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Swim Programs for Special Needs

Water safety for all abilities

Seven years ago, when Fort Worth parents Steve and Christy Pezanosky signed their son Jack, then 3, up for private swim lessons, it wasn’t about ensuring that he would be a swimmer. He has Down syndrome. It was about safety.

“We’re around a lot of pools, especially during the hot summers here,” Steve says. “I didn’t want to have to be completely terrified and worried about him falling in.” So Steve and Christy’s goal with the lessons was simple: If Jack fell in or jumped in, he would safely be able to get to the side of the pool by himself.

Now at 10, Jack swims circles around those early goals, jumping off diving boards, cannon-balling into the pool, swimming under water, doing the freestyle stroke and treading water.

It starts with safety.

The drowning statistics for children are chilling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional deaths for children 1 to 4 years of age. Every day, according to the CDC, about 10 people die from unintentional drowning. Of those, two are children aged 14 or younger.

Find the right program.

Depending on your child’s needs, you may not have to find a private swimming instructor, but you should have an instructor who knows how to teach children with special needs.

Know what to expect.

If your child is under 3, you can likely expect to be getting in the water too (check with the facility you choose). Children with special needs learn the same things that typical children do — basic water safety, how to jump and dive into the pool, breathing techniques, kicking and paddling and the front crawl and back strokes. The only significant difference is the instruction. Your child’s instructor is trained to teach children with special needs.

But your special needs child might do fine — even better — in a standard lesson with typical kids. “Whenever possible, we encourage a child with special needs to be in the same class as the other children,” says Jennifer Pewitt, associate vice president of aquatics and special needs at the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas. She says the diverse group benefits all participants

But your child probably won’t learn at the same pace as the other kids, and that’s OK. “All children learn at different rates, especially when it comes to physical skills, such as walking or swimming,” says Evie Airth, a former swim instructor who is now a client relations representative for Sunsational Swim School, a national provider of private swim instruction with programs in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. “And anxiety or fear of the water is often the biggest hurdle for children [all children] to overcome,” she says.

Steve says the toughest issue for Jack wasn’t angst but the holding his breath that took a long time to master. “Once he grasped that, he picked up swimming quickly,” Steve explains.

Your kids will get so much out of this.

Not only will your child be safer around the water, they will develop their gross motor skills and get great exercise, says Marilyn Tolbert, director of KinderFrogs School at Texas Christian University, an early childhood education center that specializes in serving children with disabilities, particularly Down syndrome. Swimming helps boost a child’s self-confidence and makes them feel like they’re part of a team or group. “Inclusion has been one of the biggest benefits for Jack,” Steve says. “When a group of kids is in the pool, there’s no distinction between Jack and the other kids.”

This article was first published in the January/February 2016 issue of DFWThrive.