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How Shaolin Kung Fu and Martial Arts Can Help Children Classified as ADHD


Article Written By: Phil Charbonneau
STQI Toronto Student

As an adult with ADHD, I know first hand that growing up with ADHD can be incredibly challenging. It can be incredibly difficult to contain the pent up energy that one has within them. Similarly, to be forced to focus on something that is not interesting to an individual with ADHD, especially a child, can be truly torturous at times. For these reasons, school can be an incredibly difficult thing for a child with ADHD. Their energy is not honoured as they are forced to sit quietly in their seats, and their difficulty paying attention is exacerbated by being forced to focus on material that they may not be particularly passionate about or interested in.

This in turn begins a negative cycle: the child cannot conform to the expectations of the classroom due to their need to move around and spend their pent up energy, not to mention needing to be engaged in things that they are passionate about. As a result, the child is often labelled a “trouble student” and treated differently, most often negatively, by teachers and other students. This causes the child to feel as though they are at fault or bad or stupid for the differences that are inherent to their very brain chemistry. This often leads to further acting out in the hopes of getting attention, even if it is negative, in the hopes of at least making some kind of connection with people and feeling empowered when they are the centre of attention. Acting out leads to the deepening of the label of the “trouble child,” which then leads to the child being further ostracized and pushed to the fringes of the classroom or social circle, yelled at, teased by other children, and just generally made a spectacle of. Then the cycle continues spinning as the child feels worse about themselves, seeks more negative attention, and further strengthens the label of the “trouble child.” To make matters worse, it is incredibly common for children with symptoms of ADHD to have issues with negative self-image, anger problems and even suffer from depression as secondary symptoms. Having impaired social skills can make these secondary symptoms even worse.

But if these issues are acknowledged, there is so much hope for the child with ADHD. ADHD can be reframed as a gift instead of a curse. Though the child with ADHD has difficulty paying attention to subject matter that does not interest them, they are capable of great things. For example, children with ADHD are incredibly creative and capable of thinking outside of the norm, two things that become incredibly valuable as one grows up. People with ADHD are also capable of attaining a state of laser-focus when they are engaged by things that do interest them. This is why, for example, so many children with ADHD play video games for countless hours in a day; video games provide the amount of mental stimulation they require, it engages them and empowers them. No doubt they could sit for an entire day entranced by them because they are so incredibly engaged.

But when properly harnessed, this laser-focus can be directed at anything as long as the child is engaged by it and passionate about it. The child simply needs a proper outlet, one that engages them, one that taps into their excess physical energy. Children with ADHD also have an incredible capacity for growth and if properly nurtured can grow up embracing the many gifts that they have instead of being defined by their shortcomings. With enough work, any child with ADHD can grow their ability to focus and control their urges, harnessing them for their own benefit as opposed to allowing them to take control and cause the negative feedback loop.

This is why Shaolin kung fu practice is the perfect practice for a child with ADHD. Kung fu practice addresses every area that an ADHD child is deficient in and offers the ability to improve on their gifts:

  1. Kung fu is a physical outlet for the child with ADHD. They can use their pent up energy instead of allowing it to sit and bubble up within them, which is what causes them to act out. Regular exercise is the single most prescribed natural treatment for children with ADHD. With a proper physical outlet, children with ADHD have less hyperactive symptoms and can channel the anger and other pent up emotions they may suffer from in a positive way.
  2. Kung fu teaches self-awareness and mindfulness, which are incredibly important to a child with ADHD. It allows them to look within themselves to see the true cause of how they feel when they feel frustrated or upset. With enough practice, they may develop the ability to understand that acting out in a negative way is unnecessary and may prevent tantrums, etc. from occurring. This in turn lessens their suffering, both as a result of how others judge them and how they judge themselves.
  3. Kung fu teaches focus through meditation and drills. The mind of a child with ADHD may be erratic, but it is also incredibly plastic. That is to say that it has an incredible capacity for change and growth through repeated practice. The simple act of repeating, for example, a kicking drill over and over creates neural connections within the child’s brain that wires them to be able to focus better on other tasks as well. With repeated focused practice, focus then becomes easier to them in general.
  4. Kung fu offers children a chance to grow in a very encouraging and supportive environment. As children practice, over time they become aware that they are improving: their kicks are faster and cleaner than when they first started, they are able to meditate for longer periods of time without fidgeting, they are able to remember all the movements in a given form and complete it from start to finish. The instructors also support the children with constant encouragement and affirm that they are indeed improving, further deepening the child’s sense that they are strong and valuable. These realizations empower the child to believe in themselves more and more. The negative self image that most children with ADHD suffer from is addressed and dispelled over time. They eventually come to see that they are strong individuals, capable of achieving the goals they set for themselves.
  5. Kung fu is fun and engaging for children with ADHD. Many children with ADHD who enjoy watching action cartoons or playing video games find the idea of doing kung fu very attractive because they’ve witnessed it on TV and it’s exciting to them. This gives them plenty of reason to become engaged by the practice. The truth of kung fu practice, of course, is that there are no tornado kicks, and they can’t shoot energy blasts out of their hands to defeat some galactic evil foe. But tapping into that imaginary aspect of a martial art can be incredibly exciting for a child with ADHD. It gives them a reason to truly focus and dedicate themselves to the practice of kung fu because they’re practising a martial art much like the imaginary heroes that they love and look up to so much. If a child with ADHD is having fun and is engaged, they are able to tap into their laser-focus and grow exponentially.
  6. Having a program where children with ADHD are training and learning alongside each other is also crucial. When at school, these children are labelled as different and strange because they have different needs than most of the other children, which leads to them feeling left out, feeding the negative feedback loop. In an environment where everyone has similar symptoms, however, it becomes clear that children with ADHD might be different, but that to be different is fine and normal and in fact should be celebrated. They begin not to feel alone in their struggles. They realize that there are others like them and they can all support each other, to help each other grow.

As an adult with ADHD, I find that having a practice such as kung fu is indispensable in my daily life. When I was growing up, the needs of a child with ADHD that I have mentioned throughout this article were rarely addressed by the institutions in my life, such as schools and extra curricular activities. As such, growing up has been quite difficult as I have suffered chronically from negative self-image, depression, anger, not to mention the difficulty I have had rising to the expectations of others.

I know very well that it is incredibly difficult being a child with ADHD, surrounded by people who do not share or understand your condition. That is why an environment like STQI has been indispensable to me. The two things that a person who suffers from ADHD require the most when they are in a learning environment are patience and support: the patience to realize that people with ADHD can have a severe learning curve as compared to others, and the support to make one feel that they are doing well, they are improving, and they should believe in themselves. STQI is a wonderful school for this very reason. The instructors are incredibly patient and supportive.

There are also many creative programming methods used to engage the children, such as the Shaolin Way Universe, in which the child gets to fill out a profile and create a character that gains points as they improve. Tapping into the child’s creativity in this way is an incredible tool to motivate their dedication to growth. But most importantly, I have experienced that STQI offers all of the things that a person with ADHD needs: a physical outlet, focused training, methods of mental and physical relaxation, and a completely welcoming and positive environment. My time at STQI has taught me much and I have grown more than words can do justice as a result. It has helped me to learn to believe in myself, it has allowed me to improve my symptoms, and it has offered me something so incredibly crucial to someone who has always had trouble fitting in: a supportive community.

For more information about our ADHD Energetic Children Program and how we can help, please click here