Students with Disabilities

Teaching for Every Student

General Strategies

Students at martial arts schools come in all types, and many will have characteristics that set them apart from the 'typical' students. I am often asked by fellow martial arts instructors for advice in teaching non-typical students, as I work at a private non-profit school for students with severe special needs, and have experience teaching many different kinds of students. What I find when I give general advice, is that it is the same advice I would give to anyone who would like to be a good teacher.

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Assess your student's strengths and weaknesses. This is more likely to be an informal assessment, based on your judgement and experience, but if you find yourself presented with a student with needs well outside those of the typical student, you may wish to look into a more specialized or formal assessment.

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Adjust the goals of the program, and your goals for the student. Choose realistic, achievable goals in small steps for the student. As you reach each interim goal, assess the progress. Depending on the student, the goals may have to be adjusted to continue to provide the milestones of progress you are looking for.

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Assess the motivation of your student. Make it your priority to find out what motivates your student from day to day. Once you figure this out, progress will follow, but motivation isn't a one time deal. You will have to figure this out on a regular basis.

Based on what you find, you may have to tailor what you teach to meet the physical and cognitive needs of your students. This is called differentiated instruction. You aren't necessarily going to change what you teach, but how you deliver it to each of your students. You still will be teaching your art. 
In order to provide some ideas on how to address these adjustments, I'm going to provide some examples based on students that I have had. These are reflecting different individuals, but are grouped by similar cognitive or physical problems.



Cognitive Disabilities:

I have had students with Developmental disabilities, mental retardation, and traumatic brain injury in both my Kempo and Tai Chi classes. Strategies to use would include pairing the student with a peer, and breaking the content of the class into small chunks. Address one correction at a time, and provide plenty of opportunities for practice. If your student performs a technique or kata and needs to work on balance, extension on strikes and stances, pick one aspect to correct. If you give feedback on all of these flaws, the student will get overwhelmed and will have a hard time making any corrections. If you address them one at a time, each aspect can be a goal, and will serve as milestones of progress for your student. For self defense situations, take into account that these students will require additional reaction time and plan their distancing and strategy accordingly. Also, your student might have 'developmental' problems, such as difficulty following models, mirroring an instructor's movements, or difficulty crossing their midline with their arms. Progress for these students may be slow, but with patience, they will find pride in their accomplishments. 

Physical Disabilities:
Many students have physical limitations of one sort or another. Some limitations are from birth, and some are acquired along their lifetimes. The effect these limitations have can impact two areas, function and safety. Although often primarily associated with cognitive issues, Down Syndrome can pose a safety risk with atlantoaxial stability and circulatory issues. Most often the circulatory issues are taken care of surgically when the person is young, but prior to serving a student with Down Syndrome, as part of the assessment process it is imperative to find out if the student has been tested for atlantoaxial instability. This is a weakness in the neck that affects a percentage of people with Down Syndrome, and can lead to catastrophic injuries. Tumbling, falling and contact sports are huge risks for someone with this atlantoaxial instability, but people with Down Syndrome who have been cleared by their doctor using x-rays are free to engage in these activities. Essentially, these things are really important to know to properly serve your students. 
In one of my Tai Chi classes, I had a student with achondroplasia, commonly referred to as dwarfism or 'a little person.' There were differences in limb length with his lower body, and differences in cartilage. In his case, most of the adjustments were to the stances to suit his particular measurements, but apart from that, few other adjustments had to be made. The difference in appearance was much bigger than his difference in ability. 

Conditions that Affect Many Areas:
Some conditions affect a student's physical, mental and social areas. As with Down Syndrome, conditions like Autism and Asperger Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy can affect every area of the students' lives. Cerebral Palsy may or may not affect a student cognitively, but will affect the muscles in some or all of the student's limbs. That student will need to concentrate on stretching much more than the other students. Students with Autism will have communication issues, will have trouble picking up on non-verbal cues, and may really have issues with people touching them. Pairing them up with an assistant instructor 'buddy' will ease these issues, but these students will require a lot of extra care. 

The Answer to Everything:

Essentially, the answer to all of these issues is the same: 
Know your students. I have found that what works for the student with special needs, works for the typical learner. As an instructor, find out what their needs are, set realistic, achievable goals, and find out how to motivate them to keep them working toward these goals. A key revelation that made a difference for me was that my art was a means to an end. The point of studying with me was not to perform the perfect kata. The techniques, skills, moves, and all the rest are merely tools to help the students achieve goals and improve the quality of their lives. Self-defense, fitness, not falling and breaking a hip; these are important ends. The art is the means. If you get a student who has a particular condition, educate yourself about their condition, and their needs in order to make them safe and successful at your school. What you teach will affect their lives outside the dojo, whether or not they ever use a single technique you teach in self-defense. 


About the author: 
Matthew Barnes holds a 5th dan with the Kempo Jutsu-kai, and is a Kempo and Tai Chi instructor with Cape Cod Martial Arts Academy. He has a BA in Psychology from the University of Connecticut, and has worked for the last 13 years at a private non-profit residential school for students with severe special needs. This fall he will begin a practicum to complete a Post-baccalaureate certificate in Physical Education.