Swimming Lessons for Children with Additional Needs

If you’re the parent of a child who struggles in group lessons, is easily overstimulated, has sensory issues, is fearful of water or has other specialist needs when it comes to learning to swim, this blog is for you.

Water safety and learning to swim are essential life skills for all children. They equip them with the knowledge and ability to look after themselves around water, while reaching new physical milestones.

Yet the process of learning to swim is not one-size-fits-all. At SwimMagic we understand the importance of creating an environment and lessons specific to an individual’s needs. That’s why we offer private and group lessons that are tailored to your child.

Senior instructor at Auckland’s Massey Park Pool, Kirstie Nash, has taught children with special needs for more than 20 years. Also a qualified school teacher, Kirstie has developed a strong following, due to her ability to design lessons progressing children of all ages, abilities and requirements, in a fun and safe environment.

During her swim teaching career, Kirstie has worked with children who are on the autism spectrum, have physical disabilities including vision and hearing impairments, and developmental delays. As a result of Covid-19 and lockdowns, staff have also seen a rise in the number of students suffering from anxiety. Often when they first arrive, the children are too scared to even put their face in the water, says Kirstie.

With the right approach, none of these special needs are a barrier to learning to swim. “We see huge confidence and skill growth in the children. And the parents value their child being able to learn at their own pace,” says Kirstie.

Families can opt for private, one-on-one lessons, specialised group lessons or to integrate with other swim school lessons. The first step is speaking to the parents and children to find out what their goals are, which can range from survival skills through to advanced swimming proficiency. Children are then assessed by a swim teacher for their level of comfort in the water and swimming ability, before they formally start lessons.

All swim lessons are designed to match a child’s level and needs to ensure progress is within reach, but it’s also essential to be flexible with lesson plans, says Kirstie. “It’s about reading the child’s mood and talking to them at the start of the lesson, to see how they’re feeling that day so you can modify it where necessary.” Often classes take an exploratory form, so children can discover the water in their own way.

Specialised items such as hoists, along with traditional swimming equipment such as floats, kickboards, noodles and toys are used in lessons. Repetition and routine is also important when it comes to teaching children with special needs, says Kirstie. Things like entering the pool in the same way each lesson and warming-up/warming-down with the same songs provide cues for the students so they know what’s happening, to help them feel secure.

In addition to individual goals, teachers integrate Water Skills for Life into lessons for special needs students. Set by Water Safety NZ, this list of criteria is the national standard for aquatic skills in primary school-aged children.

The progression of students is hugely rewarding, says Kirstie. Two recent students, who are siblings, started out with anxiety, sensory overload and a huge fear of going under the water. Just 10 weeks later they are happily kicking with a kickboard and jumping into the deep end of the pool.

For the students and their parents, it can be life-changing, says Kirstie. “They have a huge beam on their face - they’re very thankful for the lessons for their children.”

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