Does Taekwondo improve children’s self-regulation?

This study adds support that (certain kinds of) sport can improve self-regulation. The results are in line with previous research into executive functions in which doing sports has a positive effect on self-control, estimating the other, etc.).

There is one important limitation in this study: the researchers studied the primary school children for 11 weeks We know that it has a short-term effect. If you put all the research together, a lasting effect has not yet been proven. A good thing about this study is that the researchers compared doing Taekwondo with other classes of PE. This means that Taekwondo has a better effect than regular PE.

From the press release:

The report, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, details how researchers from the University of Surrey studied 240 primary school students aged 7 – 11 years across a period of 11 weeks.

Self-regulation describes an individuals’ ability to manage and alter their emotions, behaviour and cognition. Good self-regulation is associated with positive mental health benefits and higher academic achievement in children.

The trial studied children across four year groups (school Years 3 to 6), with two classes per year group (eight classes in total). Half of the children within each class were randomly allocated to the Taekwondo experimental trial group and the other half to the control group. The experimental group received two 45-minute Taekwondo classes per week, and the control group received two 45-minute PE classes per week during the same trial period.

Baseline data was collected from children the week before the classes started and after they finished, 11 weeks after initial data collection. Data included questionnaires to assess what children thought about the lessons and how much importance they placed on behaviours related to good self-control; questionnaires completed by teachers assessing children’s self-regulation at school; and, computer tasks assessing a range of mental processes called executive functions that enable self-regulation.

After the classes had ended, children in the Taekwondo experimental group were rated by teachers as having better attentional capacity than those who had regular PE classes as well as having better executive attention assessed by a Flanker Task, where the participant has to correctly identify the direction of an on-screen stimuli while ignoring competing stimuli surrounding it.

The results indicate that short standard Taekwondo courses were well-received by pupils and led to higher levels of value placed on self-control. The study also found that the classes improved the children’s self-regulation and reduced symptoms of conduct disorders.

Dr Terry Ng-Knight, Lecturer in Psychology at University of Surrey’s School of Psychology, said:

“A large body of research suggests that there are substantial personal and public benefits to improving children’s self-control, however, research is less clear on how to achieve this in practical terms. Our findings suggest that including traditional martial arts in schools could both teach children the value of self-control and increase their use of self-regulation. Traditional martial arts are popular extra-curricular activities for many children, however their use in schools appears to be quite limited at present.”

Abstract of the study:

Emerging evidence suggests interventions can improve childhood self-regulation. One intervention approach that has shown promise is Taekwondo martial arts instruction, though little is known about its acceptability among stakeholders or its mechanisms of effect. We extend evidence on Taekwondo interventions in three ways: (a) testing the efficacy of a standard introductory course of Taekwondo, (b) assessing the acceptability of Taekwondo instruction among school children, and (c) investigating two self-regulatory mechanisms by which Taekwondo may operate (executive functions and motivation). This article reports findings from a randomized control trial implementing a standard 11-week beginners’ course of Taekwondo. Participants were from a mixed-sex, nonselective U.K. primary school (N = 240, age range 7 to 11 years). Measures of self-regulation included teacher-rated effortful control, impulsivity, prosocial behavior, and conduct problems; computer-based assessments of executive functions; and child self-reported expectancies and values to use self-regulation. Postintervention, children in the Taekwondo condition were rated by teachers as having fewer symptoms of conduct problems and better effortful control (specifically attentional control), and they also had better executive attention assessed by a flanker task. Effects were not found for teacher-rated inhibitory control, activation control, impulsivity, and prosocial behavior or for assessments of response inhibition, verbal working memory, and switching. Taekwondo was rated very positively by children. Finally, there was evidence that children who completed Taekwondo classes reported higher expectancies and values to use self-regulation and that expectancies and values mediated intervention effects on self-regulation. We conclude that short standard Taekwondo courses are well received by pupils, improve attentional self-regulation, and reduce symptoms of conduct problems.

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