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To banish bullies, youngsters need confidence. And that's what martial arts teachers share with Tampa Day School students.

When martial arts instructor Estefania Maldonado showed students at Tampa Day School how to deal with bullies, she was showing them skills she used when she was younger, too. Everyone has dealt with a bully at some point, said Maldonado, 20. Martial arts gave her the confidence and discipline to hold her head high. "It very much helped me to not let it get to me," she said.

Maldonado, a second-degree black belt, is one of the instructors at the new PRO Martial Arts in Carrollwood. She and fellow instructor Shiv Benimadhu gave a presentation to students at Tampa Day School earlier this month about how to deal with bullies as part of the studio's ARMOR program, which teaches bullying and predator prevention.

The martial arts studio opened Oct. 26. In offers regular martial arts classes, in addition to the ARMOR program.

The program started with the first PRO Martial Arts studio in Philadelphia.

"They really just saw a very big need," said Shawn Becklund, program director at the Carrollwood studio. "It just seems to be more prevalent than ever."

The 30-minute classes teach students how to identify bullies and other predators, including cyber bullies. Students learn how to be confident, trust their instincts, seek help and use martial arts defensive skills as a last resort.

Carrollwood franchise owner Dawn Cavaliere and Becklund are reaching out to schools and other organizations to provide the ARMOR program to children outside of the studio. When Cavaliere decided to make a career change, she looked for opportunities that would allow her to give back to the community.

"I've been in corporate America my whole life and I decided I wanted to do something different," she said. "I like education, I like children."

Tampa Day School students will receive the program as an after-school club once a week.

"The antibullying component makes it a unique program," said head of school Lois Delaney. Tampa Day School is a private school for K-8 students with mild to moderate learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD and anxiety. Many of the students come from other schools having been bullied, and need help building their confidence.

"It's often what we have to do when the kids come to us," Delaney said.

Cavaliere sees opportunities for the program to help both children and adults in the community with disabilities.

"It's a miserable thing to go to school every day or walk around every day worrying about the bully you keep running into that badgers you on a daily basis," Becklund said. The program is about "making them feel empowered so they can go through the day and be confident."

Maldonado and Benimadhu talked to the Tampa Day students about what to do if a bully bothers them. Try to defuse the situation with words, they said. Tell the bully you don't want to be bothered, try to walk away or go to an adult for help. They showed the students a few basics about how to get away if somebody is grabbing them by the wrist, or trying to choke them without hurting the person bullying them.

"Even though that person is hurting you, he's still a fellow classmate," Benimadhu said.

In all their tips, confidence was key.

"Everyone here has the capability to be strong and smart and be what you want to be," he said.

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at or (813) 226-3321.

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PRO Martial Arts is at 10027 N Dale Mabry Highway. The studio is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For more information, call (813) 252-3955.