Special Needs Swimming Lessons Require Special Considerations

At Foss Swim School, we truly believe that every child can learn to swim. When it comes to swimming classes for special needs kids, we encourage parents to reach out to us before registering, so we can develop a plan together that offers the best chance of success and progress for their child.

FOSS schools have enrolled many children with special needs for swim class over the years, and we have many teachers who have received special training in the field. That said, it’s important to note that FOSS doesn’t offer group classes just for kids with specific needs or conditions – we either work out a plan for private lessons, determine that the child can participate in our existing group classes, or some combination. For highly specialized adaptive swim lessons or in-pool therapy, we may or may not be able to offer what you are looking for.

Communication before swim school enrollment is critical

We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be open about any needs or expectations you might have. If we know what your goal is – whether it is to improve safety around water by teaching basic skills one-on-one, or to find a group class where your child can interact with others while learning, we want to help, and will be better positioned to do so by planning ahead.

The first step will be a free preview class, where a teacher can evaluate the child’s existing swim skill and comfort level in the water.

Swim considerations for specific special needs

Each child is unique, and that’s true for kids with special needs as well. We have experience making adaptations for many needs, and on top of that will strive to create the same kind of fun learning environment and build the same kind of trust we do with every student.

Here are some of our thoughts on teaching kids with particular special needs to swim:

Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):

The range of adaptations for teaching an autistic child to swim is as broad as the spectrum itself. For high-functioning autistic children, enrollment in a group class is likely an option if the teacher is aware and trained to help with any issues the parent thinks may arise. At the other end of the spectrum, non-verbal children may feel more comfortable and be better able to learn in one-on-one classes where they can get the full attention of a teacher who has experience with the condition.

In between, we have found a range of adaptations that we have worked out with parents. One is finding a class at a quieter time of day when there are fewer distractions. Another is alternating private and group classes. The private lessons are a time to teach new skills when the child makes a major jump, while group classes the following quarters allow a child to refine and build on those skills.

Down Syndrome:

Adaptations for teaching swimming to children with Down Syndrome usually involve techniques for dealing with behavior issues and recognizing that children with this condition are often extremely strong and may not know their own strength. Teachers need to be prepared to manage any “acting out” behaviors, and also know how the student acts around other kids – for example, if the student is more or less likely to mimic and amplify misbehavior they might see from their fellow students – before considering group classes.


In general, our experience with epilepsy is that making the teacher aware of the condition and explaining how the teacher should react in the case of a seizure is all that is required. Primarily this is a safety issue. The exception is the most extreme cases where seizures and episodes are extremely common – in those cases, private classes might be preferred to give that student the attention they need and allow the student to learn at his or her own pace.

Anxiety disorders:

Trust and understanding are important when teaching swimming to children with anxiety disorders, whether social anxiety or fear of water specifically. Anxiety is a wide category, so for many kids it may simply mean informing the teacher of the group class so they can watch for signs of anxiety and take appropriate action. For some kids, what seems like a pronounced fear of water is just their way of adjusting to a new experience, which our program can address.

In rare cases, a private class may be the right place to start to build that relationship and trust, and parents may want to enroll in classes with the same teacher when possible to maintain consistency. (We can’t always promise the same teacher from quarter to quarter but do our best.)

Learning disabilities:

We are a school first and foremost. Our program is designed to help kids learn to swim at their own pace, and it is common for all students to repeat some levels along their Swim Path. In the case of some learning disabilities, it may be a matter of knowing the child’s learning style – more visual demonstrations rather than spoken explanation, for example. In other cases, it may be a matter of more homework or practice outside of class.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also fall along a spectrum. Some are inattentive (once called ADD), some may be hyperactive or impulsive, and some exhibit both tendencies. These students may benefit from some private lessons, or simply need extra parental attention to keep them focused during class. The key is for parents to share what has worked in other situations and to develop a plan with the teacher before classes start.

Physical disabilities, muscular disorders or weakness:

Children with physical disabilities can learn to swim and be safer around water, within the limits of what is physically possible for them. Our instructors have worked with children who have a range of issues, from partial paralysis to children who were preemies and use swimming lessons as therapy.

In many cases, we can adapt our lesson plan or simply provide more physical aid to help these kids learn the motions and build muscles. Sometimes the adaptation is as simple as using flippers, which can help some kids keep up with a group class. Other children may learn skills differently than they are taught in group classes – either at a different pace or with adapted skills – which may make private classes a good choice. The key to determining which path works starts with a conversation and evaluation.

A few more thoughts on swimming for kids with special needs

Swimming and swim school are great for the development of all children. Our teachers who have worked with special needs kids say it can be a very positive experience, where kids can develop new skills, experience success, and build confidence that they will carry with them outside the pool.

Swim class is also great exercise and can be a positive social experience, especially for children who may have challenges in that area. The one thing to remember is swim school doesn’t happen in isolation – we need to know what is helpful for the child in other areas of life, which is why communication with parents is so critical.

Most importantly, give it time! Every single student who goes through and completes our Learn To Swim program, regardless of the need, HAS learned to swim confidently and loves the water. It may take more time, or more frequent classes, or adjusting along the way, but our teachers who have worked with special needs take joy in knowing that we can teach anyone how to swim and love the water. In fact, it’s our honor to give your family member a life skill.

If you are a parent considering swim school for your special needs child, please contact your local FOSS. We’ll be happy to sit down with you, try a free preview class and explore what is possible for your child.

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