Swimming Lessons: Choosing a School and Instructor

There are several things that parents can do if their child is truly afraid of the water.

The start of summer is just around the corner, and for some, warm weather is synonymous with trips to a pool or beach. Swimming lessons are on the minds of many parents. May is National Water Safety Month, an effort designed to prevent illness, injury and death as a result of contact with the water. Part of a parent’s role in ensuring safety for their children is knowing the factors to consider when looking for swimming lessons.

“People are starting get out and enjoy the water,” said Aleatha Ezra, of The World's Largest Swimming Lesson, an event on June 20 designed to raise awareness of the importance of knowing how to swim. “We want to emphasis the importance to learning to swim, finding lessons and taking them seriously.”

When looking for lessons, parents should inquire about the training of those who will be in charge of teaching their children. “We require all of our swim instructors to pass a certified lifeguard course,” said Tommy Hamilton, Regional Manager at Goldfish Swim School of Reston, Falls Church and Alexandria. “In addition to this course all of our instructors also go through at least 40 hours of hands on training on our proprietary curriculum.”

In order for lessons to be effective, the student teacher ratio should be as low as possible, advises Hamilton. “We believe that this gives them suitable time in the water practicing their skills as well as enough rest in between each skill,” he said. “The small class sizes also allow us to maintain a high standard for safety.”

The swim school should assess a child’s ability and have a curriculum with a clearly defined plan that allows a child to advance as they gain skills. “For example, we have a progressive curriculum. Our beginner swim classes start with basics like teaching kids to put their face in the water,” said Jamel Wright, a swimming instructor for SafeSplash Swim School in Bethesda. “It moves through [phases] like stroke development and advances through competition level as the children are assessed and their swimming skills improve.”

Parents should be allowed to observe their child’s lessons, said Hamilton. “We love when parents get involved in the progress of their children,” he said. “We believe this to be crucial to their growth. We keep our pool deck at a warm 90 degrees so we have large glass windows in our lobby so parents can be comfortable and watch the entire lesson.”

Another factor to consider is whether or not there is a lifeguard on duty who can watch those in the water at all times. Water quality should be another concern. “Smell to make sure there are no strong chemical smells, which is not a sign of proper chlorination but rather contamination,” said Shannon McKeon, Environmental Health Specialist. “Ask to see water quality reports that should be posted at every public pool.”

There are times when a child has an extreme fear of water, but safety experts advise continuing the lessons with an instructor who is able to assist parents in helping a child overcome that fear.

“To cope with swimming fears, we should first relax with slow, deep, nose breathing,” said Jerome Short, Ph.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University. “We can close our eyes briefly and go to a quiet, comfortable place. After we are relaxed, we should watch others who enjoy swimming and imagine doing it ourselves successfully. Then move forward in small steps to shallow water, slowly submerge the body, and practice floating with someone close by to support you. Take a break if there is discomfort but try again soon to make more progress.”

Read story books on children who were afraid to swim but were successful, advises Carol Barnaby, LCSW l. “Scared children are already tackling emotional burdens and don't need to see, hear, or feel their parents frustration, she said. “Take your child's fear seriously and acknowledge it. Let them know that you understand that they are scared. Start swim lessons out of the water so that there can be trust established this will make them feel safe and ready to learn.”

Barnaby continued, “Let your child know that you believe in them and that you have confidence they will succeed at their goal. Praise all efforts and offer physical reassurance when they leave the water. Children who receive positive reinforcement will try harder even when they are scared. Give your child frequent reassurance that they are safe and help is there.”

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