Swimming lessons were about to begin for the children in room 623 at the Margaret Clark Aquatic Center. Every year, the students learn how to swim in a large heated pool. Special adapted physical education teachers work with the students for three weeks. The classroom teacher and assistants also get to spend time with the children in the pool. It is a wonderful period of learning and water therapy for everyone involved.
Mr. Abraham Hernandez and Dr. Javier Ayala were the children’s swimming instructors once again. These two very special teachers are able to watch the children grow up over the years. This program begins when the students enter first grade and ends when the children reach 21 or 22 years of age, depending on when their birthdays fall during the school year. Many of the children have already moved on from elementary school to high school as the program has been around for almost 10 years now.
Typically, at least one student in room 623 begins the swimming program frozen in fear. This year, it was Douglas. The boy was a first-grader and not particularly tall. Douglas clung to the classroom paraprofessionals, Rosa, Billie and Hector whenever he entered the water. The teachers were used to how students reacted during the first few days of the swimming class. Over time, they knew Douglas would gradually let go of them as he became more secure in the water. Yet, the best part of the class was not the actual swimming lessons. It was watching how the children interact with each other during "free time."
Many of the children with autism in the class had difficulty relating to their peers both in communication and socialization. Douglas was no different. When Hernandez, announced free time, Douglas perked up. He would run over to grab some of the toys that floated and sank in the water. Bobby, another student, also wanted those same toys. Douglas did not like to share much of anything. However, Douglas also did not want to be pulled out of the water for misbehavior either. The consequence of not sharing or fighting over toys meant time out of the water. It wasn’t easy, but gradually Bobby and Douglas learned to share.
This year, the older boys in the swimming program surprised Ayala and Hernandez. Many of the students had remembered several of the swimming lessons from the previous year. Floating was much easier to do this time around as were some of the simple strokes. By the end of the three weeks, a few of the children were even learning how to do the back stroke.
Hernandez encouraged some of the children to try racing. The activity was fun, until one child lost the race. The social skills needed to handle defeat were difficult for one boy in particular. Even the water had its challenges. It wasn’t always fun. When the child grew too angry at his loss, time out of the water was the immediate consequence. Gradually, the boy began to learn a little bit on how to lose gracefully.
The students still had to dress themselves once they finished the swimming class. Several of the children had fine motor skill problems and had difficulty putting on their clothes. The students eventually learned to organize their clothing and how to put them on one step at a time. Some still needed assistance but many of the children learned how to dress themselves including putting on their shoes. Velcro and stretch pants were wonderful types of clothing to help several of the children grow in independence while dressing.
As the children entered the bus each day, the teacher and staff could see the eyes begin to droop. The gentle rocking of the bus often put many of the students to sleep on the drive back to the school. The parents also noticed that their children wanted to go to sleep earlier than normal after having their swimming lessons at school. The families also found that the children’s focus and communication usually improved after swimming even though they were tired.
Over time, the staff at the aquatic center has grown to discover how important their work is for children with special needs. This often is the only opportunity that some of these children have to learn how to swim. Later on, a few of the students even join the local high school swim teams along with their peers in general education. For the children in Room 623, swimming continues to be a great opportunity for learning social skills and improving communication skills.
Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.