Over the past 20 years, I spent my summers as a lifeguard and swim instructor. I found that many of the people I taught swimming lessons beside, felt less than prepared to address individual differences among swimmers. Because many interested participants were turned away due to perceived behavioral or cognitive areas of need, I developed the SEALS program for Swimmers with Exceptional AbilLitieS.
The summer I spent at Victory Junction Gang Camp, working with children and adolescents living with chronic medical conditions helped to solidify my passion. Here, each week is designated for a group of children facing similar challenges. These kids get a chance to experience camp lifestyle, swimming, climbing a rock wall, and riding horses alongside relatable peers. At Victory Junction, I had the ultimate joy of helping children with the broad variance of speech language pathology: articulation, language, voice, feeding and swallowing, pragmatics, cognition, and fluency. Through laughter and play, I witnessed an increase in confidence, an openness to try new things, an increase in self-esteem, and an increase in independence. My summer at Victory Junction directed my path as a speech language pathologist.
The final piece in the combination of my passion for speech language pathology and swimming instruction came through a friend of the family. As a result of miraculously surviving a horrific car accident, he received multiple therapies to re-learn how to breathe on his own, swallow, problem solve, name familiar objects, balance, walk, and talk. Later during his recovery, the family requested that I re-teach him to swim and, if possible, simultaneously address his needs in speech and language. We were able to address receptive language, expressive language, pragmatics, and articulation within the water. It was an amazing experience!
The safety aspect in learning to swim is of high importance. According to the World Health Organization, children ages 1-14 die more frequently from drowning than any other cause. While this is a somber thought, we live in an area surrounded by water. Sharing my passion for swim instruction is not only joyful, it is necessary.
As a speech pathologist in both the medical and academic setting, I have found that there are not a lot of options for summertime practice. In my mind summertime, is a time for being outdoors, spending time with friends, and making memories. While the traditional table approach to speech language therapy holds validity, there is substantial research to support that kids learn best through play. During Speech and Swim, swimming instruction is catered to a child’s specific area of need in both small group instruction and individual sessions, similar to group therapy or individual sessions outside of the water. For example, if a student is having difficulty with the /r/ sound, I would facilitate the lesson to encompass and focus on that /r/ production for that swimmer. During a 30-minute swim session, I am able to provide strategies in sound formation, 75+ drills of natural repetition, and constructive placement feedback. Parents play a key role in Speech and Swim. Not only do they complete a brief form to tell me more about the swimmer, they are able to watch the sessions and therefore observe the strategies used within the water to be easily implemented at home. Optional carryover assignments are also provided within the sessions. The swimmers are overjoyed to return the next day. The learning occurs in such a natural, engaging manner that generalization, which is the greatest stumbling block of speech therapy, is more likely to occur.
Speech and Swim welcomes everyone. We have students with and without needs in communication. We have swimmers who are working on one or two sounds, children that did not qualify for an IEP, but are having difficulty with a specific sound, those with difficulty following directions, answering questions, mild-severe stutters, difficulties making friends, attention difficulties, problems with sensory, deaf/hard of hearing, and/or children who are nonverbal. Speech and Swim is inclusive. The decision for small group versus individual sessions is made through parent discussion and level of individualized attention needed for the safety of swimmers. Speech and Swim is currently being held at Windsor Great Park Recreation Association and the kids are amazing. While they provide ample space, they often greet swimmers and provide encouragement. Swimmers for Speech and Swim utilize peer modeling in both group and individual sessions. They see and hear other kids following directions, correct productions of a tough sound, smooth speech, natural give and take of conversation, increased verbal language and strive to create it themselves. This is the same for overcoming common roadblocks in swimming instruction, they see peers putting their face in, swimming without plugging their nose, jumping from the side and therefore expand their level of comfort within the water as well.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to hold Speech and Swim this summer. Windsor Great Park Recreation Association has an incredible COVID 19 protocol. They have been heavily sanitizing around the clock, asking each person prior to entry COVID 19 related questions, and limiting the number of patrons allowed at the pool. Speech and Swim has limited the number of swimmers permitted during small group instruction and set time between sessions for sanitation and less guest overlap.
Measure the success of the program? Child breakthroughs. I see monumental breakthroughs on a daily basis. I experience child laughter, parent appreciation, the flexibility to push past a previous comfort level, the expansion of language in a child who is primarily nonverbal, a little one that is now able to get dive rings off the bottom of the pool with her friends, a 4th grade boy finally kicking that tough /r/ sound, and/or a child that is finally able to swim the length of the pool to pass the swim test at camp and swim with their peers. I am overjoyed to see the kids each day and feel fortunate to see my dream come true.