Handling the Fearful Child By Dave DuBois


The first day of swimming lessons rolls around and when the moment comes to walk into the pool area, or enter the water, or get started with the class, many children react with what appears to be fear.  Parents and swimming teachers find themselves in a difficult situation. Many search for understanding and for more successful strategies to deal more effectively with the fearful child.


One important thing to acknowledge is that fearful or upset children need not be the norm.  Sadly, it is too often just accepted that when swimming lessons start, most children will cry and be upset.  This will always happen with some children, but is not the rule and should not be accepted as the “way it has to be.”


If an adequate facility is available and the staff are properly trained, a good infant/toddler program can create an introduction to the water that may reduce the number of children that start a swimming experience for the first time as a 3, 4, or 5 year old, which are often the age range in which fearful responses are seen.


There are also a lot of programs that are trying to teach young children in water that is too cold.  Cold water, adequate for competitive swimming, can be a common factor in apprehension, tension, and distress in the young learn to swim student.


Environments, which provide no stability for the child, can be another factor.  Some pools used for swimming lessons have no ledges, steps, or platforms and can create a distressing situation for a new swimmer.  As much as these environmental factors can be addressed, some of what appears to be “fear” can be alleviated by providing a more comfortable and approachable place for the swimming experience to take place.


In the swimming lesson process, there are many different perspectives to consider.  Teachers and parents may have very specific concerns and individual agendas about what will go on during swimming lessons, while the child’s point of view may be very different.  The child’s state of mind needs to be understood and addressed.  Everyone else’s expectations may be that skills should be gained right away, while if a child needs some time to adjust to various factors, that is important and should be the focus initially.


The question begs to ask – where does the fear come from?  That question may not ever be answered completely for each individual child’s situation, but there are some answers to be found.  Swim teachers and/or the swim school should ask for some history on what an individual child’s experiences have been.  This may give an instructor some information that may help them in dealing with a child.  There are some fears that stem from severe trauma, possibly related to the water or likely some other experience, that the child may relate to what they perceive is happening at the swimming class.


A child’s ability to imagine, which develops significantly at 2 and 3 years of age, makes great teaching opportunities available, but can also create irrational images and perceptions that may scare them.  These are things we cannot see or even understand, but they can be very real to the child.  All of these are things a child may bring with them to the pool before the lesson ever starts.  This brings to light the point that the “fear” we are seeing may not be about the swimming lesson or the water in and of itself, but the experience we are exposing them to may be a catalyst.


Even without any of the underlying issues described above, children will commonly be cautious, sometimes fearful, about new places, new people, new activities, challenges to their control, and anything “unknown.”  These aren’t really about the water or swimming lesson specifically either, but the new lesson experience involves many of these factors and can therefore stimulate a fearful reaction.


One effective way to deal with the issues described above is to establish rapport with the teacher and familiarity with the environment.  This suggests the idea of preparation, and coincidentally enough, there is often very little preparation that goes into the first swimming lesson for a child.  The swim school may train their teachers and prepare the pool, but for the child, walking into the pool area is many times when it all starts, and there can be too much to take in.


Through written material, advice given over the phone, and even at orientation meetings offered for parents, ways to help prepare a child for swimming can be suggested.  Many parents will want to talk with their child at length about the lesson.  While a parent should do what works best for their child, many children can become more apprehensive when something is talked about too much.  Swimming lessons are a physical and experiential learning process, and the preparation for swimming lessons should be also.


So, what can preparation for lessons include?  Visits to the pool should be suggested to allow a child an opportunity to become familiar with the environment before lessons start.  Even if this happens once, it will mean when the child returns for the actual swim lesson, it won’t be the first time they have been to the pool and that can help make them feel more comfortable.  If a few visits can be made, that’s even better.  During the visit to the pool if a lesson can be observed and they can meet their prospective teacher, that can further familiarize them and start to build rapport and trust with their teacher.


One obvious opportunity to develop comfort with the water itself is in the family bath.  Chances exist every day to help a child become more comfortable with water on their face and therefore more likely to submerge comfortably in lessons.  Many children start lessons with an aversion to water on their face, and this may be reinforced in the bath at home.  Yet, it is expected they will come to tolerate and even enjoy going underwater in a few lessons.  Consequently, many swimming teachers find themselves trying to work miracles.  A little practice at home and routine exposure to water in the bath, in a fun way, can make all the difference.  What an asset it would be to swim teachers everywhere if children coming to lessons all were comfortable with water on their face as a starting point.


Continuing with the idea of preparation, it can be a good tactic to play little games and perform activities which get children interacting with the water and getting wet before they are asked to actually enter the pool.  Many times children are a bit more secure while sitting on the side of the pool and it can be easier to get a little wet there than when in the pool.  The teacher can relate this “getting wet” to activities that might be familiar to children already, such as washing their hands and face, taking showers, washing dishes, raining, etc.  If the objective is washing the face to make sure it’s clean before we get in the pool, the emphasis is off just the “getting wet” part and sometimes that makes it easier.


A teacher needs to have a whole “toolbox” of tactics they can use with children once it’s time to get a class started.  Hopefully many of the preparatory steps can be taken, but when the moment comes to get the lesson started, what options are available to the teacher?  The inclination many teachers have is to “nurture.” Indeed, reassuring hugs, cuddles, and a gentle tone can be just what many children need to feel comfortable with a new experience.  However, a teacher needs to be ready for a significant number of children who may reject the focused attention a teacher may want to give them.  These children may need to observe and need some space.  A teacher may keep an eye on them and keep them very close, but not pay such direct attention to them, apparently ignoring them.  Sometimes this allows a child the time they need to adjust and accept the situation.


Sometimes a child shows outright resistance to joining the class and the decision is made weather to “force” a child in the water.  There are teachers who look at the whole adjustment process as a waste of time and feel that if they can just get them in the water and away from their parent that they can “make it all work.”  There may be circumstances when a quick entry with a resistant child works to some degree, but the problem are the times when it doesn’t work out well.  A child forced in may break into hysterics and the teacher may eventually return a desperate and howling child to the side and to their parent.  What we now have is a much worse situation to deal with and a much more difficult task to have that child relax, to trust, and to enjoy the lesson experience.  Because of the ordeal, a parent may very well give up and plan on returning to lessons “later.”  Who knows how long that will be, but bottom line we’ve lost time, possibly years, with that child.


Even when the situation of “forcing” a child in does result in a child entering and even enjoying the class, hasn’t something been lost?  Part of the magic that swimming lessons, and all learning experiences, have to offer is the process of a child playing, exploring, being challenged, making decisions, and learning from that process – with the guidance of a teacher.  When they are forced in against their will, much of that process is forfeited. The pressing need of skill attainment often motivates these actions, but what is being lost should be considered and if skills can still be gained along with a child’s cooperation and enjoyment.


The first entry to the pool can be a crucial point and shouldn’t be rushed.  If a child appears a little apprehensive, allowing them to watch for bit with their parent, or sit on the side and observe may be just what’s needed.  The teacher can still talk with them, interact with them, and all the while build some of the rapport that will eventually draw them into the class.


Diversions can be used to focus on something other than the task at hand.  One good standby idea is pouring water.  A simple stream of water pouring out of a container provides fascination to many children and can distract them from a tense situation.


If a teacher makes efforts to “narrate” what they are doing it can help children understand what is going on and avoid being taken by surprise. This is very helpful when the time comes to enter the pool and get started on some simple games and activities.


Ultimately, when dealing with children in swimming lessons, a fundamental decision needs to be made about the program.  Is it child centered or program/skill centered?  If a program is skill centered, then expectations are placed on children that certain things will be done in a certain time frame.   They may be physically capable of the skills and the need to attain the skills for whatever reason – safety, value, etc. – is seen to supersede any other concerns.  An example of this would be a program that dictates “all children will go under the water on the first lesson.”


A program that is child centered would take other factors into account, including all the areas of a child’s development.  A child centered program may determine that submerging is a good skill to accomplish and may work toward that, even getting some students accomplishing that on the first lesson.  However, if a child showed resistance to going under, their psychological or emotional needs would also be attended to.  That child may be experiencing an issue with security and to be forced under when they are showing that resistance could be very upsetting, and even damaging.  A child-centered program recognizes needs in all areas of a child’s development and gives them attention, where a skill-centered program might sacrifice those other areas.


Skill centered programs will usually have more children upset and even fearful by the nature of how they are approaching students and their needs.  Deciding which approach a program takes will have a significant influence over how successfully the fearful child is being dealt with.  It should also be pointed out that a child-centered program can still develop skills; it is just that the timeline is adjusted to the individual child.


Take some of the recommendations made here in handling the fearful child. Encourage preparation that can lessen anxiety, build rapport and familiarity.  Good luck and happy teaching!




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