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Swim Lessons with Hearing Loss: Tips for Instructors and Parents

by Stephanie Ortner

As summertime approaches, many children and families look forward to spending time at pools and beaches, or participating in other fun water activities. For children with hearing loss, swimming can be more challenging than for children who have typical hearing. Children who use cochlear implants or hearing aids to aid communication are unable to wear their technology in the water. They are suddenly left without the ability to communicate as they do in their daily lives with their auditory devices. And as fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years, the need to ensure proper swimming techniques increases.

From my experience as a swim instructor and speech-language pathologist, I have found that very few programs offer adequate assistance for these children. Swim instructors are often not prepared to teach children with hearing loss and are unsure about how to communicate with that child. This can cause frequent communication breakdowns, making swim lessons unproductive and often frustrating for all parties.

The following suggestions are for both parents and instructors. Parents should discuss these suggestions with the instructor and make adjustments as necessary.

Parent Tips:
  1. You do not need to seek out a swim instructor who specializes in working with children who have hearing aids and/or cochlear implants.
  2. Help your instructor help your child. The most important conversation you need to have with your instructor is to explain your child’s deafness, the cochlear implant or hearing aid, and your child’s mode of communication. He or she needs to understand that your child is part of the hearing world and most likely does not sign.
Tips for the Instructor:
  1. Create and laminate a picture checklist of each activity that will be covered during the swim lesson. A copy of the checklist should be sent home.
  2. Each lesson should be conducted in the same order as the previous one, with the newest activity added on to the end. As the child improves, the old activities will take less time, making room for the new ones. The consistency and predictability of the lesson leaves the child with less questions, wonder and fear.
  3. Discuss the checklist with the child before stepping in the water, while he can wear his cochlear implant or hearing aids and have appropriate access to sound. For example, the instructor may want to explain to the child that he will be practicing floating on his back and the instructor will be holding him. The instructor can even practice this activity on land, showing the child where his arms and legs should be, and exactly how he will be held. If the instructor makes a promise to not let go, keep it. Learning to swim is all about trust in your instructor and confidence in yourself.
  4. Discuss important gestures and even a few functional signs or signals that may be necessary for communication while without amplification. The instructor may want to learn signs or signals for words and phrases such as “wait,” “stop,” “watch me,” “try again,” “three more tries,” “I will help you,” “try by yourself,” etc. This is also a good opportunity to discuss behavioral expectations and water safety.
  5. Once in the water, use and follow the visual checklist to help the child understand what is coming next. After showing the child which activity is next on the list, demonstrate it. Many children can pick up on an activity after seeing it modeled just once. Then, assist the child by holding him in the correct body position or moving his arms or legs for him before allowing him to try the activity independently. Use as many gestures and signs or signals as necessary to explain what the child should be doing.
  6. Remember, stick to what was discussed before the lesson. If the instructor promised he wouldn’t let go, then he shouldn’t. As mentioned before, consistency and predictability are comforting for children. For my lessons, we stick to the “Rule of Five.” At the beginning of each session, we always do five bobs with bubbles. We count to five when we float on our back, we hold our breath under water for five seconds, we pick up five rings from the bottom of the pool and we attempt an activity or stroke five times before we move on to something else.
  7. (Attention Parents: You may need to explain this theory to your instructor in further detail.) In the listening and spoken language world, we are all familiar with the “Auditory Sandwich.” This theory of using auditory cues first, then visual cues, followed by auditory cues again holds true for swim lessons. 1) The instructor discussed everything through audition prior to the lesson. 2) The instructor used visual demonstrations, gestures and signs during the lesson. 3) To finish the “sandwich,” end the lesson with an auditory recap of everything you worked on.
  8. Make sure to leave enough time to review the checklist and discuss what was easy (or mastered) and what was hard (or still needs work). Discuss any breakdowns that may have occurred with the gestures, signs or signals, review techniques on land (similar to what might have been done prior to the lesson), confront any behavioral issues and set the tone for the following lesson.
Outside of the Pool

Much like listening and spoken language therapy, carry-over at home is essential. The days between each lesson can be used to discuss the previous lesson, review the checklist and even practice the activities out of the water. This reinforces everything learned and prepares the child for the pre-lesson discussion with the instructor at the next lesson.

Learning to swim can be a slow process for any child. Imagine trying to learn something new and scary without being able to hear reassuring words and confidence boosters. Teaching the instructor to maximize auditory time out of the water and become a visual instructor in the water will help make the experience more pleasant for everyone involved. The more enjoyable the experience, the faster the child will learn. Learning to swim properly and early may save your child’s life!

Source: Volta Voices, May/June 2010

Author’s note: Special thanks to Alisa Demico, M.S., CCC-SLP, LSLS Cert. AVT, at the Clarke School forHearing and Speech, Jacksonville, FL, for her guidance and mentorship.