The truth is, most kids today aren’t confronting the biggest baddies or villains in the known universe. They’re too busy trying to make friends, navigate always-connected social hierarchies, live through great societal upheaval and political polarization, and still get their homework done on time.
And yet that’s still not everything children face.
“One of our younger students who was in kindergarten was getting bullied, and as a Taekwon Do instructor, it bothered me,” says Steve Holly, instructor and owner of the Family Kicks Taekwon Do school.
Holly moved to North Carolina about three years ago and opened up his Family Kicks school. Living up to the mantra of his school’s banner — “The Family that Kicks Together, Sticks Together!” — Holly now operates the gym with his wife and two children. He says that many gyms are geared toward competitions. But Holly, a trained black belt, wanted to create something different: a gym dedicated solely to self-defense. Family Kicks now offers a variety of self-defense classes for women, little kids, and more.
The “Bully Response Training” program is wholly unique, however, because it was actually developed alongside the young kindergartener who inspired it. Holly says they cultivated her input on what was actually happening in the schools, and adapted his own unique Taekwon Do vision to directly solve those issues.
But he didn’t stop there.
Because Holly comes from a family of educators (his mom and brother-in-law have both been teachers) he used that knowledge-base as inspiration for his work. His sister, a school guidance counselor, actually helped review the Family Kicks curriculum to make sure it was in-line with what she was dealing with in her students.
Part of Holly’s passion for anti-bullying diversion also comes from his background in New Hampshire law enforcement, and previous work as a DARE instructor.
“As a cop, I was always the biggest guy in the room, the one that everyone would go after,” he says.
It especially hit home when Holly had a kid he coached in youth baseball back in New Hampshire commit suicide from being bullied so bad.
“This obviously isn’t isolated,” Holly says. “Most people at one point in their lives have dealt with some kind of bullying situation. So what can we do to help kids?”
Unfortunately, Holly is right. According to a recent government study, 20 percent of students aged 12 to 18 have experienced bullying. And 70 percent of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
For its part, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has been working on sweeping the legs from underneath this exact problem. They’ve created district-wide and school-based student empowerment events and activities, offered bullying prevention education, tied in social and emotional learning competencies, and even started a ‘Bully Patrol’ and tip line to let students quickly and easily report bullying behaviors they witness or experience.
And they say it’s working. The district reports have seen some improvement in the data from students, parents, and staff related to school safety and school climate. While there may be an increase in reporting of bullying incidents after one of their programs, they suggest it’s because students and families feel more comfortable speaking out. The schools want kids and parents to feel empowered to speak up and know their voices will be heard.
But while Holly’s approach to anti-bullying builds on this idea of empowerment and ownership, it veers more toward the physical … just not quite like you’d think.
“Most of the people who are victimized are easy targets, so we teach people not to be an easy target. We ask them, ‘How do you carry yourself? Show me how you walk.’ Kids who stand up, their heads are high, their shoulders are back; this is one way you can help to avoid those [bullying] situations.”
While there might be fists of fury involved in pretty much all martial arts training, for Holly’s gym, “It isn’t about how hard you can hit somebody. It’s about controlling your body, exhibiting self-control.”
Even when his students spar, they pull their punches and kicks. Holly says that’s because discipline and southern values are at the foundation of his training. There’s even a vocabulary and educational component that goes along with their rank testing.
“I really work hard to try to set the standard right off. It’s all about courtesy, being courteous to one-another, discipline, and respect.”
Holly also works with parents to help them become better advocates for their kids in the unfortunate event their kids are bullied. He says sometimes parents come in too strong, attacking the schools instead of working collaboratively to solve the problem. And if the parents have to escalate the issue and deal with law enforcement? Well, from his experience as a police officer, Holly knows exactly how to help parents navigate that experience, as well.
In fact, Holly has created an entire “Bully Response Training - Parent Handbook” that acts like a mini dojo for parents whose kids might be attending his classes. It has a list of terminology their kids are mastering, stats about bullying, laws about bullying, and more. Like the student version of the handbook, it also includes tips on how to ensure a student isn’t being the aggressor by using their powers for malice.
Which is why the “Family” in the name Family Kicks Taekwon Do doesn’t just reference his own wife and kids. It’s for all the families involved with the school who, according to Holly, “rally around each other.” And if the students ever do need help? The family tribe at Family Kicks ensures they have someone they can always reach out to.
“I’m not trying to develop an MMA fighter, or the next Bruce Lee,” Holly says. “I want the kid who has the confidence to protect themselves if they need to, but the courage to walk away.”
For more information on the bullying programs at Family Kicks Taekwon Do, visit familykickstkd.com.
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