Oftentimes parents will assess the suitability of continuing swimming lessons. This usually happens several years after a child has begun swimming lessons, often at one of two critical points. The first being, the point in which the child has reached a level of competence, and the parent believes the child is now ‘water-safe’. The second, being a point in time where swimming progress appears to plateau.

Is my Child ‘Water-Safe’

One of my swim school parents recently told me of their intention to stop their 6-year old’s swim lessons as they believed that their child was now “water safe”. When pressed as to what exactly they meant by “water safe”, the parent explained that her son had been taking swim lessons for 3 years, and could now swim 25m unassisted and float on their back, and was aware of basic water safety information.

There is a popular misconception that attending swim lessons will ensure a child’s safety around water and guarantee them “drown proof”. While swim schools are in the business of providing water skills which are designed to help assist in the prevention of drowning, they cannot prevent drowning from occurring. There is no such thing as being either “water safe” or “drown proof”, and the role of a swim school is to impart knowledge, tools and skills to a swimmer for them use when a dangerous water-related situation arises.

Has my child hit a learning plateau?

It is likely there will be stages during the learn-to-swim process when your child experiences a “learning plateau”. During a period of skill acquisition or technique mastery, a “learning plateau” describes the feeling or appearance that your child is making little or no progress, no matter how hard they seem to be trying.

It is important for parents to acknowledge that a learning plateau is a normal element of the learn-to-swim process, and that it is generally experienced when swimmers reach a level that is intrinsically challenging (i.e. learning to coordinate bilateral freestyle breathing for the first time).

Children often make wonderful advances when they first begin learning to swim and, as the child builds rapidly on their knowledge and skill base in these initial stages, their progress is marked and is easily identifiable and able to be measured. Thereafter, the learning tends to be more gradual and consists of a consolidation and extension of existing skills and knowledge where, as the learner strives to refine his/her skills, such progress is less apparent. It is at these times that the parent begins to reconsider the value of continuing to pay for lessons, or indeed to contemplate removing the child from the lesson to “give them a break’.

Should my child stop swimming lessons

My advice for both of these scenarios is DO NOT STOP!!

Discontinuation of swim lessons at this early age for reasons similar to those mentioned above is all too common. However, before interrupting the progress of a child’s swim lessons, there are several issues that I believe a parent should consider.

Firstly, one has to identify whether the decision to replace swimming lessons with another activity is the right one? Ignoring the health and psychological benefits of all of the various sports and activities available to the child (after all, each has its own inherent advantages from the standpoint of developing strength, coordination, endurance and social skills and, as a parent, any form of participation in a physical activity is to be encouraged), swimming differs from other activities in that it is a life-long, potentially life-saving skill. No other sport or activity can be said to be able to provide the same.

Water Safety for Life

What classifies a person as adequately prepared to deal with an incident in an unwanted and unexpected water-related situation?

There is no definite answer. However, what is certain is that a swimmer needs to be equipped with safety skills and stroke endurance sufficient to maintain themselves until assistance becomes available, and to be able to swim a distance to safety should the conditions be turbulent – scientists have found that it is possible for a human to swim approximately 180m without being able to breathe effectively. The level of swimming ability that I suggest (and that I believe all swimmers should aim for) is competence in all 4 of the competitive strokes, safety skill competence, and the ability to swim at least 400 metres freestyle non-stop using correct breathing and with the correct technique – including a relaxed and rhythmical stroke.

Not even this, of course, will guarantee a swimmer’s survival, but it will provide them with a set of skills that will markedly enhance their capacity to cope with most life-threatening water-related scenarios .

How to get through a Learning Plateau

Consideration of the following tips will help expedite your child’s transition through a “learning plateau” and, in turn, will validate your decision to continue swim lessons……

1) Maintain continual commitment to lessons. Consistent practise involving skill reinforcement accelerates the learning process. Interruption to lessons results in a loss of momentum and, more often than not, necessitates the re-teaching of the child upon lesson recommencement.

2) Create as much time as possible to practise. Consider taking an additional weekly lesson, do revision at home (in a pool if you have access to one, or instead simply through discussion and on-land demonstration), or schedule a visit to your local pool.

3) Remain positive and supportive of your child as they pass through this stage. Praise and reward any observed improvements. Be patient; expect these plateaus to occur, and don’t pressure your child.

4) Talk to your Swim School about the things you can do to make the transition through a learning plateau stage easier. Instructors are trained to recognise when development is occurring, and indeed may be aware that the child is progressing when the parent is otherwise unaware of any improvement.

5) Make yourself aware of the sensitivity offered by instructors to children in a “learning plateau” phase. An effective instructor will provide guidance and alternative activities to assist a child during a period of skill stagnation. Such instruction may comprise implementation of a skill or a drill in a different way, or a focus on learning through fun to ensure the swimmer continues to enjoy lessons during a challenging plateau period.

Why Persistence is the Key

Ideally, I hope that every child falls in love with the water and never wants to stop swimming, but of course it’s no secret that some kids love swimming, and some don’t. Before you cease swimming lessons, ask yourself “How Do I Know When My Child Can Swim?” or “Is this a temporary Plateau that we can work through?”

Swimming is a lifelong skill that takes many years to master. An awareness and an understanding of the “learning plateau” phases inherent in swimming development will serve a parent well as they help their child along this pathway to swimming mastery.

And remember, while learning to swim takes time it can save your child’s life, be it now or in the future. That’s worth the investment of time. After all…. learning to swim is an asset for life!

© 2010 Julia Ham/Hampton Swim School Pty Ltd Julia Ham is a former Australian swimming representative. She operates Hampton Swim School, Morningside which specializes in aquatic classes for children from 3 months of age to adults. Contact 3399 2004 or www.hamptonswimschool.com.au