Students Struggling with Anxiety: Lessons from the Karate Kiddo
His husky frame, wrapped in Under Armor, didn’t scream karate, but he made sure I knew what he loved on the first day of school. “I’m getting my black belt this year and I love Star Wars.” Well, I knew I had at least one connection with this kid. School began. School always begins, despite the mental cries (sometimes audible cries), but his plight was different. In a few weeks, almost all the kids would be school-climated back into the classroom. Not the Karate Kiddo. In his mind, he was walking into a prison.
The facial tics were almost present from day one. They changed almost daily. Then the arm scratching began (I had a tube of moisturizer just for him). The anxiety that filled this kid pushed at the threads that kept him together every single day. Some days they held, others they didn’t. That’s when he felt absolute nothingness. Books closed, computers shutoff, pencils broke…
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I can’t do this,” said the Karate Kiddo.
It wasn’t the schoolwork that he couldn’t do ––it was “school” that he couldn’t do.
And I didn’t really have to ask why. I could almost see the boulder sitting on his shoulders. Those of you with anxiety and depression reading this know what I mean––the feeling of sheer and utter hopelessness. At the first parent-teacher conference, I discovered that the Karate Kiddo’s Pop was ill, and was also living with him. Add that to the anxiety cocktail, and it’s deadly. We brainstormed ways to help the him deal with his anxiety levels–– fidgets, walks, count to ten, etc… We also scheduled a school visit from his karate instructor to build his confidence in school. All of the techniques and strategies helped for a short period of time. The visit from his instructor left a lasting impression on all of us and was the most beneficial, but the Karate Kiddo always tightened back up into a ball of anxiety.
I wanted to give all my attention to him, but I also had twenty-three other students in the classroom that had needs. Some days I had no patience, which were never good days for him. He wanted help and if I couldn’t give him the support he needed, he would act out, talk with other students, and just basically make pretend school wasn’t there. The Karate Kiddo had multiple supports in place, but we needed him to support himself. School happened. Anxiety happened. Then one day, karate happened.
I was at my worktable. Kids were waiting for the bus. He was standing in front of me talking about his Pop, his toys, and his weekend plans, as usual. “Mr. P., I started black belt training,” he said.
“Awesome,” I replied, but my teacher brain wasn’t really there with him. Not yet.
“Mr. P., want to see my kata?”
Without even thinking, I said, “Sure.”
The Karate Kiddo immediately dropped his backpack and hurried to the center of the reading rug. I sensed a change. His anxiety dropped. I stopped working and focused on him. With each punch, kick and scream, I saw the anxiety, the math problems, the blank paper, and the walls of confinement, peel and crack. My jaw dropped. I was in awe of the sheer joy and concentration of the Karate Kiddo. I finally saw “him”. I saw the person who’s been hiding behind a mask of fear. He performed his kata three times. I wanted to see him do it again. The karate was impressive, but I wanted another glimpse of the confident adult this young man would become in the future.
From then on, I allowed him to perform his kata during bus dismissal. I let him kick and punch in the hallways when he felt overwhelmed and filled with anxiety. It didn’t always work, but it made school palatable for the rest of the year.
The Black Belt
The first day of his black belt test, he didn’t show up for school. His mom informed me that he woke up with hives all over his body. The doctor said it was nerves. He still passed. Then he aced the second day. He rushed into the classroom on Monday morning. “Mr. P, are you coming to my black belt extravaganza?” he asked. He loved saying that word –– extravaganza. “It’s a big word for a big accomplishment,” I would tell him. “And yes, I’m coming.”
The extravaganza was extravagant for sure. Music, weapons, high flying kicks –– right out of a movie. Then I saw the Karate Kiddo do his thing. He performed his kata in front of a packed gymnasium. He recited a speech (by the way, he also has a speech issue) without a stutter. He wielded the nunchucks just like that certain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He led adults in group kata. I cried. I cried tears of joy seeing the Karate Kiddo in his own habitat. I cried tears of sadness because of the anxiety he endures each day he sets foot in a school. Heck, I just cried.
It’s amazing that four brick walls can cause so much mental anguish. The Karate Kiddo reminded me to think about the kids who love something so deeply that that one thing, whether it’s art, karate, baseball, skateboarding, or just climbing trees, is the only vehicle that subdues their autism, anxiety, or ADHD. I spent my time in the woods riding bikes, skateboarding, playing with my toys, and jumping on my bed listening to KISS albums. I felt good about myself during those times––stress-free and confident. This was “my time”.
How do you blend “my time” with “school time” to help anxiety?
 A kata is a karate routine where you mimic punches, kicks and karate moves in a certain pattern. It’s sort of like ballet with screams.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.