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The Fine Art of Teaching Students With Down Syndrome

motivation Sep 29, 2018

Dwight Trower has dedicated his time and skill to teaching kids and adults with Down Syndrome at his Family Martial Art Academy in St. Louis, MO. These special-needs martial artists never pay for a lesson. It's a labor of love for Trower that comes back tenfold with every kick and punch thrown by his students in this unique class.

By: Terry Wilson


Dwight Trower was in a trade school learning how to be an auto mechanic and, at the time, saw it as his clear-cut future. That is, until he took his first karate class. From that moment forward, he was propelled on a path that would eventually forever change his life and the lives of untold numbers of special-needs students.

“Even as a blue belt, I was an assistant teacher,” Trower says today. “My instructor told me that I had a gift for teaching, especially working with kids.

“With a class full of students, there were usually one or two of them that were on the autism spectrum or had Down syndrome. So, we’ve always had special-needs students, and the desire to help them grow has been a natural passion of mine.

”Down syndrome (DS) is a congenital disorder occurring at birth that arises from a chromosome defect. It causes intellectual impairment and physical abnormalities, including short stature and a broad facial profile.

Kids with DS tend to share certain physical features such as a flat facial profile, an upward slant to the eyes, small ears and a protruding tongue. Low muscle tone (called hypotonia) is also characteristic of children with DS.

Down syndrome affects kids’ ability to learn in different ways, but most have mild to moderate intellectual impairment. Kids with DS can and do learn, and are capable of developing skills throughout their lives. They simply reach goals at a different pace, which is why it’s important not to compare a child with DS against typically developing siblings or even other children with the condition.

There is no current cure for this disorder and life expectancy is usually between 50 to 60 years with proper healthcare.

“I’ve been in the martial arts for 36 years and have owned and operated my own school since 1991,” Trower says. He owns and operates Family Martial Art Academy in St. Louis, MO. “Like most martial arts schools across the country, I’ve had students over the years with Down syndrome or other disabilities,” he adds.

Trower’s passion for working with DS students caught the attention of Dee Dee Pujols of the Pujols Family Foundation. Baseball fans around the world know that famous last name. First baseman for the Anaheim Angels, Albert Pujols is rapidly setting new batting records every time he steps up to the plate.

Pujols’ daughter was born with Down syndrome. This motivated the iconic baseball star to use his fame to bring awareness to the challenges and needs of a child with Down syndrome. The philanthropic Pujols family provides hope and tangible needs for families who live with DS.

“Albert’s daughter was attending a self-defense class I was teaching in January of 2010,” explains Trower. “That’s how I got to know the Pujols family. The girl’s mother, Dee Dee, asked me if I’d like to teach a summer self-defense class for teenagers and adults with Down syndrome.”

Trower was openly excited about the idea. He and Todd Perry, the director and CEO of the Pujols Family Foundation, put their heads together and came up with a winning program.

“Todd came up with the name, ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.’ I set about developing a curriculum for the program: a six-week, fun, self-defense class,” Trower explains.

“My three primary goals were for the [DS] class to be safe, fun and educational. I think we had 15 students in that first class. It was only a six-week course that met once a week for 45 minutes.

“The students learned how to do a front stance, downward block, lunge punch, rising block and front kick, along with simple self-defense techniques. Those drills included basics like escaping from wrist grabs and using verbal skills. We did a weekly fun drill at the end of each class, where each student was awarded a medal at the end of the program. We had a blast,” Trower says.

Understanding the unique needs of individuals with Down syndrome was something that Trower had experience with in his own family.

“My then-17-year-old niece, Katie, has Down syndrome; she has been taking classes with me since she was six,” he says. “Katie was also going to be in the Down syndrome self-defense class. I knew she would set a great example for the other students to follow. Katie is now 24 and actively involved in our school.

”Taking those early lessons learned by working with his niece as a starting point, Trower thoroughly researched the disorder until he created the perfect format for this one-of-a-kind class.

Trower’s original summer self-defense program was an unheralded success. Driven to do even more, the 7th-degree black belt went back to the drawing board. His goal was to create a long-term program that involved a partnership with the Pujols Family Foundation.

“By the end of that first summer, I was already planning a yearround
curriculum that would expand what we were doing in the
summer,” says Trower.

In his mind’s eye, Trower could see the new program being a
success. However, the schedule and commitment level needed by his
special-needs students was of concern to the foundation’s program
manager, Jen Cooper.

“We've been working with Dwight for quite a while and having
great success with his classes,” says Cooper. “Subsequently, we
decided to put a new program together for our Down syndrome
family that was on a bigger scale than the self-defense class. His
plan was to meet once a week in a yearlong program. That way, the
students could build up their skills and possibly earn a black belt.

“Dwight said that it might take a student three or four years to
accomplish that goal,” Cooper explains. “And I admit, I was a bit
skeptical because that was a pretty hefty time commitment.

“To begin with, the class started at 7:45 every Thursday and meets
in a part of town that’s a bit far west for some of the students to
travel. But we decided to give it a try, and I was completely blown
away by the program’s success. Everyone at the foundation couldn’t
have been more pleased with the results,” she admits.

“The program has been in effect for six years now, and I cannot
begin to tell you what a positive affect it has had on our Down
syndrome family. For them to show that kind of commitment for
years on end is unbelievable.”

Trower’s class was initiated free of charge in March of 2012 with
the mantra, “I can and I will because I believe.”

In 2017, five years after the launch of his DS pilot program, Trower
promoted 19 of his original 40 students to the rank of black belt. The
fortitude and will to succeed shown by his DS students set a glowing
example for others to follow.

“While I was aware of the challenges and limitations of
students with Down syndrome, what I wasn’t aware of was how
much they were capable of,” says Trower. “Every time we have
revised and adapted the program, the students have c ontinued
to raise the bar.”

“I’m a big believer in age-appropriate instruction,” says Doug
Trower. “We have a young children’s class, then we have the
older children followed by teenagers and then adult classes.

“The first thing before teaching someone with Down
syndrome is to find out what their mental level is, then treat
them with respect to their age.

“Our teenage and adult classes know they have Down
syndrome, and they know they are adults. We treat them with
the same respect we would with any other teenager and adult.
We don’t treat them like children or talk down to them. They
are adults and we interact with them accordingly.”

Those individuals who are fortunate enough to live a disorderfree
life often harbor an array of misconceptions about what DS
is, and how it affects those with the syndrome.

“Individuals with Down syndrome are capable of doing much
more than they’re given credit for,” says Trower. “This is true of
their physical ability and their ability to learn and comprehend
things that we’re doing in our regular classes.

“That’s one of the most impactful things I saw once we
started doing the class,” he says. “The response from the parents
and the siblings of the Down syndrome students was amazing.
They were seeing their child or brother or sister doing things for
the very first time that they’d never had the opportunity to do
before. In addition, the student was doing these things at a level
that most people didn’t think that they could.”

All of Trower’s students earn their black belts one stripe at a time, and his Down syndrome class is no exception.

“In my regular classes, we still do traditional testing. But with our Down syndrome class, their ranking system was based strictly on attendance,” points out Trower.

“Every time a student comes to class, that person will get a black stripe on their belt. After a student gets seven black stripes, we replace them with red stripes. Then, after 24 classes they will have three red stripes and will have their new belts awarded to them in class.

“To earn a black belt in my school can take five or six years. That same amount of time holds true in our Down syndrome class as well. However, in that class students don’t have to learn any required material. We have them repeat what they’ve already learned at their particular level of training.

“For the special needs students testing for black belts, we do a formal exam with our board of black belts,” Trower explains. “Those testing will perform all of their basic blocks, kicks and punches. The only jump kick I have them do is a jumping front kick. I don’t do a lot of those because maintaining balance is difficult for a Down syndrome student. We don’t want anyone to take a fall and possibly get injured.

”The black belt candidates also need to demonstrate their patterns (forms/kata) as part of the test. Trower and his staff of instructors walk the prospective recipients through each pattern before they perform it on their own.

“Next, they do a series of self-defense techniques that we have worked on with them over the years,” Trower says. “I’ll pick three or four techniques, and just like the patterns, we practice the self-defense drills with the students before they do them with our black belts for the test.

” When it comes to putting their lessons into action, these unique Spartans love to spar. Of course, it’s all done under the very watchful eye of Trower and his assistant instructors.

“Our students do some light sparring with our black belts and assistant instructors, which they seem to really enjoy,” says Trower. “Then, just for fun, we’ll do a two-on-one round where they fight multiple opponents. We teach them how to circle and move around a little bit and that’s usually the end of the exam.

”While their black belt test is based on a unique criterion that’s different from his regular class, the commitment and dedication level is the same.

“You must physically put in the effort and make physical gains to get a new belt,” Trower says. “And that’s the key to the program.

“Individuals with Down syndrome are capable of doing much more than they’re given credit for,” he adds. “This is especially true when it relates to their physical ability and their ability to learn. Down syndrome students are capable of comprehending the same lessons we teach in our regular class.

”Trower and the staff at the Pujols Family Foundation were in awe at the positive impact the class had on each student and their entire family.

“They were seeing their child or brother or sister doing things for the very first time that they’d never had the opportunity to do before,” Trower points out with pride. “Not only were they doing the techniques well, they were doing them at a level most people didn’t think was possible.

”Want more proof? Check this out.

“We started a second class the first of March,” Trower says. “And we’re using those that have gotten their black belts in the program to be my assistant instructors.”

I was accustomed to adapting our typical karate program to meet the special needs of my Down syndrome students,” explains Trower. “I was made aware of the challenges facing Down syndrome students while training my niece, Katie.

“I’ve also had a number of students with autism through the years, in addition to one with Fragile X syndrome. Since they didn’t fit into our regular program, I began giving them private lessons.

Autism impacts the nervous system. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors.

Early recognition, as well as behavioral, educational, and family therapies may reduce symptoms and support development and learning.

Nevertheless, teaching martial arts to a person with autism presents its own set of unique challenges.

“I took what I had done with two of those students with autism and combined it with my own experiences with my [DS] sister, Katie. Plus, I did lots of research on the subject, in addition to getting input from speaking with special-education teachers and physical therapists. By combining that information, I began designing a more traditional, year-round, weekly autistic martial arts class.

”Trower broke the class down into two areas. Number one: Focusing on building students up physically. Number two: attention on their mental training. Motor skill development, balance and coordination were key elements for his new program.

“For the mental side of the program, we focused on a good positive-discipline structure,” says Trower. “I believe that with physical confidence comes mental confidence. We help students build confidence in themselves. And that’s where a student with autism is no different than any other student in our typical karate program.

“It’s that never-ending achievement cycle that benefits all of us that train in some form of marital art. To succeed, you must put in the physical effort. That’s true of our regular classes and our special-needs classes.”

“Our basic class structure starts out with calisthenics warm-ups,” Trower explains. “And of course, there are some exercises a teenager or adult with Down syndrome can’t do, because there is the potential for a serious neck injury.

“So, we don’t do anything where the head or neck will impact anything. We are very aware of those kinds of things. Balance is a key issue. So, we’ll do lots of standing-on-one-leg drills to help improve balance.”

Not everyone with DS can jump very well, so Trower doesn’t have them do a full jumping jack. They do half-jacks, where the arms go halfway up.

“Also, we have lots and lots of footwork drills, like hopping on one foot, step-and-slide movements and skipping. Those are done in line drills and we have a lot of fun with them.

“Those footwork drills are very similar to what we’d do as boxing-footwork drills in a regular boxing class. We do a lot of mirror-image footwork drills too, where a student will face someone and they’ll follow you working their feet in the same direction. We incorporate that into sparring as well.”

Following the calisthenics, the DS students perform the very same blocks and punches and kicks and stances that everybody does in a conventional class.

“We do pattern development, also,” he says. “We take four of our traditional taekwondo forms and modify half of them. So, they do half of a pattern that has been modified to fit the individual needs of the class or the student.”

Trower always concludes class on an upbeat note with some fun drills, by turning the class loose on Century’s Obstacle Course Kits.

“We do lots of feet-in-and-out of the rings, jumping over low hurdles, zigzagging in and out of cones. It’s all motor-skills-driven training.

“I also use lateral-movement drills, which is basically dodge ball,” says Trower. “I throw focus pads at them and they have to get out of the way. For the students, it’s a game and it’s fun. But in reality, they’re learning to move and respond to something.”

Because taekwondo is known for its amazing airborne and
spinning high kicks, it’s reasonable that one may question if this
style of martial art is a good match for a student with DS. However,
according to Trower, that’s one of many misconceptions people have
about DS. In fact, he says his students have surprising flexibility.

“While it’s true that some individuals have low muscle tone to
a certain degree, it’s also true that teenagers and adults are much
stronger than you might think,” Trower points out.

“Because of the low muscle tone, they are an amazingly flexible
group. They can throw their leg very high. But we try to avoid high
kicks for safety reasons, because of the problems they have with
maintaining their balance. So, we teach them to kick lower, which
allows them better control and better form.”

From day one, Trower knew his formula would morph into a
successful program for students with DS and their parents and
siblings. But even he was surprised at just how much his class would
improve the quality of life for everyone involved.

“Even I was amazed at the overall effect the class had on
everyone,” says Trower. “Everything worked; they [students with DS]
were more physically fit for sure. Some of the teens and adults were
physically challenged their entire life. To watch them get stronger as
time went on was very gratifying.

“The teenage girls in the group became very conscious of that. A
whole bunch of them started to work very hard and lost a lot of
weight in the process. Now, that wasn’t something we were aiming
for since they only came in once a week.

“The weight loss was a result of them adopting a healthier and
more active lifestyle in addition to taking our class. This was a very
big step for them and it had a positive effect on everyone they came
into contact with.”

“Our Down syndrome program is a vital part of the community
and of our school and me, personally, as well,” Trower admits.

“Teaching these students has been very impactful on my life.

“What’s interesting is that you offer up a part of yourself for a
very worthy cause, because you think you have something to offer.
You feel like you can make a difference in someone else’s life. And in
the end, it’s your life that’s impacted the most.

“You’re touched more than the people whose lives you are trying
to touch. As a human being, not just as a martial artist, I’m in awe
of these students and their families. They inspire me to be better
and to do more.

“We are such a competitive culture that we don’t realize that
everybody needs to be supported and encouraged in life. Our
program does just that. Everyone has a talent and his or her own
unique gift. But maybe they just don’t know it.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that the Down syndrome
community as a whole is a strong, supportive group,” says Trower.
“The parents and the family support and encourage everybody just
like they do for their own kids. You watch that kind of love and
support and you ask yourself, ‘Why isn’t all of society like that?’

“I believe that people can accomplish great things,” Trower
concludes. “Not because they believe in themselves, but because
somebody else believes in them first. And that is part of the culture
of who we are as a school.”

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