Dealing with ADHD

Last week I received an email from Tom who wrote…

“I am starting to have kids in my class who are ADHD.   Any suggestions for drills or teaching techniques that will help address this issue?”

Ahhhh… the good old ADHD challenge!

I wrote about this a while back in regards to PPS, and also a bunch about visual learners here.

But today let’s assume that your student is in fact a legitimate ADHD candidate, and not something else.

In a nutshell think of it like this…

  • In the  student’s head, there are 10 things at once competing for attention. Someone once described ADHD to me as a TV inside the mind that keeps switching channels, so the focus is extremely short until they find something that can hold their attention.
  • What you’re teaching has got to be top of that list otherwise they tune out, look at other students, people walking by, a fly on the wall, etc.


teaching karate to adhd kids
ADHD can be like trying to watch tv when someone else keeps switching channels.


I’m not an  expert in the field of ADHD (though I do have a BSc in Pharmacology and Physiology). However I have taught over 1,500 kids with quite a few with legitimate attention deficit disorder, Asberger’s and autism. I’ve also taught both blind and deaf students. All are challenging in different ways, as are people with bad knees and backs, or some other kind of physical disability. The important thing to remember is that we are all people, and in most cases are doing the best we can. So the first thing is to realize this important point, and to have patience.

ADHD can be severely affected by diet, food coloring and emotion just to name a few things. Most of this we can’t control, but somehow we’re expected to help fix. So it’s particularly important that you don’t over-excite an ADHD student as they can take hours to calm down. Similarly try to avoid negative reinforcement with ADHD students as this can send them into a death spiral of negative emotion which results in resentment and unresourcefulness.

I’ve found that ADHD kids perform better with a little encouragement. Think about it – for most of the day they’re told, “Just focus!” and “Concentrate!!!”. So I’ll walk by that student in class and whisper to them, “Great job, Max. You look like a black belt when you do it that way.”

Little things like that seem to pep up their self esteem. They feel better immediately, try harder and focus more.

People have also asked me if I change the way I teach the class when I have ADHD students?

I don’t. I still do the same karate drills and exercises as the rest of the class. And just like all other times, I make sure I’m ENGANGING my students by making class INTERESTING and CONCISE.

Get to the point QUICKLY, make the drills EXCITING and CHALLENGING and students will respond well.

Long drawn out  explanations about body mechanics and power generation aren’t really what kids are interested in. Cut to the chase, demonstrate so they can SEE it, then get them to DO it. Kids are pretty good at copying…  but not as good at listening whether they have ADHD or not.

I feel it’s important in closing to say that we don’t want to make students feel left out or different to the class. Aim for 100% inclusion. Teach and address the group as a whole, but be sure to give each student some personal feedback during class.

21 thoughts on “Dealing with ADHD”

  1. I agree with your analysis. There are a few academic studies available looking at the impact of martial arts on symptoms of ADHD. Other students looked at how students with other mental health symptoms such as defiant, compulsive, or oppositional behaviour did benefit from a structured training with positive reinforcement.

    Great topic to put your teeth in!

  2. I’m on board with the analysis too. Trouble is, trying to deal with the actual real ADHD students and those who are just difficult. I try with all my students to use positive re enforcement even the one who don’t have learning disabilities – everyone needs a boost now and again.

    • Steve, distinguishing between students with ADHD and “just” difficult students can indeed be challenging, since the behaviours and symptoms often are identical. One factor to keep in mind that students with ADHD tend to show a consistency in their symptoms that is hard to correct (those are involuntarily displayed, such as frequent lack of focus, frequent uncontrolled movements), whereas students with “just” difficult behaviour are easier to correct since their behaviour is most often a choice.

      • Thanks for your input Chris… I think you make a valid point here about the consistency of the behaviors. I can think of plenty of kids who fit into the “just difficult” category and 2 or 3 who display the same behaviors consistently.

  3. Love this!! Thank you, I have often wondered how to do the same as I am one for long drawn out explanation of mechanics/use/concepts. I have been athirst of a new blog post from you. Thank you for this so very much!

  4. Years ago, I read about a form of exercise for kids who had learning issues such as dyslexia , add, adhd, etc. I had young brother in law who at age 17, read at about a 3rd grade level. His parents enrolled him in a school that taught “Cross-Crawl: exercises, now most often referred to as Brain Gym Exercises. It basically involves working on specific exercises , moving the opposite arm and leg alternatively, to establish a better connection between both hemispheres of the brain. To make a long story short, I began creating karate drills that accomplished the same end, for my karate students…and taught them to both ADD, ADHD and other students to see how they would work. They definitely helped those who were having problems with coordination and with issues of focus and concentration. You can find online articles about the Brain Gym exercises . I would be happy to go into this further if anyone wants to know more.

  5. I have a son who has ADHD. We went to the same Shotokan club as I (also do Shito-Ryu) and the teacher was somewhat old school JKA mentality and he could not elicit what he wanted from my son. In the end he said that my son (7 or 8) at the time had to come back when he was older and could control himself better. This was hard for me and my son did not do karate for about a year and a half. A very experienced coach and karateka I know invited him to come to her club. She has an early childhood education background and National Team level coaching. I have never seen anyone so good, so relaxed and have as much fun as she does. My son loves karate again and she has commented on how good his focus is!

    What I have observed is she is clear on certain rules and she will wait to the student complies but never overbearing, with good humor and a patience level I only wish I had. As far as activities, they are fun, active and quick transitions in between to keep their focus on the class. If you try to be too strict and too demanding of an ADHD child it will not work. I think just about everything you said was bang on Jason and yes little high fives and words of encouragement go a long way with all kids.

    • Thanks Warren… glad you got your son a teacher who understands people. That’s the most important quality to have in my opinion. Many teachers have extraordinary knowledge but if they can’t communicate it well, or understand how their students learn, then that knowledge isn’t good for much from a teaching perspective.

  6. Hi Jason,
    I have been teaching ADHD, Downs Syndrome and Autistic Students for thirty years in regular education and Martial Arts and can agree with your thoughts. I have also found that getting a particularly difficult case to come up front with a Sempei and tell them they are to be an example, with the Sempei, to the rest of the class (in a drill I am sure they can handle) gets them focused with a positive encouragement boost.

  7. I agree with your assessment and being new on the floor and learning how to build my skills, I have asked this same question. From evaluating our organization, I have found out that it is vital to keep the drills exciting and up beat and not get drawn out into words, but action. What I like is our instructors seek out the best at certain ideas or challenges at seminars and learn what works. I am learning on the floor every day as I volunteer my time.

  8. Thank you for your insightful article. It verified and supports what I am currently doing in my kids class.
    I have certainly challenged myself this year taking on kids with Learning Deficits, a Deaf child and 2 ADD & ADHD kids. What I found the most challenging was not giving preferential treatment and attention to these kids and having them take away our attention from the rest of the team. If they become unruly or their focus goes astray, I will quickly switch to working a new skill or drill or play a game, and this would generally bring them back to the group. It is especially rewarding though and worth the effort when the Parents give you feedback that “Johnny or Suzie” is doing so much better in school and is able to function well in other social situations, since starting Martial Arts. Keep up the great work everyone!

  9. What a great post and equally great responses from your readers. Gassho! I can’t wait to put some things to work in my next kids’ class. I am especially guilty of being overly technical…show ’em and ask them to copy: my new teaching mantra!


  10. Hey Jason,

    First of all: you do a great job over here by getting out attention to several subjects that sometimes we leave at side because there are to “touchy” …

    ADHD is one of those subjects. As teaching children classes I also have to do with all kind of children: ADHD, kids who are to tired because they don’t get enough sleep, kids you are just dropped at the karate classes not because of their own choice but because one of their parents practised lang time ago, …

    The combination al all this in one group to teach isn’t always very easy. But to mentain calme, trying to help & motivate them, … is mostly the best way to get them hooked to training.

    Indeed: as trainer this isn’t always easy (sometimes I’m on the border of loosing my temper too 🙂 ), but on the other hand if you finally see the results (at the end of the training or after a while) then this is for me the real meaning of teaching.

    As teacher it is quite easy to teach people from the same level, who are talented, motivated, … But that the easy part of the job. We may not forget all those other gohai, which needs us even more on their path of exercise!


  11. Great article, and a great reminder to be patient and encouraging. One more thing that I have noticed; people with ADHD or ADD should not be placed in front of a mirror. Seeing their own reflection seems to be the ultimate distraction.

  12. Thanks Sensei, Another very interesting and thought provoking item. Training our jido presents a mix of the very young (some maybe too young, many languages – not always being English plus perhaps some ADHD/ autism (I only know if i am told) otherwise i take them as one of many “Challenging” kids. Mostly though I find its me who needs the help!? They are fine when interested and occupied- I struggle at times trying to answer question after question from the same person in a good way but without being over presciptive and at the same time not looking to put them off asking but its also whilst trying to deliver the class!! that said the rewards and satisfaction from any success – well you all know you cant buy it. Thanks Jason, thanks also too to Warren MacLean i enjoyed your comment


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