This article is based on a 2015 academic paper by Evangelos Vlachos: The Benefits of Using Traditional Martial Arts as an Intervention Programme for Children with Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties.
Evan Vlachos straddles three worlds, as a special education teacher, a researcher and a Karate practitioner (Shorin ryu Karate-do and Matayoshi Kobudo). This gives him a unique insight into how martial arts can benefit children with BESD.
According to Evan, here are ten key benefits of traditional martial arts training for these children . . .
- Decreased aggression
Evan cites research showing that martial arts training can help children control their aggression and frustration. This is unsurprising, given that the traditional martial arts focus on avoiding conflict and impulsive actions, avoiding hostility and aggression, and building an honorable, non‐violent and respectful character.
Incidentally, Evan does not have the same faith in combat sports. He argues that any style which promotes aggression, competition in athletic events and fighting for personal fame or money is probably not suitable to help children with BESD, and may even exacerbate their problems.
- Decreased anxiety and better ability to cope with stress
Evan refers to various studies showing that children who train in martial arts enjoy a clear improvement in their mental health, including their ability to cope with stress and anxiety.
This is especially important for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), who are highly prone to high levels of anxiety and find many situations in their everyday life stressful and overbearing, which can lead to depression or substance abuse (Sutton, 2000).
- Increased self-control and self-regulation
Another important benefit of training in the martial arts for children with BESD is the promotion of self-control, since traditional martial arts have a strict moral code of conduct that involves respect and courtesy.
As Even says, the emphasis on self‐regulation is not a core value in other types of sport related interventions, but it is taught and reinforced in martial arts (Lakes and Hoyt, 2004).
- A range of physical benefits
Evan reminds us of the well-known benefits of martial arts training for all students – increased strength, agility, awareness and coordination, balance, flexibility and so on.
For children with ADHD, there are further benefits also:
In traditional martial arts, the teaching is concentrated mainly on technique and proper posture of the body and not on strength or speed, two attributes that are also raised in time. This can be very useful for students with ADHD who often have trouble with their fine motor skills and such training can help them in terms of balance, dexterity and spatial understanding (Loe and Feldman, 2007).
- Potential alleviation of the symptoms of ADHD
Unfortunately, there is a tendency to treat ADHD with medication (psychostimulants) despite the fact that these are known to be toxic and sometimes cause serious side effects, and may have a damaging long-term effect. Their effects can also be short-term; and research shows that it is possible that the unwanted behaviour will be intensified after the drug’s effect wears off.
However, Evan cites interesting research by Helig (2007), which argues that:
physical exercise such as martial arts, can lead to a marked decrease in the symptoms of ADHD in children and adults. In fact his research shows that exercise is more effective in alleviating the symptoms of mild ADHD compared to prescribed medication, both in short‐term and long‐term efficacy.
- An interesting and attractive programme to engage children’s attention
Evan suggests that a martial art is a more interesting alternative to other forms of exercise and can capture the interest of today’s children, who are more used to indoors activities (Lewis, 1996).
He also explains that Research shows that sports‐based interventions generally attract a limited number of children but martial arts seem to appeal to a wider range.
- Increased confidence and self-esteem
Martial arts training can help with obesity and insomnia, which children with BESD are at risk of, due to stress and high levels of anxiety. It can also increase confidence by improving children’s body image in general.
The belts and ranking system can give children with BESD concrete evidence of their own progress. Evan also explains that, Testing events and demonstrations offer recognition of their effort that they might not be getting from their school teachers or family members because of their behaviour (Twemlow and Salco, 1998).
Children who are often shamed for their bad behavior and inability to cope with stress will hopefully become more confident as they see themselves becoming better able to control their behavior and responses to stressors.
Finally, having a good sensei to look up to and feel supported by can also boost children’s confidence and self‐esteem (Lantz, 2002).
- Increased concentration ability and a better attitude to learning
Evan explains that children with BESD can benefit a lot from the focus of martial arts on cultivating the concentration.
During their classes they are taught how to set their mind on one thing only, such as a technique or a ‘kata’ and perform it without distractions […] Children with BESD can also benefit from the controlled environment of the class […] Inside the training hall there are no noises, pictures or other external stimuli to distract the child, who has to focus and pay attention […] With proper, long‐term training children can learn how to master this skill in the dojo (training hall) and then transfer it to their every‐day life.
Students with BESD often have a negative attitude towards learning and homework (Mowat, 2010). However with the skills they can acquire through their training they can develop more positive dispositions towards school and homework (Zivin et al., 2001). Students also learn how to commit themselves to their goals and aims, since most styles take time to learn.
- Promotes social inclusion
This can be a benefit of martial arts training for all children. But it’s perhaps especially pertinent for children who are socially excluded. Children with BESD often have weak social skills and problems fitting in. Evan explains that a martial arts training programme can enable these kids to feel part of,
a larger team that shares the same interests and has the same goals with them. This gives them the feeling of belonging in a social group (Lantz, 2002). During practice, children have to learn how to collaborate with their peers in order to perform the requested techniques and advance in the art
[…] This feeling of belonging and active participation is vital for children with BESD and not only promotes inclusion but it can also help them shake of the ‘stigma’ of their label (Sutton, 2000).
Values kinaesthetic learning
Evan explains that many forms of intervention with children who have BESD focus on talking, which may be boring or frustrating for the child. Martial arts however focus more on kinesthetic abilities, allowing them to express themselves through motion and action (Twemlow and Sacco,1998).
Children with BESD can often feel insecure or excluded due to their slow academic progress. School work can tend to ignore or devalue the importance of kinaesthetic intelligence, with its heavy focus on exams. Martial arts can therefore give these children an opportunity to feel intelligent, and see themselves learning and making progress, which increases their self-esteem.
Evan’s paper also looks at the qualities that will help an instructor succeed with helping children with BESD. He explores several interesting case studies of martial arts programmes which have already helped children with BESD:
- LEAD (Leadership Education through Athletic Development (Moo Gong Ryu)
- Gentle Warrior (Kung Fu)
- Integral Mindfulness Martial Arts’ (based on Mindful Meditation and mixed martial arts)
Evan is passionate about the potential for martial arts to help these children. He urges us to help make martial arts training legitimate in the eyes of the public and “bring these esoteric solutions out from the shadows”.
And given the impressive potential benefits outlined above, this sounds like something we can surely all get behind . . . !