Though I am embarrassed to admit it, I have never been able to help much with math homework. Sure, I’m a grown man and should know a few things, but advanced mathematics isn’t something I was ever good at. Regardless of my grasp of the basics, I am far out of my depth when it comes to anything beyond geometry and basic algebra. So when it comes to helping the kids, my wife and I call in a pro (a local math teacher who tutors on the side) – and I stay out of the way. This is a good idea.
Likewise, you may be comfortable introducing your kids to the water and teaching them to relax and float, but advanced swimming lessons are simply more than you can handle. That’s okay. If breath control and proper stroke technique have you scratching your head like – well, me with polynomial long division, here are some fundamentals for finding professional help.
1. Assess their commitment to safety and professional certification
Anyone serious about working with children in the water will have taken the time to get certified in CPR and first aid. At minimum, any swimming instructor should be certified in first aid, CPR, and lifeguarding. Another certification to look for is WSI or Water Safety Instruction. This is the American Red Cross’s designation of a swim instructor. You should have no hesitation in asking to see their credentials and a good instructor will have none in showing you them.
There are other professional affiliations and training certificates that you may see, including affiliation with the U.S. Swim Schools Association. Association with a professional organization doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it does let you know that the school or instructor you are considering takes their profession seriously and is working with other professionals to improve their craft, and member schools are rated for their experience and commitment to the continuing education of their staff.
2. Understand their approach to instruction
Ask the instructor, what is your approach to swim instruction? What do you try to accomplish? What you are looking for is an instructor who works to build fundamentals and build up skills progressively. You’re listening for words like “fundamentals” and “progression” and “developing confidence” when asking questions about the way they teach.
Be wary of any guarantees for how fast or slow your child’s skills in the water may develop. Experienced instructors understand that children are different and will have their own pace when learning to swim. That doesn’t mean that group instruction is better or worse than one-on-one lessons, but you want to be sure that swim instructors have an appropriate appreciation of your child’s individual needs.
3. Watch them with other kids
I know I have discussed the importance of being there and being comfortable with your children in the water, but sometimes your presence can distract them. At certain ages, kids learn faster, stay focused longer, and even complain less when mom and dad are out of sight. Some instructors have parents watching from a clandestine spot, and this is just fine. You should, of course, be able to watch lessons before you commit. When you do this, you are looking for some very specific things.
You want an instructor or instructional team who appears patient and looks comfortable interacting with children the same age as your child. You want to see if the students look engaged or bored. Are they excited to be there and having fun, or do they look like it is drudgery? While more fun equals more learning, don’t be too put off if the older kids look like they are doing some real work. What you are looking for as much as anything is the appearance that students like the instructors and vice versa.
The American Red Cross recommends no more than ten students for every instructor, so have a look at class sizes as well. Again, group instruction isn’t a bad thing and it can even be preferable at times to one-on-one instruction. Children can gain confidence from watching others their age swimming alongside. But, too many kids at a time is hard to manage on dry land, much less in the water.
4. The classroom matters
Nothing takes the fun out of swimming like chattering teeth in a pool that is too cold. Blue lips and shivering kids are a good sign that you should look somewhere else. The clarity and quality of the water are important as well. Water quality for your home pool is equally important for any pool where lessons are held. It matters for the safety of the kids and for the quality of the learning that will go on when they are there.
Burning eyes from improper pH levels can ruin a lesson quicker than anything, and you can forget the fun factor if lessons = discomfort for your kids. A properly run pool will look and smell clean and clear. If it isn’t a place you would love to swim, your kids won’t either.
I have several friends in the business of providing professional swim lessons and all of them are proud of what they do. When you ask them for references (and you should, of course) a good instructor will be thrilled to hand them over. You can ask the parents you see when you visit, but you also want to hear from the vets, whose children have been to the school and moved on.
My good friend Johnny Johnson of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, California has taught generations of children and has a reputation spanning decades. Six of his students have competed in the Olympics! You should be so lucky to have a school like his nearby, but don’t be afraid of up-and-comers with a good reputation and the right credentials. Schools like Johnny’s have instructors who learn from the masters and move on to start their own schools in other markets. So if a friend of yours recommends a school that is maybe a bit too far from your home, you should ask them for a professional reference for an instructor in your area. Believe me, they’ll know who else is out there and will give you good advice.
Consider the five things listed above, ask good questions, and watch the instructors while they work. You’ll be well on your way to finding an instructor or swim school that is right for your child. In the end, you are looking for a place and for people that will help your child learn a skill for life. I don’t think it is a no-brainer decision, but it shouldn’t be as hard for you as trigonometry is for me.
Stay safe, have fun, and as always, I’d be glad to answer your questions in the comments below.
Mario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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