Welcoming Signs for Special-Needs Students

Our commitment to helping every child learn to swim well sometimes gives Foss Swim School instructors a reason to get creative. Marissa, the office manager at our swim school in Ballwin, MO was searching for a way to help a student who is on the autism spectrum who was experiencing anxiety before each class.

“He really needed to follow a routine. He was nervous because every time what we did was a little bit different,” Marissa remembers. “He really wanted to know what he would do in class, in what order, and how many times.” Marissa or other team members would talk with the student, but after talking with the boy’s parents and learning that they sometimes used a visual schedule, Marissa decided to create her own.

The result was a set of handmade flashcards with visual cues about the different skills that are part of the learn to swim curriculum – a tiger to represent tiger paddles, a bird for bird flaps, a monkey for monkey cheeks and so on. Now, when the student arrives, he and a FOSS team member go through the cards in order and talk about the session to come, and the student then brings them with him to his lesson.

“He especially wants to know about diving for rings, because that’s his least favorite activity,” Marissa says. “So he finds out when we’ll do rings, and how many, and then he tries to negotiate that number down.” This doesn’t mean he can avoid all activities that make him uncomfortable, but does allow him to mentally prepare and feel some control over the situation.

“It has helped so much with his confidence, reducing his anxiety, and his willingness to participate,” Marissa said. The idea has become so popular that FOSS has designed and is printing cards that will be distributed to schools to help other students with similar anxiety.

The bigger picture: Creating equity for swimmers

The flashcards are a single, creative example of a core philosophy for FOSS: Being the best swim school for every single child. We recognize that learning isn’t one-size-fits-all, and so we don’t try to have every student follow the exact same path towards learning. Importantly, the end goal we are working towards doesn’t change, just how we get there.

This idea might be most visible in the arrangements made for special needs swimmers, but it applies to all our students. For many kids, it might just be a matter of repeating a level to master extra-challenging skills, spending extra homework time on a specific skill, or trading jokes with them on the pool deck to make them feel at ease.

Marissa says one student at her school loves to dance, so the two of them (and others who want to join in) hold a quick dance party before class – which may not be related to swim skills directly, but does help promote a positive attitude before hitting the pool.

In all of these cases, as well as in the case of the flash cards, it’s about giving each student the tools and support they need to progress towards becoming a stronger, more confident swimmer.

How can teachers and staff help your student progress? We encourage you to share ideas and work with teachers to make swim school as positive and effective as possible. We’ll see you at the pool!

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