Helping Parents Make Better Decisions

A New Kind of Karate Hero

“Whack!”“Bam!” These are the sounds of Bruce Lee wielding swift karate chops and quick roundhouse kicks, overwhelming his evil opponents in the karate hero’s classic film, Enter the Dragon. Now enter the dojo of Dr. Jonathan Slater, child psychiatrist, author, karate Black Belt, and founder of Once Upon A River, a martial arts program developed for children with special needs, and you will hear something very different: the sounds of determined children defeating their own personal obstacles. And yes, these kids will be karate-chopping and roundhouse kicking, too. Dr. Slater opens his studio this month bringing the philosophy and physical training of a martial arts curriculum to meet the needs of physically and emotionally challenged children ages 6-13. Located in Irvington, Once Upon A River offers small class sizes and specialized lessons for these children, who suffer from difficulties ranging from autism to asthma. Dr. Slater explains, “The emphasis is on the philosophy found in the dojo. We will integrate principles of martial arts as well as yoga — self-control, balance, motor skills, coordination, anger management, and controlling emotions.” While the program concentrates on the martial arts, its emphasis is not on fighting. Instead, Dr. Slater uses karate as “a vehicle to work on issues,” combined with “a lot of talking,” he explains. In a method he refers to as “generalizing”, the martial arts drills “extrapolate life lessons in classes. The instructors apply what they are doing in class to outside living.” For example, as children position themselves in a karate stance, the instructor has an opportunity to discuss balance and building a foundation in life. Once Upon A River offers its young students an individually-oriented, interdisciplinary program with a team of specialists. “Through the combined efforts of a specialized staff, specialized curriculum, and specialized goals,” says Dr. Slater, “we provide the framework for these kids to feel good about themselves.” And feeling good is the objective. Dr. Slater points out that, frequently, special needs kids are compared to mainstream kids, an inappropriate comparison that often leaves them feeling inadequate. He explains that through the martial arts curriculum, the staff can “teach them to be successful, and teach them that they don’t have to be like other people. They can be themselves.” According to a 1998 study on young children with disabilities, conducted by Mark Wolery, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina, special education teachers often report needing more information about their students. Addressing this concern, Dr. Slater has developed a coordinated program that emphasizes communication among staff members so that child participants receive the specific attention and tools they need. Dr. Slater heads up the team at Once Upon A River. And when he is not working out in a karate dojo, he is at Children’s Hospital of New York, part of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where he is chief of pediatric psychiatry consultation-liaison and the attending psychiatrist for the pediatric cardiac transplant team. He is also associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, College of Physicians & Surgeons. In addition, Dr. Slater has a private practice in Westchester and is the author of Tell Me Where It Hurts, a guide for parents for determining the physical manifestations of emotional issues. Dr. Slater’s team includes Shihan Jim Chillemi, a sixth-degree Black Belt in the American Goju System and founder and chief instructor at the New York Goju Karate Association in Hastings-on-Hudson, who will run the martial arts program. A certified clinical nutritionist who is also a certified chiropractor will also be on board. While there are no studies on this new approach, Dr. Slater has collected data through questionnaires based on his own work. Prior to opening Once Upon A River, Dr. Slater was applying karate principles in a weekly program for special needs children. His data reflect an overwhelmingly positive response, and coincide with findings from a 2001 study on creating positive environments for preventing behavior problems, conducted by Stephen W. Smith, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, which claims that behavioral problems in a group setting are best dealt with in “a positive culture that reinforces certain values, such as respect and fairness, and makes students feel welcome and successful.” Other experts concur: Suzie Vandernoot, a therapist in Boston, agrees with Dr. Slater’s approach, claiming that often children cannot find the words to describe what is going on with them. Vandernoot explains: “Physical activities help expression. Kids don’t always have the cognitive abilities to express themselves, and sometimes because of the ways they are raised, they lack the abilities for expression.” The Once Upon A River program is not a substitute for medical treatment; however, Dr. Slater would like to see his students improve enough so that they may one day be taken off medication. With the help of motivated parents, Dr. Slater believes the chances for significant improvement in these special needs kids are high. For more information on Once Upon A River, visit Dr. Slater’s websites: and