The word "inclusion" or "adaptive" can be terrifying and intimidating to operators and staff. Am I doing enough for kids that need extra assistance? Am I making sure everyone learns and participates? Is my team confident enough to teach a class and maintain safety? Will everyone have a good experience? These are all questions you may ask yourself when considering inclusion training for your team.
I have been lucky enough to have a unique perspective on the different aspects of an inclusive program: an aquatic program director, a swim lesson instructor, and now a proud mom of a son with autism.
As a program director, I tried my best to develop training and opportunities to help my team teach any student of any age and ability. Now that I am a parent with a child who loves the water but may need some assistance during a swimming lesson, I can appreciate what I did then, but can also look back and see how the new knowledge is helpful to those who are in the instructor or director roles.
What is Inclusion, and what does an inclusive program look like?
First, let's start with what inclusion training is and the benefits of having an inclusive program at your facility. Inclusion is the state of being valued, respected, and supported. It is about focusing on the needs of every individual and ensuring the right conditions are in place for each person to achieve their full potential. Inclusive programs incorporate children with different abilities into the mainstream program. Each child, regardless of ability, is encouraged to actively participate in all activities during the class. The focus is on each child's strengths while addressing specific needs to achieve the learning objectives. All students are viewed as deserving of a high-quality program where they can have opportunities to learn and feel safe and valued.
There is an added benefit for typically functioning children and children with different abilities when programming together. Just as in any class, children learn from watching each other participate, but there is additional learning in the class when children of all abilities participate simultaneously. Children are learning to have a mutual understanding of differences in learning and communication styles that can be used in other aspects of life and other programs. Children with disabilities can have experiences that teach social skills and interaction with peers. Because it is natural for any child to have questions about differences, there should be open communication with all participants that differences are not bad. Since no two humans are alike, it develops acceptance for all types of differences.
How to prepare your instructors for teaching
The most crucial step is to make your instructors feel as comfortable and prepared as possible for any situation. Everyone knows that every person learns differently but teaching an individual that needs additional attention or guidance can be intimidating for any instructor, especially in the water.
Have your instructors learn your "typical" techniques of teaching. Once your team can confidently teach swimming according to your facility's standard, begin to show alternative ways of executing the same swimming motions. You can do this individually, but a group training dedicated to this historically has better results for me and my past teams.
Try this fun inclusion training exercise with your team
A simple group exercise example that you could have your staff complete uses a stuffed animal, a bowling ball, and a balloon. (these items are interchangeable with other things, as long as they all float in the water differently. I just made sure they are items that are not typically used in the water.) Have your staff form teams and stand in a circle. Your team will decide on a method/body part to move the object around the circle. This should be the easiest your team moves these items. The next time the items are passed around the circle, the previous method or body part may not be used. This will make moving each item a little more complicated. For the third pass, the team will develop yet another way to move objects from person to person around the circle. The third pass pushes your team to think outside the box and have fun.
After Training Exercises
Follow up the exercise with a discussion on how this could pertain to a swimming lesson that involves a student that a different train of thought is necessary to make sure they are successful. Start having conversations and open discussions with examples of teaching various abilities. The more your team participates and keeps communication open, the more confident they will feel. Simple activities can be the most effective in inclusion training with your team.
Teaching Tips for Inclusion Training
Treat everyone in your class equally: set common rules for the entire class and ensure that all students follow the rules and have equal rights throughout lessons.
Communicate frequently with parents: frequently communicating with parents and guardians will allow you to share progress and challenges, and learn more about how each student learns.
Learn about the specific challenges that your students face: If a parent, guardian, or student shares with you their challenges, ask questions as to what their strengths and weaknesses are. Encourage them to use their strengths to improve their skills and improve the areas where they struggle.
Keep your instructions simple and declarative: All students learn best when presented with simple, clear, declarative instructions. Do not use complex and confusing language. When possible, utilize several learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) when giving instructions or demonstrating skills.
Encourage all of your students to ask for help when needed: all students need support when learning. This support may look different for each student; physical, social, or emotional support.
Include games and activities that involve all students: Prepare games and activities to ensure that all students can participate.
Practice Teaching Event
Another way to better prepare your team is to work with participants who need special accommodations and groups for children with disabilities. An incredibly impactful exercise that our facility had our team participate in is to have families come in and have a complimentary swimming lesson for the purpose of helping your team. Most families are open to participating and helping, plus their child gets additional swim time as a bonus. Have your team go through all of the motions as they would if they were beginning a new private lesson: talking to the parents, getting down to the child's eye level to get them more comfortable and excited, teaching a class, and following up with the parent after the lesson to discuss progress. The practice will build the instructor's confidence as well as the families that participate in the training; they may even find an instructor that they have a connection with and continue swimming with that instructor.
What to Expect After a Teaching Event
Understanding that a private lesson may not always be an option, remember your program's words "reasonable accommodations." Most times, a parent will want a program with the least amount of restrictions, thus wanting to have their child in a typical group lesson. Knowing this, be sure to have a conversation with the parents about their needs and expectations of the program and if there are reasonable accommodations that can be made in a group atmosphere. Most often, a simple solution can be found. Something as simple as a lifeguard in the water with the group lesson to help maintain safety, an extra pool noodle for each child, having class in a specific location, etc., will make all of the difference and make sure that all participants are safe and learning.
Get Ready to Incorporate Inclusion Programming in Your Offerings
Once word gets out that you are making accommodations for a fully inclusive swimming program, you will have an excited group of students ready to learn. To get your team ready for these lessons, have them prepare the lesson plan by developing their confidence and building their communication skills in order to get the best possible outcome. Remember that all swimming lessons' goal is to make sure participants are safer in and around the water.
Looking for more training resources? Check out our other blog posts!