Whilst on my martial arts journey, I’ve crossed paths with Denise Mullin SBN, a 7th Dan Instructor of the USA Moo Duk Kwan on two different occasions. Her positivity, patience, and kindness immediately caught my attention. During our conversations, I learnt that along with general classes, Mullin SBN offered martial arts to students with special needs. Interested to find out more, I asked Mullin SBN if she could spare some time for an interview. I was very honoured that she agreed, and loved the passion for both martial arts and teaching that shone through as we spoke.

Denise Mullin SBN, #30212, 7th Dan, USA Moo Duk Kwan

Could you please share how and when you first discovered Soo Bahk Do?

I discovered Soo Bahk Do in the mid-80s. A friend and I discussed joining martial arts together, but I was still in grad school at that time and decided that I was going to start when I graduated. He joined first and loved it and I ended up joining in July 1987.  

What value has the martial art brought to your life?

I don’t know how I’ve lived without it before.  As far as value, it’s really done so much for my personal growth and life.  It’s made me much more confident, more successful and a better leader. A good example would be my favourite “Article of Faith” – “always finish what you start.”  In the past, I would start a project and just put it off to the side. But now, any project that I commitment myself to, I make sure that I carry through to completion.

At what point did you start your own dojang and why?

I did not start my own dojang, I actually took one over. A student of Kwan Jang Nim (the Grandmaster) had started the studio and ran it for two years.  He was actually laid off from another job but after two years was called back to work. Another student came in to take it over, but he only lasted three months.

Literally, I was in the parking lot at Springfield HQ to train and the instructor of the studio was coming out from seeing the Kwan Jang Nim.  He told me that he was closing the school in two weeks.  I was like ‘what?!’  I went upstairs and said to the Kwan Jang Nim: ‘I’ve worked so hard to keep that school going and have done a lot of classes for the instructor too.  I’m going on a vacation tomorrow but when I come back, I will take over the school.’ 

Ten days later, I went into the school and took it over.  That was in 1991.  I revamped the programs, realigned the expenses and within three months it made money. I’ve been running the studio ever since.  That’s how I got into it and I’ve never stepped away.

So, the topic of this interview is teaching students with special needs.  Could you give some insight into why you started to teach in this area?

My youngest stepson has special needs and I am a certified schoolteacher in physical education and health. So, I decided to give it a try by teaching my stepson. He’s got Down Syndrome, but very manageable. He did a great job learning and I figured if I had success teaching him, I could most likely help others. So, from there I moved on to helping some of my other students that had issues such as ADHD and autism. It was a little bit of experimenting and then a little bit of experience, and then I started to get more into special needs. There is a huge need to help these children.

How would you approach the belt system and the students’ gradings?

Every child is different.  After assessing the child and working with them for a time, you need to have a discussion with the parents.  Depending on the conversation and child’s ability this will determine how to approach the belt system. Not every student will be able to follow the Moo Duk Kwan textbook requirements, so you will need to adapt the best way possible.  From there, you can continue the conversation with the parents regarding the child’s progression.

Could you share in what ways you would adapt the class to make the art more accessible?

I’ll use a class scale:

One-on-one lessons– This class is for someone who can’t handle a multiple child setting and needs individual attention all the time.

Partial Private lessons- This is a one-on-one once a week and the other day had them try and join the class where they have a personal assistant.  Maybe Mr Menendez SBN might stay with them, but they’d be in a class with other students.

Mainstream –  The special student would join in the regular class and we’d let them do the best that they can working with others in class. Most of our ADHD children are in these classes. Most of the other students can’t see they are different.  When you have a small studio, that’s the best you can do if you’re looking to integrate them into class.

What are the main areas that you would advise others to pay attention to when teaching students with special needs?

Be realistic. Do not be too critical. Give positive feedback for every accomplishment. Small goals help them see their progression. A reward for that goal can go a long way with them.  I always try to reward the positive.

As I mentioned before, it’s great to get the parents involved in setting goals and helping the child progress through the steps of promotion. This gets everyone on board to see the levels of accomplishments along the way.

Can you share some of the challenges that instructors may face when delivering a session to students with special needs, along with some suggestions about how to overcome this?

I think sometimes maybe a lack of knowledge on their specific diagnosis can be a challenge. Try to get as much information about the child and his/her condition from the parent. This however isn’t always easy.  In most cases it takes time to build trust and a working relationship with the child.  So, whoever you’re committed to working with, try to educate yourself a little further in that area.  You can learn a lot from the parents, the child’s IEP, other teachers, or even Google.  Check your resources to learn more, and then set your plan, share your plan with the parents, and then go from there. 

Sometimes it takes trial and error, but you can help the child get started in the right direction.  Every child is so different, and the challenge is trying to figure it out.  So, try different things in short bursts.  If they like it, hold onto it.  Introduce something new and return to it. You create and build the plan together dynamically.

So, what would you do if the child was in a general class and started to have some challenges?

If I put a child in a general class and they started to have some challenges, I would approach the parent to suggest that the child get some one-to-one private lessons or maybe offer some partial private time. This might help them to integrate into the regular eventually, but initially if it’s not working in the general class they must be put into a private setting. Most of the time this can be established after working with the child privately at the start.

And for new club owners who might not necessarily have the capacity for separate classes, what could they do?

Sometimes it helps to get a more advanced student, like a Red belt to partner up with that child for the entire class. This can help both the Red belt student who wants to become a teacher in our Art and helps the student with special needs.  Sometimes the child is more receptive to others of a similar age, because they want to be like the rest of the kids in the class. Being a friend and a partner goes a long way.

Have you undertaken any special courses or found valuable any resources that assisted with your learning about special needs that you could recommend to other instructors?

For myself, I am a certified coach in Special Olympics.  These training programs are given for free on various websites. If you research different areas of special needs, you will find that there is plenty of training materials to read about. Research the different organisations.  For example, autism.org have a lot of information to share regarding autism.

Another valuable resource is our own Art.  Many of our studios offer special needs programs. Ask questions or seek help within the Moo Duk Kwan organization. Many have great class ideas and materials.

Finally, could you share what value martial arts brings to students with special needs and to their families?

The biggest value is that they feel included, they have a purpose, and they make new friends, because they have a very limited world.  I try to share with parents the things that I’ve learnt outside of the dojang, such as other activities and events. I try to encourage them to try other sports or try something else because they’re looking for friends and to keep busy.

Thank you for your time.

Through this interview, Denise Mullin SBN offers great insight into how instructors may tailor martial arts to students with special needs. I personally found this very interesting – and it really does put into practice the saying that martial arts is for everyone. You can find out more about Denise Mullin SBN’s dojang here: Hwang Karate Harrison.

Photos: © Denise Mullin, USA Moo Duk Kwan. All Photos used with permission.

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