In any beginning karate class, kids need help tying the belts of their gis (loose-fitting karate uniforms). Or they forget where to stand when class starts, or how to do the ready stance. Students at any martial arts class watch a series of moves and attempt to replicate them through repeated practice and observation, guided by their teacher’s corrections and adjustments.
At Mental & Martial Enrichment class at Peaceful Warrior Karate in Scottsdale, kids hear directions, see them written, repeat them out loud and are taught to replay and repeat those instructions in their own heads through “cognitive self-talk.” It is a structured class in the teaching of Shorin-Ryu karate, but this class is specifically designed for kids with attention and behavioral difficulties.
Dan Short, Ph.D. of Scottsdale is the psychologist who helped co-design the class with Peaceful Warrior instructors Sensei Richard Poage and Tiffany Richards.
At a parent information meeting, the class was described as a 90-day introduction to karate that would help kids with attention and behavioral problems transition to regular karate classes. The class helps kids earn their first belts but also includes “modification to teaching style, not just with the objective of making it so the child does well (in the dojo) and learns the martial arts, but with the idea of putting them through exercises that will literally change the way their brains work,” says Short.
When people learn new things, their brains grow new, physical connections between neurons, Short says. “We know with current research that we can get physiological changes, what they call ‘neuroplasticity’ (the ability of the brain to change structurally as a result of new input), in as little as 90 days.” Techniques used in the class are designed to help change the way children learn by changing the way their brains work.
One of these techniques is “cognitive self-talk,” which according to Short is when you “take an otherwise complicated, overwhelming task and break it up into steps you can talk yourself through as you’re doing it.” The technique helps “hold your attention to solve complex things,” he says.
At one point during class, the students put together a sequence of moves. They started with a left outside block, which everybody did together. Then they added a right outside block, which they practiced in sequence with the first block. They added kicks and punches, each time adding just one move before practicing the sequence, until they had assembled the entire sequence—left outside block, right outside block, left front kick, right front kick, left punch, right punch—and saying it out loud together: “Block, block, kick, kick, punch, punch!”
Short says self-talk gives students the extra dimension of monitoring their own behavior and keeping track of what they are doing. Students have different levels of expertise and precision in their moves, but in class, as a group, they all did well with the choral self-talk and the block-kick-punch routine.
Sensei Poage next instructed them to say the moves in their heads, not out loud, as they did the sequence. The room was quiet except for the swishing of gis and the pounding of feet on the floor.
This time, the group was not together. Some students forgot elements of the sequence; others hesitated. One boy was distraught and near tears when he realized he couldn’t remember the sequence, but he quickly recovered after a few words from Richards.
Another technique they practiced was verbal communication. The steps were written on a white board: seek invitation, acknowledge response and follow through. Sensei Poage reminded the kids to pay attention to responses they got from people and to act according to the responses. They were instructed to use these skills to ask for help as well as talk to other students. Amid all the punching, kicking and blocking, this was not a skill most of the students had yet acquired.
At the end of class, kids wrote in their journals about the class and something that had happened outside of class. It took some kids a while to settle down and write, probably like they do in school. The intent of the class, according to Richards, is “teach adaptive strategies that transfer outside of martial arts school into home, the school setting and other relationships.”
After class, Short reminded parents to make sure their children get enough “green time”—at least two hours a week outside with grass and trees, away from screens and gadgets.
At the parent information meeting, Short referred to studies showing a marked decrease in the ability of kids today to monitor their behavior and be self-directed, compared to children in the 1940s. Short says kids today spend much of their time in structured programs or playing repetitious video games. They have little time just playing, where they and their friends decide on a game or activity without interference or the influence of an adult.
Of course a karate class also is a structured program, but Short says martial arts has a lot to offer. “It has intense aerobic activity, emotional arousal and exposure to novelty,” he says. He has seen the positive impact of combining a structured exercise program with decreased screen time. Sometimes, he says, it can even reduce a child’s dependence on ADHD medication.