We hear these concerns from parents on a regular basis. Thus one of the central paradoxes of taekwondo: learning to fight makes the practitioners of martial arts less likely to fight outside the studio. Why is this? It's the skills that they learn when they are not kicking and punching that help them to regulate their emotions and behavior.
For many young children, just standing still or learning to interact respectfully with fellow classmates and instructors is a challenge. As they get older or higher in rank they must learn to not get angry when they get hit sparring or when they receive criticism from the instructors.
This process teaches discipline, respect, self-control, perseverance, and confidence.
Martial arts is a challenging sport--there will always be room for improvement and advancement, and nothing is given that is not earned. There are few other places where students are given such strict structure and expected to behave so well, but it is this structure that helps students to succeed.
For kids who have a difficult time with emotional regulation, they are not used to getting a great deal of positive feedback from adults and often they are not used to excelling in activities as their anger and impulsivity gets in their way. It is perfectly natural for some kids to be more aggressive than others, but like any other skill acquisition, they can learn to control their behavior through taekwondo--a skill that will serve them throughout life.
We get many referrals from therapists and teachers who are dealing with kids who are seemingly unable to control their anger. In taekwondo, we let the kids know exactly what is expected of them. If they choose not to follow the rules, we have consequences. For the little kids, they can get their belts taken away (they must earn them back by demonstrating good behavior) or go into time out. It usually only takes one time for kids to learn that they don't want to act that way. While initially they might be changing their behavior to avoid negative consequences, before long they internalize this, and parents see a change across the board in how their child acts.
With the older kids, disrespectful behavior means push-ups. If they act out in a way that affects the class, they must sit in the office and write a letter of apology to read aloud. Sometimes we have an issue when kids spar and they lose their temper (sparring is a true test of self-control). If they are out of control or hitting kids too hard, they spar with one of the higher rank students or instructors who show them that sparring is about skill not force.
This is a lightbulb moment for many of these kids who are used to being able to push their peers around. It reframes the whole way they view physical aggression. In taekwondo, sparring is done in a very controlled fashion. We wear padding on our heads, hands, feet, and chest and contact is light. Sparring should be used as a tool to help kids learn the practical application of the techniques they have been practicing, not as an opportunity to hit other people. During sparring if someone hits you with a good kick, you need to say "thank you". Recognizing the skill and control of your partner helps to diffuse any feelings that might arise.
You don't need to take my word for it though. There has been extensive research on the topic of martial arts training and aggression. I will mention two of these studies that are good examples from this body of research. A 1991 study by Skelton, Glynn, and Berta looked at "Aggressive Behavior as a Function of Taekwondo Training". A summary of their study is as follows: "This study examined the effect taekwondo training has on the level of aggression of children between the ages of 6 and 11 years. 68 students (boys and girls) were tested using a behavior checklist designed to measure children's aggression. Analysis indicated a significant inverse relationship between the children's taekwondo rank and their aggression." In essence, the higher rank that these children achieved in taekwondo the less aggressive they were. That has certainly been our experience. Our black belts are some of the most respectful, kind individuals you are likely to meet.
In a separate study, researchers in South Africa compared the levels of aggression in children who participated in taekwondo with those who participated in another sport (hockey in this case), and those who did not engage in any sport. They were given behavior analyses before and after and they concluded that "the verbal aggression and hostility scores of the taekwondo participants were significantly lower than the hockey participants and the non-sport group. The personal growth and self-acceptance scores of taekwondo participants were significantly higher than the hockey participants and non-sport group" (Steyn & Roux. African Journal for Physical Health Education, Vol 15. 2011). This speaks to the idea that when kids feel more confident and competent, they are less likely to act out.
Whether the goal is to learn discipline and following instructions, improve confidence, or reduce aggressive tendencies, martial arts has a stellar track record dating back two millennia. The balance of the martial aspect and the art aspect bring about incredible changes not only for children but for practitioners of all ages.
If you have a personal anecdote about how martial arts has changed your behavior and would like to share your story, please do so in the comments section.