Monday, March 7, 2011

ISR Swimming

One day at our YMCA, I noticed a woman teaching ISR (Infant Swim Resource) swim lessons and at first glance, the lesson seemed a bit rough. The child was crying as he was being thrown backwards in his clothes into the water. He would pop up to the surface and float, then turn onto his tummy and swim, then roll over and float and then turn over again, swim to the edge and get ready to pull himself out of the water. What I didn't realize was that this child was at the end of his ISR swim lesson training and was wearing his winter clothes while his instructor threw him in the water, to simulate falling into the water by accident. This child was going to survive an accidental fall.

Then one day, after several months of daily swimming with my own children, I threw Alex up into the air. I thought he had been learning to swim with me over the winter, but when he landed in the water that day, he sank to the very bottom and stayed there. I pulled him out by his foot and realized that if he were to fall into the many bodies of water that surround our house and daily lives, he would not survive. So, I enrolled Izzy and Alex in ISR swim lessons. We were very worried about how Alex would adapt to these challenging, 10-minute daily lessons, and so we let Izzy start for two weeks so that Alex could witness her success and want to join her. Starting Alex after Izzy turned out to be a good decision and by the time his turn came to take lessons, he was jumping out of his skin for "his turn".

Our swim instructor is very attune to the children she teaches. Each child is taught according to his ability and to how he is adapting to the lessons. She has slightly modified the lessons she gives Izzy to accommodate Alex's different learning style. Izzy jumps into everything and just goes. Alex, more cerebral and deliberate, needs to understand what he is being asked to do. He needs to take very small steps and do them repeatedly, even when it appears he may have mastered that particular step, before he is ready to move on to the next step. Our instructor listens to us and to Alex and has adapted in a way that makes Alex feel comfortable. He is being challenged, but it isn't scary. Although he still cries sometimes during a lessons, it is only briefly and not out of fear, but is his way of showing his emotion.

The incredible result is that after just two lessons, Alex is floating on his back very relaxed, and then she he turns over to swim to the wall (head under water), he does so, with eyes open, very bravely. The instructor provides only the most necessary physical support to allow Alex to feel that he is doing all this swimming on his own. In another few lessons, he will be doing it entirely on his own. When I was instructing him, if I even let go of him with one hand, he had a small meltdown. Now, he is swimming without support and believes he can do it.

I recommend ISR to every parent I meet. Many parents are afraid of the lessons because they see children cry sometimes. I see children cry sometimes in the Y lessons, which aren't even the least bit challenging to the children. And by the end of the ISR sessions (4-6 weeks, depending on the child, of daily 10 minute lessons), the children are water safe. Some can swim with strokes the full length of the pool and the younger ones (6 months) may only float. But none of them will sink to the bottom of the pool when they are thrown in. For children like Alex with physical disabilities, the swim lessons are even more important.

For more info on ISR swimming, visit their website at

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Karate, Karate, Karate

I can not say enough good things about the benefits of martial arts for children. In recent weeks, we have seen some major breakthroughs for Alex, most notable in his balance. All children would benefit from pursuing a martial art, but children with balance issues (and I have read, also children with ADHD and other attention issues) benefit considerably. Until a couple weeks ago, Alex was unable to bend both knees forward to pick up something or do a frog jump. His left leg always bent in, which made his balance poor and did nothing to strengthen the leg. Alex's karate instructor realized Alex's posture when bending would prevent him from moving forward in his karate. So, he began a series of isolated drills and stretches and repeated practice to get the bent leg to stay straight. Once Alex felt the correct posture a few times, he understood what he had been doing wrong and began to self-correct. He now bends correctly all the time. He is so proud of himself for this major accomplishment that he practices it frequently, further strengthening the leg and the synapses of the brain.

I don't know if there has been any research on the frequency and timing of therapy in disabled children, but our observation is that when we do therapy (like karate and swimming) in the morning, Alex is in good spirits. He then naps, and during his sleeping period, he synthesizes the morning's lessons (research HAS been done on the benefits of sleep for children to process what they learn). When we try therapies in the afternoon, Alex is cranky, even if he has napped. He has a small morning window in which he is well-rested and able to happily participate in lessons. For children with physical limitations, their caloric expenditure is many times a child without these limitations, and so they are exhausted by early afternoon (or lunch time, even, in Alex's case). Knowing this, we take extra care and attention to scheduling Alex's daily activities so that we have success.