continues to train virtually today.

Action Karate offers a variety of membership plans that includes private lessons, extra focus assisted classes or group classes.


Instructor McKenzie Fagans said, “Don’t be stuck that they can only do one thing - class or private lessons. Make sure you do have options.”


Everyone changes over time, what works one day doesn’t work the next. That being said, change can be challenging too.


“Pay attention to triggers and current things going on around them. Maybe change up the exercise. Stimming is not always a negative reaction. It could be they are overwhelmed or nervous and trying to settle themselves,” Fagans said. “It’s not going to be perfect. You have to struggle with it a few weeks until a routine gets established. And then you keep learning and get better.”




What class is right for you?

What is the best learning environment for my child?

The answer to that question isn’t clear in the first lesson, but we have to start somewhere. It takes 7 things to figure it out:

  1. A no-pressure introduction - the first meeting is an attempt to get to know each other, hear your goals, gauge the student’s interest/attention/ability and do a couple martial arts moves that can be anything from touching a target or tapping it like a drum or jumping on it in a lesson with a parent or caregiver present the entire time.

  2. Time - it takes time to get to know someone and see them through ups and downs with gradual upward trends.

  3. Trial and Error - you don’t know what works until you try it and we will always offer the possibility the students will exceed our expectations.

  4. Personal connection - working with the same person a few times gives you an opportunity to recognize the signs that something is working and what motivates them.

  5. Conversation - this can include the parents, caregivers or the student themselves if they are verbal to say what’s motivating and what’s not.

  6. Consistency - the ability to train regularly in a routine without long breaks will result in the most progress, and predictable expectations and results.

  7. Change - the opposite of consistency, this is part of the journey that includes challenges, adjusting the length and frequency of lessons, and being flexible.




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1 Comment


Djamila
Djamila
Nov 12, 2023

Thank you so much for this blog post! Those of us with undiagnosed disabilities or neurodivergence really appreciate the teaching styles that help us grow, focus, and still challenge us to meet high expectations!!

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