Yesterday I was raging mad. Crying mad. Helpless mad. Yesterday was my son’s first day of practice with the neighborhood swim team, a really lovely local organization staffed by volunteers who care deeply about kids. I stood in line on a hot morning last month to secure one of just a few spots for newbies. I paid the registration fee. I went to the orientation sessions. I bought the gear and the spirit wear (and I now know what a dry-fit tank is). I met the coach. And then I did what many parents of kids who need accommodations do in advance of a new activity: I emailed the coach to give her a heads-up about my son’s strengths and difficulties, when he might need extra help and patience, and above all, how important it would be for him to have a good first practice. Nothing too intense; just a brief “about me” in the third person, but enough–I thought–to flag her attention. She responded graciously and I was hopeful.
So we went to practice. My kiddo was eager and even initiated conversations with other kids. The coach put him in a group of 4 with an assistant coach. My son did a fantastic job of sitting and listening (not easy skills for him) and he got in the cold water when it was time. The kids next to him were shrieking (I was ready to leave because of the noise) but he held it together and mostly followed directions. But he got increasingly upset as the coach touched him to help him get his body in good swimming positions. He insisted he could do it himself; she insisted he needed help and held on to his body even as he pulled away. He escalated. He turned his back on her and she told him “look at me, LOOK at me, LOOK AT ME!” He did, but he was angry now and began to lose control of his words. She told him he had to sit out for the rest of the session. And by the way, he was the ONLY kid who had to sit out. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how often this sort of thing has happened on a first day of a new activity. He’s always the “disruptive” kid, the kid who sits out.
I watched all of this with sinking heart and rising blood pressure. I hauled butt to the edge of the pool and angrily asked the assistant coach if she had received any information about the accommodations my son needs. Nope. Nada. The head coach came over and I told them both quite pointedly that they needed to discuss the information that I sent them last week before we met for the next practice (today). And I gathered my melty child and stormed off. Not my best moment. But once again, no matter how much preparation I put into a new situation, the People in Charge (PIC) did not pay attention to a very simple request: please be more patient with my child and recognize that when he appears defiant, he actually needs more support. He might need a break. He might need more verbal explanation and less physical “help.” He most certainly needs you to listen and respect his words. He certainly does not need a time out because he can’t / won’t look you in the eyes.
(Because I know this story might trigger strong emotions, I’m going to spoil the ending and tell you now that this story ends well. I hope you will stay until the end.)
So for the rest of the evening my son hated swimming, and the coaches, and his dinner, etc. I will take part of the blame here: it didn’t occur to me to prep him for touch; I’m not particularly fond of random people touching me, but touch doesn’t send me over the edge. Also, I haven’t taken swimming lessons in almost 4 decades so I didn’t think about it. We spent the evening talking about how coaches usually do touch your body to help you feel where you are in space and use your body efficiently. And we talked about what would make it ok: asking first? only using touch when absolutely necessary? speaking directions and visually illustrating them instead of touch? Yes, he said, a combination of all three. So we agreed that I would talk to the coach about these specific things and we would all try again.
And here’s the happy ending: swim practice today was wonderful. I talked to the head coach this afternoon and she LISTENED. (I’m super happy with her tonight!) She reassigned him to a different assistant coach who prepped my son for each touch: “I’m going to hold your arms out now,” “I’m going to put my hands on your back,” etc. When he said “I want to do it myself,” she let him, and she offered verbal feedback instead of touching him. She gently reminded him about safety rules when he got squirmy. She spoke softly–or as softly as she could in a loud swimming pool space.
Please note how simple these accommodations are. His accommodations don’t need to be elaborate, but they do need to be personalized and consistent. He doesn’t need to be isolated in private lessons (although some kids / adults might need that). He doesn’t need an elaborate token economy system. He doesn’t need excessive praise. He simply needs the PIC to listen to him and respect his requests whenever possible. He needs the PIC to presume that he is competent enough to ask for what he needs, and to get over the idea that his behavior is manipulative and needs to be squashed.
He went to bed happy and confident. He loves swimming again.