Cognitive Challenges & Tae Kwon Do. Here’s our Experience.

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Acceptance can be hard to find; we found it when we enrolled our daughter, who has special needs, in a Tae Kwon Do class.

Searching for the Right Fit

Taekwondo group

Too young to participate on the local Special Olympics track team, we searched for a suitable physical activity for our then 7-year-old daughter. More important, an activity where she could positively channel all of her energy. To put it differently, I mean waking-for-the-day-at-2am- there’s-not-enough-coffee-in-the-world kind of energy. With cognitive and sensory challenges, limited focus, low muscle tone, and global developmental delays, we had our work cut out for us.

First, we tried swimming lessons. Although we explained her need for extra help, we were not allowed to go into the water. Our daughter’s inability to wait, coupled with her need to jump into the water (repeatedly), did not bode well.

So, imagine our excitement to find a local move-n-groove class! Touting “Fun for all ages and abilities,” we signed up and wrote the check. Unfortunately, we grossly underestimated how loud the music would be. Moreover, oodles of kids dancing around without much direction lead to serious sensory overload. Ears covered, a meltdown in full swing, we knew we’d failed again.

Martial Arts

Researching tae kwon do
Photo by EVG photos on

Desperate to find something, I stared at the computer search results and stumbled upon Tae Kwon Do. I read the list of benefits which included better focus, more self-confidence, and a fun way to stay fit. Close to home, coupled with a free trial period, I booked an appointment.

I sat down, explained our situation, not knowing whether this would be the right environment. Hearing that she would have the same expectations as everyone else led me to wonder whether we’d upset the fine balance between challenging and frustrating her. Would the goals be achievable? Her challenges surmountable? We heard about other kids who had unique challenges, had found success, and were assured that she could attend as many classes throughout the week as she wanted or needed.

Progress, not Perfection

Tae kwon do
Testing 1:1 with an instructor

5 years later, I am still pleasantly surprised – by both my daughter and the Tae Kwon Do school. There is a strong culture of respect and courtesy; classmates and instructors alike are willing to give extra help to our kiddo when she needs it. They recognize her hard work, and acknowledge her for never giving up. They call it having an indomitable spirit. Progress, not perfection is the goal – to do better than before.

In class, expectations are the same for everyone. Admittedly, that worried me, however, I’ve found it’s just what she needs – this is the one place where she is treated like every other kid around her. She understands that the only person she competes with is herself – looking to achieve her personal best. Moreover, we see improved focus and confidence. The school adapts testing; she can focus better performing her forms along side an instructor, rather than in a large group. Each time she rises to the challenge.

Positive Reinforcement

The environment and attitude of the instructors is overwhelmingly positive. For example, when voice control proves difficult and she’s louder than she intends, the instructor says something like, “Great energy! Let’s try again.” Never is she, nor others in the class, made to feel bad about making a mistake or trying their best.

Routine, Routine, Routine

There is a routine flow to the class. It starts and ends the same way. Students greet instructors the same way. The environment for belt testing is the same. Forms are learned through repetition. For a child who struggles with transitions, or has a need to know what comes next, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Limited Need to Wait

45 minute classes break down into mere minutes of focus on each form or skill. There isn’t much dreaded time waiting, and they practice the ability to focus (for 10 seconds) during each class.

Tae Kwon Do Teaches Self Respect

Self defense is a key component of the program, including how to avoid conflict and when to yell “Back off!” She’s learned self-respect, and knows that others don’t have a right to touch her, or enter her space without permission. This is an important life lesson, and one that can be difficult to understand for a child with special needs. Because self-defense is part of every belt level instruction, this skill is continually reinforced.

Limited Social Skills is OK

As it relates to social skills, the nice thing about Tae Kwon Do is that classmates work along side one another, limiting the need for extraordinary communication skills or constant interaction. (For example, think about an aerobics class – you’re with people, working next to them, but not really interacting socially.) Classmates work together on a prescribed set of skills. For those who rely on scripting, learning phrases like “Way to go!” to say to a partner – makes this environment a forgiving one for people who struggle with social communication.

Try Hard. Do your Best.

Now, I can’t say that she’s able to complete a perfect push-up, or does every form with absolute precision. She does, however, try and gives 100% effort every time. In fact, making mistakes is something the leaders specifically discuss with students. More specifically, that to make a mistake in-and-of itself isn’t important. What is important is how one reacts to the mistake.

There are times when it takes her longer to master a skill, and that’s OK – there’s no rigid time line. We sometimes opt for a private lesson when she’s having challenges, and other times they can be resolved by staying after class for 10 minutes for a little extra help. Most important of all, is that she loves the classes and looks forward to every single one.

Overall, this has been a wonderful experience for our daughter. If you’re looking to give it a try, here are some tips for finding the right class.

Martial Arts Considerations

  • Book an appointment. Find out the culture and philosophy.
  • Stay and watch a class. Watch how instructors interact with kids, and how kids interact with each other before, during and after class.
  • Inquire whether they enroll kids with differing abilities and about accommodations.
  • Don’t be afraid to disclose your child’s needs up front, or share your concerns.
  • Ask whether there is a trial period or shortest commitment time (2 weeks, a month, 6 weeks, etc.)
  • Find out attendance requirements, or limitations. We attend more days that the average (2 days/week), at no additional cost.

Welcome to Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from special needs bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and Mommy Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about having a special needs kiddo — from Sensory Processing Disorder to ADHD, from Autism to Dyslexia! Want to join in on next month’s Voices of Special Needs Hop? Click here!

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  1. That is great you found this class and she does so well with it. There is one near us friends have complimented as well for their son with special needs and I have thought about checking it out. They spoke of a lot of the same benefits – that their son focuses more in the class than anywhere else really and wants to do the movements as instructed. May have to check it out!

    • Most have a free or low cost trial period – it doesn’t hurt to check it out and give it a try! I suspect you’ll know after watching a class or two if the culture and people are a good fit – to me, that’s half the battle. Good luck! Let me know how it works out if you do try!

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