How about martial arts therapy?

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Some of the children practising taekwondo under the watchful eye of instructor Mohd Khaldun Redza.

WHEN you think of therapy for special needs children, music and hydrotherapy often come to mind. Not many would associate martial arts with therapy.

That’s exactly what former national exponent Mohd Khaldun Redza, a 7th degree black belt and taekwondo chief instructor, and Eric Khoo, a 5th degree black belt and principal instructor, offer at SEN Master (Special Educational Needs Martial Arts Therapy) Academy.

SEN Master teaches special needs children the tenets of martial arts, such as discipline, control, balance, courtesy, and integrity, as well as the taekwondo kicks, blocks and stances.

Good development

SEN Master now has more than 20 students with various conditions – microcephaly, Down Syndrome, autism, Global Developmental Delay, and hyperactive disorders. The youngest is a girl aged seven who has Global Developmental Delay, and the oldest is a young man, aged 25, who is on the autism spectrum.

“Even though it’s just been a few months since we started, the parents have noticed that their children have developed better balance, better co-ordination and focus, more confidence, self-esteem and stamina, they are healthier …. So, the parents are really happy with their progress. One child has even lost weight! Obesity is a problem with special needs children because they don’t get to move and exercise,” says Khaldun.

He and Khoo did not want to strictly teach martial arts to special needs children. Based on feedback from special needs teachers, he knows that it is more important to impart the principles of martial arts to the children rather than teach them to fight.

“A few special needs teachers have told me that they do not support martial arts therapy because some of their children have attended martial arts classes and became very aggressive. To me, perhaps, those instructors are approaching it differently.

Mohd Khaldun Redza: 'Our focus is more on conditioning, exercise and fitness, in a purposeful and fun way.'
Mohd Khaldun Redza: ‘Our focus is more on conditioning, exercise and fitness, in a purposeful and fun way.’

“Here, we don’t focus so much on the martial arts aspect, although we use martial arts exercises and principles to train them. Our focus is more on conditioning, exercise and fitness, in a purposeful and fun way, so that they get to move and work out and interact with other children, and gain confidence,” he adds.

SEN Master is registered with the Malaysian International Taekwondo Federation (MITF), which is under the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Although the instructors use the national syllabus, the training and lessons are adapted to suit each child and his or her needs.

The beginning

Khaldun and Khoo have been teaching taekwondo to children and women at their Classic Taekwon-Do Academy since 2008.

In 2010, they accepted their first special needs child. It was a boy, aged eight, who had Asperger Syndrome. He was in his own world and lacked confidence and social contact.

“We were concerned as to whether we could handle such a child. His parents said that he had been advised to take up some movement therapy and with his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) as well, they thought martial arts might be good for him. Slowly we guided him, and now he’s just turned 17, and holds a first degree black belt. Over the years, we saw that there was progress with him, and we started accepting other special needs children,” says Khaldun.

One of whom is a girl, now aged 18, with dyslexia and mild cerebral palsy. Her parents also reported good progress, says Khaldun. “They grow up being very confident, more focused, more balanced, more co-ordinated and more able to perform daily tasks. It has enriched their lives in that sense,” he explains.

Reaching out

Khaldun knows all about the frustration that parents of special needs children face as he too has been in that position. His son has autism and ADHD. Khaldun and his wife spent a sum of money on a number of schools and therapies.

Since accepting special needs children, Khaldun and Khoo have seen good progress in them and it has motivated them to do more.

“We were doing a good job with these children, whether typical or non-typical. I told Eric that I would like to spend my life now doing something for these special needs children. That’s when I embarked on a course of study in special needs. I did my diploma in Learning Disorders Management and Child Psychology. I also took a diploma in Education and Psychology and Counselling. It took me one year to complete. It was really tough, because we are not full-time teachers. We have full-time jobs as well,” explains Khaldun.

Khoo runs his own software development company and up till recently Khaldun was in client servicing for an agency. The duo taught taekwondo on the weekend, just as a way of giving back to society.

“As we approach our ‘old age’, we feel that we want to give back to the community. We want to leave a legacy, and I feel this is going to be our mark because we can do something good for the special needs community. The returns are not much but there is the gratification of knowing that these kids can do something for themselves or are able to feel a sense of achievement, and it is something we wanted to do,” says Khaldun.

The plan to do more for the special needs children finally came to fruition this year when a shoplot was found in Bandar Sri Damansara, Selangor, and SEN Master was founded.

Assessment

When parents bring their child in SEN Master, Khaldun and Khoo will assess the child and talk to the parents to see if they can help the child.

The only children they turn away are those whom they are not equipped to help. This includes those with medical conditions and who are advised against such therapy.

They also turn away children whose parents have unrealistic expectations as it puts undue pressure on the child.

If a child is found to be low-functioning, then the instructors would suggest a one-on-one class, or rather two instructors to one child.

If the child can communicate and is able to follow instructions (words like left, right, front, back, up and down), then they will accept the child into a group class. There is a maximum of five students in the group class, led by three instructors.

While being in a group class seems more beneficial to the children, as they learn to interact and socialise, it may not always be in the best interest of the child. If a child cannot keep up with the rest of the children in the group, it can be frustrating and end up being bad for their self-esteem.

There’s also an inclusive class where the special needs children join typically-developing children from the Academy; both the typically-functioning and special needs children are prepared before going for this class.

Although there are three options for class type, which class a child joins is not up to the parents. The instructors need to see if the special needs child is ready for a group class, and later if they can join the inclusive class.

What happens in the class

According to Khaldun, it might take weeks or months to establish communication when children initially join SEN Master. This is when the instructors try to understand how they speak and what words they understand as well as how they understand instructions.

“After we connect with them, then they need to be taught basic compliance, to sit and listen to instructions. We teach them social cues like bowing and respect.

“In the beginning it is quite challenging because this is something new to them. They have to learn new concepts, really abstract concepts like power, breathing, and body awareness. This gets them to think, to exercise their left and right brain, and so it takes time.

“Once they get the hang of it, you will see the confidence creeping in. They will then be a bit more sure of themselves and they start becoming calmer and are able to do the exercises,” he says.

Eric Khoo helping a child practise with his kicks.
Eric Khoo helping a child practise with his kicks.

Only after that will the instructors start teaching them the martial arts aspect. It might be two or three months after they join SEN Master. According to Khaldun, how long it takes depends on the child and the parents as there may be some exercises that the children need to practise at home.

“During our martial therapy treatment, we use certain equipment to help them with their warm up exercises, such as the balance balls and exercise balls. It’s fun for them. When they are able to co-ordinate, then we teach them some martial arts techniques like punching and kicking. If they are able to do that, then we put them through grading. If they succeed, then they will get their first belt – a yellow belt. And, they will get a certificate which is recognised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“Usually, when they get their certificate and belt they are very happy and proud to show it to their parents.

“They don’t participate in sparring, except for one boy who has a black belt. He goes for competitions because he wants to, but even then we monitor it very closely. The minute anything happens, I will pull him out. The others don’t need to go for competitions as they are only here for exercise. But we pair them up and they do controlled kicks with no contact,” explains Khaldun.

He is in the midst of talking to MITF about including a category for special needs children in its tournaments.

Conclusion

In addition to the classes at SEN Academy, Khaldun and Khoo also conduct classes for special needs children in some schools. It’s done free of charge because the purpose is to make it affordable, accessible and available to more people.

It’s not surprising to find out that these two instructors don’t even pay themselves for the work they do at SEN Master. They see their work there as a calling.

Unfortunately, there are still overheads such as rental to take care of. As such, SEN Master is currently looking for corporate sponsors to help them reach out to more children, who may not be able to afford to pay for the classes.

According to Khaldun, taekwondo is just a tool; when it comes to therapy, it could very well be wushu or any other martial art.

“Martial arts principles are common, they are universal. The principles of respect, the value of integrity, self-control, indomitable spirit, perseverance – those are common values in all martial arts. It’s just that the technique, execution and movements are different. Whether it’s taekwondo, wushu or karate doesn’t matter, as long as they come and do it. These are values that music therapy, dance and swimming don’t teach them. Those therapies teach other values,” he says.

Children doing some warm-up exercises.
Children doing some warm-up exercises.