The Wonderful World of Water

Each year, the children in Room 623 are lucky enough to go to the Margaret Clark Aquatic Center. During those four weeks of swimming, the children are magically transformed from little humans into fish.

The fun part for the adults is watching the children improve their skills as they swim in the pool. That was especially true while observing Dominic. It was his third year in the Structured for Life Program and he had changed the most this year.

Dominic was a quiet boy who barely spoke any English or Spanish during his first year in the unit. The child was incredibly shy and it was difficult to even get him to utter more than one or two words at a time. Dominic’s anxiety was extreme. It had taken quite a while for the teacher and staff to gain his confidence.

When it was the month for swimming, most of the students were excited. Dominic had no idea what was ahead of him. When he saw the water, the boy fell apart. Fear was deeply etched in his whole body. The child was absolutely terrified of going into the water.

Those first years of swimming with Dominic were hard on whomever was assisting the boy in the pool.

Dominic would cling to the person and even scratch him if he didn’t like what was happening. Fortunately, the pool had a wonderful enclosed section with a raised platform. That section was placed directly in the shallowest part of the pool.

At first, Abraham Hernandez and Sandra Streb, the swimming instructors, slowly immersed Dominic into that wading area. This enabled the boy to walk around in the water safely without any real assistance.

More importantly, it allowed Diego to become comfortable in the water. As he became less afraid, the boy was moved out of the platform into the main shallow area of the pool.

Dominic gained the ability to walk around the shallow end of the pool. Yet, when it was time to learn to float, he would scream. Moving his feet off the ground, the sensation of being on his back was not anything that he wanted to try. The teacher knew that some of her students would never be able to be truly water safe. The sensations with the water would calm some students, but others absolutely did not like the feeling. For the most part, water was an incredible sensory calming experience. She wanted that to be the same for Dominic.

This year, Dominic had sprouted in height. He also had been deeply involved in the DIR Model used in Room 622. He was learning wonderful interactive communication skills with his peers in the room. Dominic had a very special friend, Gabriel.

Gabriel had been able to swim well for the last several years. He was very tiny when he started first grade. However, he liked water from the beginning and wanted to learn to swim. Gabriel, by second grade had done well enough to be moved off the platform into the general pool area. Two other boys that Gabriel liked were already in the deeper end of the pool and Gabriel soon followed. That gave Dominic a powerful motivator to improve his swimming skills.

The first days were hard for the boy but he kept looking over at the other side of the pool. Gabriel and the other boys looked like they were having so much fun. Even the newest boy, Teddy, was moved over to the deeper end. Dominic knew what it would take to get there. He had done this program for the last two years.

The teacher watched Dominic work hard to overcome his fear of floating. He listened carefully as Abraham and Sandra worked with him. “You can do it Dominic!” Abraham told him. “You can join Sandra and the boys if you just trust in yourself.” Abraham reminded the boy he could always stand up in the pool when fear got the better of him.” Well, this year, Dominic conquered that fear. Midway in the swimming class, he moved over to the deeper end. He had learned how to swim! Friendship is a powerful motivator!

Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at