I am of the belief that martial arts, particularly BJJ can and should be available for practically anyone, including individuals who are considered who would be labeled as “special needs” either as a result of physical or cognitive challenges.
And I have the pleasure of knowing a woman who works with individuals labeled as such, and even offers course certification for instructors to learn how to approach working with this particular kind of student. Her name is Debbie, and she has over 2 decades of experience working with special needs children and adults both professionally and in her free time has taken the opportunity to share the joy of learning martial arts to this particular group. I asked her if she could answer a few questions about her experiences, and any advice she could offer:
Can you tell me about your background in both martial arts and your work in the psychiatric field?
I have been working with marginalized individuals since the age of 18. I started right out of high school. I was a classroom assistant working with individuals ages 18 to 21 who experienced severe cognitive challenges. When working with them and in relationship you really needed to mindful and aware of their expressions and action and learn to listen, watch and observe to understand their needs and wants.
Understanding what they wanted and needed, and helping to make small steps forward together were so satisfying and rewarding for both parties. It really set the stage for my career and my passion in the field of human service. I received my degree as a special education teacher and began working with various groups of children and adults. My focus at that time was working with children with various developmental challenges including psychiatric concerns and social issues, and my work led me to explore complex societal systems influence on family development. I earned my degree Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Drexel University, and have completed all the PhD course work at Drexel in the Couple and Family Therapy Program.
What first lead you to teaching martial arts to children with special needs?
My children and I both trained in martial arts and it became increasing clear that there are existing built in fundamentals at exist in martial arts that benefit anyone who walks onto the mat. It is my belief any child who requires additional support for any reason could receive such support through martial arts with a skilled instructor. They earn belts, learn and have fun, develop strengths and improve! Parents feel good! Parents feel like their children are moving in a positive direction. There is no stigma associated with their child’s concerns, and their child moves to the regular classes as quickly as possible, and class becomes a real community! Real life lessons for all children and families come to life at the school.
How long have you been teaching this group?
Approximately 13 years.
What have you found to be the greatest benefit of teaching these children martial arts? Do you have a story or experience you would like to share?
The great benefit has been that these children do not create limits for themselves and achieve great things on and off the mat.
Greatest story: A two year old boy challenged with severe symptoms of autism came into the school and began private lessons. He could only tolerate a few minutes of floor time per session. He did not speak or give eye contact. Nine years later, he does not carry a diagnosis. He attends a regular school, plays baseball and hockey and enjoys friends and family. He only has routine wellness visits with pediatricians and his parents see a bright future for their son. This may be an atypical outcome BUT most children and their parents will benefit without the stigma of insurance processes, doctors appointments, waiting room talk, multiple therapists, etc. It’s “therapy” through a normal, healthy socially supported venue IF the instructor is qualified and aware to support the child in their progress.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of teaching? The most frustrating?
The most rewarding part of teaching is being with a person and enjoying the moment with the person. A moment can mean so much if you are mindful of it. The most frustrating part of teaching? I have been a teacher more than I have not been a teacher. I find nothing to be frustrating. I love it. It is not my job- It’s my fun.
If there was one piece of advice you could give BJJ and other martial arts instructors when dealing with children who have special needs, what would it be?
One piece of advice would be to remind the instructor that they are the expert of the art. The student is the expert of him/herself. Find out how he/she learns and what motivates him/her to be on the mat. Adjust your style and curriculum to meet the person where he or she is developmentally and move at his or her pace. Be more than an instructor, be in relationship. BJJ is interesting: it’s an intimate art. There is an innate closeness. Trust, active listening and awareness of a person’s comfort will be key as you progress. We do offer certification in All Abilities Martial Arts, as I support the Martial Arts community and advocate providing support to all people. There are some considerations which are valuable when working with vulnerable individuals. I am often concerned when academies brand themselves competent to address issues such as these in children who already feel discouraged and suffer from low self esteem, and are then placed with instructors who have good intentions, but no training in child development or the psychology behind building a healthy, strong, and confident child.
Thanks so much to Debbie for humoring my crazy request and answering these questions. If you are an instructor, or if you know of an instructor that would be interested in the All Abilities Martials Arts certification, please check out Choice Martial Arts Academy, or email Debbie directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Otherwise, hope you all enjoyed the interview, and have a great day everyone!