While it is legally and morally imperative that we accommodate students of differing abilities in learn-to-swim programs, this can pose challenges for aquatics professionals, as I discussed in my recent column. Here are some real-life examples that I have experienced working with children who have disabilities in learn-to-swim.

To set the scene, I used to work for a learn-to-swim program operated through a parks and recreation department. We offered both group and private instruction. Our lessons were quite popular in the community and our numbers were growing. It seemed like every session we were adding more and more kids to the pool. For our group lessons we maintained a ratio of 1 instructor to 5 students, in addition to having lifeguards on duty. Our group lessons at this point were at capacity which was 10 students per session.

Missing Information: Starting a new round of swim lessons is always exciting but can be challenging when you are introducing new students into a class. I remember this particular class was filled mostly with students who had been in the program previously with only a couple of new faces. At first, I thought this was going to be an easy group lesson for my co-instructor and me, but that feeling didn’t last long. One student started to require more and more attention from my co-instructor. He had a hard time focusing and required a lot of one-on-one attention.

Before a new child enters the program, we ask the parent or caregiver to fill out an information form. In it, adults are asked if their child has any learning disabilities or behavioral issues the staff should be aware of. After the first lesson, I pulled out the student’s information page and no behavioral issues were listed. I thought maybe the student was just having a bad day and it would get better the next week. I unfortunately was wrong. The same behavior issues continued without pause -- week in and week out.

It got to a point where I was teaching nine students and my co-instructor was teaching one. Other parents started to complain that their children weren’t receiving enough attention and said they would register for lessons at another facility. A number of these parents had been with my program for more than a year. I asked them to hold off and let me see what I could do to rectify the situation.

My first thought was to speak with the child’s parents to determine if there was a behavioral issue or learning disability, and see if I could convince them to switch to private lessons. I was worried about this conversation initially, as sometimes parents are unaware of a learning disability or behavior problem. When I approached the parents, I discussed the concerns and offered to move the child into private lessons. The mother instantly began crying. She explained that her child had mild autism, and she signed him up for swim lessons because of the increased risk of drowning. She had wanted to sign up for private lessons but couldn’t afford them. She further explained that she intentionally excluded information on the child’s disability for fear the child wouldn’t be allowed in the group lessons.

I told her to take a deep breath and that we would come up with a solution. After discussing the situation with my supervisor, we decided to provide private instruction at the group-lesson rate. The cost covered the instructor, so we didn’t lose any money. This solution met the needs of the child, satisfied ADA accommodations, and provided a service to the child and his family. It also kept our other clients in the program. It ended up being a win-win for everyone.

No progression, no problem: When I first began working at this learn-to-swim program, we had a child with high-functioning autism in our group lessons. The child came from a large family who had a number of children enrolled in the program. The child was highly capable and was becoming a good swimmer, but the behavior challenges were growing every class. The child was older than every other student in the group.

I asked other instructors about the child and their experiences with him. He never used to be like this, the instructors said, but recently his behavior starting growing progressively worse. One instructor mentioned that the child had remained at the same level of instruction for a long time. He hadn’t moved to the next level because he still needed more work on skills at his current level.

After talking with his parents and other instructors, I decided to try and move him up to the next level of swim instruction. I would not typically move a child up before they had mastered the required skills, but I had a hunch that he was just bored. If I was right, the behavior problems would decrease, and he would be challenged with new skills. On the other hand, if the child could not support himself in the new class, he would have to go back to the previous class, which could make the behavior problem even worse.

Luckily, the child thrived in the new class. Was he challenged? Absolutely. However, the behavior problems substantially decreased, and he seemed to be learning new skills. I walked away with an important lesson from this experience: Do not let a child’s disability dictate their placement. Let the child’s abilities dictate what they can do.

Who’s in charge? After a long time working in this program I began to know all of the children and their behaviors. One particular student worked in private lessons with another instructor. This student had autism and was non-verbal. He was no fan of swimming even though he was quite capable. The instructor he was working with was a young girl who didn’t have much experience. The student in this case took advantage of this. Each week he would start to hold on to the wall and absolutely refused to let go. Eventually it got to the point where he wouldn’t do anything or go anywhere in the pool, and the instructor didn’t know what to do.

After observing this for a few classes, I started to talk with the child’s parents and the instructor. The parents said that if all he was only going to sit on the wall, they would no longer bring him to lessons. I asked the parents and instructor if I could intervene, and they agreed.

For the next lesson, I would be with the instructor and try to help get him off of the wall. While the child wasn’t interested in leaving the wall, we each took one of his hands and started to walk away from the wall. He screamed a little, but after a few minutes he realized he was fine. We allowed him to pick out a few pieces of equipment which helped him relax.

In this experience, I learned that you can’t let a child with a disability take advantage of the situation. It is common for us as instructors to feel bad for these children, which is okay. However, that doesn’t mean we should allow them to call all of the shots. Sometimes you have to take control and make the child do something they don’t want to do. It’s for their own good.