Sensei Rachael Heffernan is a lifelong martial artist diagnosed with ADHD and various sensory sensitivities. She remains unmedicated, and has experienced firsthand the therapeutic effects of the martial arts. She has taught both neurotypical and special needs children and adults. In doing so she has realized both her own particular approach to learning, and the different ways different people are best instructed. She is the daughter of Renshi Janet Heffernan of Stronger You Martial Arts & Fitness in Barrhaven (Ottawa), Ontario. Sensei Rachael is currently pursuing a Master’s in Religious studies at the University of Alberta. She occasionally blogs. Here, she relates her martial arts experiences.
Learning disabilities span such a wide range that it’s hard to give hard and fast strategies that will work for everyone. So here are some hard and fast strategies that I hope will work for everyone.
(1) Do the movements along with your instructor.
You may feel silly, but this one little practice has helped me out a ton over the years. I face the same way that my instructor is facing, and I move through the drill as they are demonstrating it. This ensures that I’m not in la-la-land, that I have a little bit of extra practice when it comes time to try, and that I’m not confusing my lefts and rights (as much!).
(2) Discourage instructional feedback.
If we’re being real here, instructional feedback (meaning partners teaching partners) shouldn’t be happening anyway. If you or your partner is having trouble, the first step is to put your hand up and grab the instructor, no matter what the situation. This is especially important if you have trouble with your lefts and rights like I do, or if you have an (extremely) low tolerance for frustration. When my partner tries to show me how to do something, I get all confused with which hand I should be using. By the time the instructor arrives I’m ready to blow my gasket. Make everything more pleasant for everybody and grab your instructor, who can show you the technique while facing the same direction and explain things quickly and easily.
(3) Know when to take a break.
If you’re like me, you want to get everything perfect the first time. We all know this is impossible, but when I get tired, or hungry, or frustrated, or hot, or cold, or itchy, or dehydrated, I end up getting very angry with myself very quickly. There are times when you’re not going to get it, and times when you’ve reached your learning-limit for the day. Recognize this (preferably before you erupt into a homicidal volcano), take a deep breath, and give yourself a break from needing to be perfect. It may feel like giving up, or being defeated, but rest assured, this break is an essential part to you figuring out whatever it is you’re stuck on.
(4) Recognize the strengths your learning “disability” gives you.
I have hyperactivity which means I have a freakish amount of energy. That is awesome. I have a short attention span – this is great for teaching (children especially) and it means that I get bored working on the same old skill day after day. So I find ways to switch it up. This means that I’m never getting stuck in a routine, and I’m always finding new things to improve or work on. Discovering little things about yourself that contribute to your success is hugely important, because then you can play to your strengths.
(5) Communicate with your partners and instructors.
This one is extremely important, so I want to be perfectly clear: I DO NOT mean use your learning disability as an excuse. No matter what you have going on under the hood, you still have to work hard, be respectful, and figure stuff out. What I mean is let your instructors/partners know that you have a learning disability and the ways that they can best help you out. That might mean saying things like “Please face the same direction as me when you instruct me,” or “I have a hard time learning when the stereo is on,” or “I really liked how much you used the mirrors to teach today.” These little tidbits of information are invaluably helpful to partners and instructors. But remember that you’re not the only one in the class, and you’re also probably not the only one with a learning disability. Instructors and classmates have to juggle a bunch of different needs and desires, often at the same time. So while I strongly encourage you to speak up about what you find helpful, remember that there will be times when you won’t have a perfect class, and that that happens to everyone, regardless of ability.
I hope the above information was helpful whether you have a learning disability, need to teach people with learning disabilities, or are neurotypical but still find your attention wandering from time to time.