Traditional Martial Arts and Kids With Special Needs

In 1990, I graduated from Portland State University with my Master’s Degree in Special Education. My focus was children with “Behavior Disorders”, which is a broad term pretty much used to describe kids in a school setting who are having lots of challenges that haven’t been diagnosed. And as the name implies, they generally have behaviors that are distracting, and possibly hurtful, to themselves and others.

The Master’s Program was interesting and challenging and my professors and schoolmates were awesome. I have always chosen to work with kids, and this population in particular fascinated me. While studying at Portland State University, I was also training Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen, and during that time earned the ranks of Gold and then Blue sash. Many of my projects and papers involved researching questions I had about how martial arts training might benefit kids with different types of learning challenges.

My gut told me there was something there, and my research helped me find lots of connections, specifically with regards to training traditional martial arts such as Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen. I learned to make a distinction between westernized martial arts schools and traditional martial arts schools. Westernized martial arts schools generally focus on competition like tournaments, and fast progression through the ranks, regardless of skill development, with relatively few checks and balances on the ego. For example, I’ve heard of six year olds getting black belts after training for a year. I’ve heard of payments that can be made to ensure that the student gets a black belt within a specific – and usually short – period of time.

What I found is that traditional martial arts systems teach skills that kids with challenges can really use. Skills like self-control, compassion, creating and nurturing an internal structure, learning about the importance of respect and character. Through training traditional martial arts, a student builds strength and confidence while being encouraged and supported to become a leader and role model. In a traditional martial arts school, each rank is earned through incredibly hard work. Tests challenge the strength, character and endurance of each student. Practitioners feel the authenticity of that experience along with the deep joy that comes with achievement as they are recognized and appreciated for their growth and development.

My dad always says to appreciate all the things you learn, because the lessons intertwine and weave throughout your life and find their way back to you when you need them. I think he was onto something!

Goeroe Silvia Smart

July 2013