Working with Different Abilities

When I first started training in Tae Kwon Do, I took a Saturday class for “all belts” – and wound up being the only white belt in a class full of black belts. I did not return to that class, as I was certain that I was holding the other students back from practicing truly astounding black belt feats. It took months for me to realize that I was not holding up the class; in fact, the instructors were well-versed in teaching multiple abilities in one class.

When I eventually started helping out with classes, I began to understand this on a more meaningful level. Some students took to martial arts like a duck to water, able to immediately incorporate every little detail given. Other students, however, have to have the technique broken down into small parts or tackled from a different angle. And that’s just the beginning of the differences!

When asked about students with special needs, my mentor-instructor once replied: “We believe that every student needs a special focus; some of those focuses just happen to have a label.” I loved this response.

Take one activity I do as an example: I hold kickpads for students. While this is a simple activity, it offers me practice in considering each student’s abilities. How high does this student kick – is the current height too easy or out of their current range? Does the student need to work on paying attention? If so, I can withhold the kickpad for a moment or two, to teach students not to kick until the target is present. Some students need to be encouraged to go quicker, while others need to slow down. They’re little things, yes, but little details like that are an essential ingredient in customizing instruction to different ability levels. For a student who has Down Syndrome, I learned that moving the kickpad a little off-center helps him understand which leg he should use to kick. Such a small thing, but it makes a big difference for him!

I don’t know how this will play out in the academic classroom, but I have a confidence that I’ll figure it. After all, I had no idea how to do it in the TKD classroom either, at first!

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