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I have been going to karate for many years and have had a bit of experience teaching our students, mostly in a 1-on-1 setting (I'm not the teacher, I just help out here and there when required).

Recently, we have had a few new students join, one of whom particularly has trouble staying still and paying attention (he's between 7-10 years old). It's not been brought to our attention that he has ADHD or anything like that but it's very similar in behaviour.

Occasionally when I have been teaching him (either alone, or with a single other student), I have been stern in telling him to stop fidgeting and to his credit, he does stop, but only for a short period of time.

As I was taught that Karate is about discipline and you need to pay attention to your teacher, his behaviour is very different to what I'm used to. More to the point, though, is due to his lack of concentration, he doesn't actually pick up on what we're doing to try and help his techniques.

Has anyone else been in a similar situation? Are there any techniques that can be used to help him concentrate more and improve quicker?

  • Please do not accept any answer before at least 24 hours. This leaves others a reason to post their own answers, some of which might be way better than mine! – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Nov 6 '15 at 13:04
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    Just as a counter perspective, we were advised to put our autistic son in a Martial Arts program (I suppose you could say against his will, though he goes willingly now because he likes it) specifically to help him learn to focus and not to fidget, and deliberately did NOT tell the instructors about his disability to see what their perspective was on his capabilities. That being said if you think you have the rapport, I would strongly advise sharing your observations with his parents. – Mark Nov 6 '15 at 13:38
  • @Mark: You make a good point. I shall reflect that in my answer. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Nov 6 '15 at 14:41
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Quick Summary as this post is long: It is easier to keep focus when learning something if you aren't just trying to repeat it, but fully conceptualizing the mechanics, reasoning, and technique of a thing. Having the student realize the benefit of improved understanding and the downside of lack was also a huge help in getting past attention issues as it significantly improved self driven interest in learning.

Disclaimer: I have no experience as an educator, my opinion is based on what did and did not work for me as a child with ADHD issues strong enough that at 6 years old (1st grade) the school wasn't going to let me progress unless I was given medication or another form of professional treatment, they allowed us to try martial arts first. For the first 6 months or so there was no improvement and I just couldn't focus enough to learn anything, but we had an instructor move and his replacement had a different instruction style and I had rapid improvement.

For further background, my teachers/parents didn't think I had 'behavioural' issues, I was respectful of authority, highly empathetic of others, and pretty shy, so I wasn't one of the kids with the violent tantrums/outbursts/etc... I just would daydream or get distracted so easily I pretty much couldn't learn anything, and even entertainment didn't hold my attention for long. I hated losing focus, I felt like I was letting down my instructors, my parents, and myself, honestly I was consciously trying my hardest to stick with it, but during the conditions in which I would lose focus my ability to maintain control of my body/mind was just compromised, and there was no amount or style of scolding/punishment that could make me feel worse about it than what I already self-imposed. Given that, my information is likely not going to work on a kid that doesn't want to get better at concentrating/learning, and again I have never been an educator professionally or voluntarily, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Failing Strategies\Conditions (for me):

  • Simple rote based initial instruction, like Instructor shows the move a couple times, and then expects emulation. This failed because first and foremost it only captured my conscious attention (watching/assessing the task) and my body attention when trying to repeat it, my 'mind' essentially checked out as it was not needed and distractions would begin. Secondly, if I didn't repeat it successfully I didn't know why and that was amazingly frustrating and this would be amplified as the instructor tried to re-show or especially physically position me.

  • Strict demands for my attention, my attention would snap back, but there was no long term affect and I would quickly lose focus again if the contextual situation had not changed.

  • Long periods on a singular task, it is hard to define long, but more than a minute or twos/a dozen repetitions of the same maneuver, for me there is a finite amount of improvement/work that can be done on an individual task during any 1 period, and once I hit that wall, try as I might I cannot care about that task until I've had time to refresh with a different task/problem.

  • Sideline attempts to recapture my attention, like requests that I perform some unrelated task in the hopes to put me back in the now, these always felt purposeless, and the end result was an overall reduction in interest in the whole concept.

Successful Strategies/Conditions:

  • Specific and guided instruction/focus on mindfulness. Knowing exactly what my mind and body should be doing at any given snapshot in time during a given task gave me a whole new level of focus and significantly improved my ability to learn tasks presented in this way. Examples:

    1. Periods of time spent on very simple meditation with guidance like sit in specific given position, and rhythmically repeated instructions to think about this specific thing that does not allow for interpretation like breathe in/breathe out,... or 1/2.1/2,...
    2. The same rote based instruction from the first failure example, but with the initial demonstration being very slow, with thorough descriptions of what the different parts of my body should be doing at every point in the process, then when I don't have it right having the instructor initiate and guide a discussion where I end up figuring out (not being told) what was wrong. This way I am focusing on perceiving the action, physically repeating it, and mindfully contemplating/processing it.
  • Switching the task context in regular intervals, I could effectively spend all day practicing just 3 maneuvers so long as each interval was short and the switches were on a schedule/routine, like 10 horse stance punches, 10 round house kicks, 10 axe kicks, (repeat in the same order). It is additionally helpful if there are specific repeated behaviours between the changing points (moving to an attention stance and "yes sensei" before each new task set, and maybe a full bow between each round of sets), and if the specific actions have an additional component, breathe in/out on alternate punches, kia'ing on each kick, etc.

  • Being stern when I falter, and on repeated events or if I lose attention at a significant point like learning a brand new concept, rather than scolding show me why I should have paid attention like having me demonstrate the move to the class and ask them to critique it or have me publicly spar with a class mate (one who the instructor is confident will defeat me), something that makes me realize the lack created by my inattention, especially when that lack is present even compared to the others at my same level.

  • If any class segment is going to require a lack of participation, I need to know upfront that at the end of that segment I will be tested in some way, like maybe the instructor wants to spend 10 minutes or so just talking about effective ways to combine the actions we had been going over, each student should then very briefly spar (just a couple strikes) with an authority (instructor, higher grade student, etc) where the result corresponds to their implementation of the given info, complete shutdown/moderate fall to the mat/mild embarrassment on no utilization to even draw/pat on the back for great utilization.

  • Having students act as instructor and try to teach the class how to use a maneuver they have been practicing is a big help for encouraging a desire to actually learn the material.

  • As the student shows a greater ability to reign in their own attention, the hand holding/guidance should reduce to increase the challenge and autonomy, additionally the actual consequences of success or failure should become noticeably more significant, but the demonstrative consequences reduced, the hope is that eventually they will begin/increase self-governing, but they won't if they don't need to.

I never really got good at martial arts, but I did become a good student and enjoyed how much easier it became to learn that I began self-imposing these strategies for actual school and that similarly improved.

Also, I am not a medical professional in any way, these techniques helped me get past a lot of my attention issues, but as an adult I've started using medication as well, and that has made a whole new world of difference.

Different situations require different types/levels of treatments, so just wanted to be clear that I'm not advocating ignoring the advice of doctors, that's for you to decide.

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    Welcome to the site! This is a superb answer, thank you very much for taking the time to write it. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Nov 9 '15 at 7:53
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Figuring out if he either wants to be there or is forced to go by his parents is important.

If the latter, then there is not much you can do about it. He might get better if he has something that engages him but that can be hard to gauge if he is not mature enough to tell you about it. You can still try though.

As a side note, as Mark suggested in a comment, not all children chose to do a marital art. Some are introduced to it via their parents because it might help them to focus, gain self confidence, and expend their horizon. However, children do form an opinion about things pretty quickly.

If the former, then things are a little easier. He has chosen to be there, so he has a vested interest in getting better. This is something you can leverage.

In either case, you need to find out what he enjoys during the class and maybe do more of that. Ask him at the end of a class. Next class, do a little more of that one thing. This will engage him more and thus get him to focus extra to get his fix.

Positive reinforcement generally yields quicker results than negative reinforcement. So, instead of telling him off, compliment him when he is paying attention. Tell him how well he picks things up. When you correct something he does wrong, make sure to say "well done" afterwards. So, focus on the positive.

This can help if the acting up is part of attention seeking. If at home he gets no attention (for whatever reason), then acting up gives him adult, full-on attention. He might crave that. Again, by being positive you reinforce that good actions get him noticed.

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Most kids, unless they are really unaware, have at least some idea that they have issues. A lot of them already feel like failures because of it. Coming down hard on him (not saying that your are or will) is probably the last thing he needs. A few things I think would be worth trying:

  • As soon as he arrives, give him a task to do (put up a piece of equipment, get a piece of equipment ready that you will need during class, etc) and then thank him for doing it. Bam, he's been there 1 minute and he's already been successful at something.
  • During class, if you see him starting to get distracted, give him a small task to do. "Hey Billy, I'm thirsty, grab my water bottle from the edge of the mat please." Take a drink. "Thanks, can you put it back for me?"
  • If you notice him start to get distracted and then correct it himself, make sure to praise him for it after class. "Hey Billy, I noticed you got distracted by the ambulance going by, but you refocused really well after that. Good job, man."
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I have a son in Karate who has a mild case of ADHD, so I can empathize with your situation. In general, I find that he responds well to personal, positive feedback. A gentle reminder when he starts making faces in the mirrors works out well. And, positive feedback when he does something correct will also help build a good rapport.

I also recommend talking to the parents and asking them what they want to get out of class. In my case, the actual belt grading is irrelevant. I'm interested in an environment that promotes focus and discipline.

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    +1 for mentioning the personal feedback. That makes a huge difference for my son as well, when he is made to feel special and others are looking at him as an example, he is more likely to behave more appropriately. – Mark Nov 6 '15 at 18:54
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Teaching children is very different from teaching adults. Kids have shorter attention spans than adults, and they also have greater difficulty with delayed gratification. It's important to tailor teaching to the audience.

For kids, designing a game to work on particular skills is very effective. The kids can focus on doing well in the game (immediate gratification) and learn skills as a side effect. For example, say you want to work on horse stance. Get the kids to play freeze tag, and have kids who are frozen stand in horse stance, and require another kid to crawl through the frozen kid's legs to unfreeze them. Or to work on hand speed and hand-eye coordination, put clothespins on the kids' uniforms and have them try to grab the clothespins off a partner's uniform while defending their own clothespins.

Kids also like to do things that are usually forbidden. For example, to get kids to kiai, you can encourage them to use their outdoor voices while indoors in this specific situation.

If your goal is to get a kid to be better behaved, I think you have to start with ensuring they are well behaved at times like the beginning of class bow-in or when an instructor is talking to them. Then provide the kids the freedom to burn off some of their energy and be a bit crazy. Then when the class comes back together, enforce good behavior again. In my experience, this is much more effective than trying to straitjacket the kids at all times.

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You are correct in that traditionally, karate adopts the Japanese cultural phenomenon of be quiet and absorb. But that is not necessarily the best method of teaching. Fidgeting is a sign that he needs to move to learn. Which means that you have to encourage him to do so. Making him stand still and learn would be wrong. I would adapt drills where you encourage your pupils to emulate you, while gradually increasing the difficulty. Start with a movement exercise and add hand techniques or kicks

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Plan on spending between 5-15 minutes (depending on his ability to focus) teaching him something new and another 5-15 minutes practicing stuff that he has already learned. Then do something that all the kids can look forward to. One thing that we do is use swim noodles to attack the kids so they can practice their blocks. We set up stations so that they have to run from corner to corner in the dojo, bow and get ready. We might throw someone into the mix to randomly poke kids with another noodle. They have to apply the skills that they learned (block, stance and block, block and counter, or simply bowing correctly and then blocking.)They all love this. It's a blast and a great reward for the focus that they provided you.

What everyone above says about making this positive is true. Negative reinforcement will do nothing to increase their focus.

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