Archive for the ‘special needs’ Category

Session Handout: Preschool Safety

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Preschool Safety

Beth Gardner, Heart of Texas Gymnastics

materials available at

blog at

Preschool children present their own set of criteria within the gym environment.  The differences do not stop at those skills which  we teach preschoolers and how we teach them.  Rather, they include the safety issues of which we should be aware.

Safety warnings

       verbal not written

       repeated often

       Safety games              

Safety in stretches

      Three purposes to a good warm-up. 

      Hold times     

     Ballistic vs. Dynamic     

     Keeping the spine straight and eliminating unnecessary torque     

     Knees / Splits

Class Management

      Class Ratios

      Field of Vision

      Obstacle course layout

      Diminishing Distractions 

      Consistent Cues          

Parental Education

      Articles and Safety Information

      Keeping the Parents Engaged in Parent/Tot Classes

      Safe Spotting

      Passive Heimlich

Bars Safety

     Industry Standards

     Small Hands


     Age for hanging unsupported

     Skin the Cat    

 Beam Safety

      Industry Standards

      Nursemaid’s Elbow

      Floor beams vs High beam

Trampoline Safety

     Double bouncing

     One child per tramp

     Nursemaid’s Elbow           

The Never-ending Debate: bridges

       Spondolysis  /   Spondylolisthesis 

      Physiology of the Preschooler


      Lack of flexibility within the shoulders

      Alternative stretches

Special Needs

            Down’s Syndrome / cervical neck x-ray

            Safety rules apply to special needs kids too

            Floater coaches

Behavior Modification and Special Needs: The Child & Parent

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

As I have stated in my previous blog entry, I have a great deal of empathy for the parent of a special needs child.  I know they have their plates full as they raise a child or children who require specialized care.

At the same time, I hold my special needs children to the same standards as I hold anybody else in the gym.  I expect them to follow the rules and treat others with the same respect they receive.  I do not allow neither the special needs child nor their parent to use their disability as an excuse for anything.

 I understand that children who have disorders affecting behavior oftentimes have outbursts or they have difficulty controlling their behaviors.  Still, I expect them to learn how to socialize appropriately and I expect them to treat me as I would treat them; with respect.

I do no child a favor if I allow them to behave in any manner they desire.  One of my most important jobs in working with children is to teach them how to interact within a group or an environment with appropriate behavior.  My special needs children are no different.  They are normal children who have the added difficulty of learning how to manage their disabilities as well as the standard growing pains we all experience.

In other words, I tell them “No.”  

When I first meet a special needs child and their parent, I talk to the parent alot.  I try to get to know them, and I try to get an idea of what their goals are for their child.  During this first meeting, I watch the child’s movement and habits, and I get as much information about the child as I can from the parent.  This is the time in which I explain my expectations to the parent as well. 

Children with special needs are very often extremely bright.  Like I tell my coaches, don’t ever underestimate the intelligence of any child.  Even those who are diagnosed with mental retardation are often very smart.  They learn how to jerk Mom’s chain just like any other kid.  They also learn how to manipulate the people around them to get their way.  That’s why they have to be held just as accountable for their behaviors as anyone else.

I explain to the parents in the first meeting that I have a very strong will.  If there is ever a battle of the wills, I will be the victor.  Period.  So, I have to prepare parents for the difficult moments that I know will happen as I establish control in the gym.  I acknowledge that it may be difficult to watch someone else stand tough with their kiddo, but that I have to help them understand the gym rules to keep them safe. 

 Most of the parents appreciate the fact that I treat their child as I would any other child.  Most of them are very supportive because they, too, have to set standards and rules for their child.  So, they understand and appreciate the fact that I will have to take time to establish the rules.  As long as they know that I am acting on behalf of their child, and teaching them the hard rules of life and social interaction through love, concern and consistency, they are usually very supportive.

There are a few parents, however, who will allow their child to use their disability as an excuse.  Shoot, sometimes they supply the excuse to the kid before the class even starts as they tell me “She might be cranky today because…” with the kid standing there listening.  Sometimes, the parent enables their child to develop poor social skills by excusing or overlooking their behaviors without holding the child accountable.

I understand the trap that some parents fall into because it is a very tough job parenting the child with special needs.  It’s exhausting.  It’s frustrating.  Sometimes the parents are dealing with guilt because their child doesn’t have “normality” or it might be that they just want peace in the household and a little “normality” for their other children at home.  Sometimes the easiest route is to just let the kid have their way.  The easiest route, however, is not always the best route in the long run.

..and it isn’t an option for me.  It’s my job to tell them “no” and to teach them rules for their own safety and that of other children in the gym.  It is also my job to help them to learn to interact with the world at-large.  The world “out there” is rarely forgiving.

As a parent, it is difficult to step back and allow someone else to discipline your child.  It is especially difficult for a parent who is accustomed to protecting a child who is often rejected by the public to sit back and trust that discipline is a necessary part of loving that child.

So, it is important for me to teach them how to live within rules and act in socially acceptable ways so that the larger world will more readily accept them as well.  The goal is to help them achieve as much “normality” as possible and to live lives as normally as they possibly can.

It is important that I set very simple rules for them to follow, and then stick to my guns.   I don’t wish to load them down with rules but I do expect them to abide by the few rules I give them.

1) Stay with the coach

2) Don’t play on equipment without a coach

3) Treat others the way you wish to be treated.

Those are my rules for all of my students in the gym. 

If my special needs students break one of those rules, I stand my ground and call them on their behavior the same way I would with any other child.  I don’t “punish” them, but I do use every trick up my sleeve to avoid difficult confrontations and I try to choose my battles wisely.

Some of the steps I take in discipline are: 

     1. Redirection of behavior.  I try to bait the kids into activities with excitement, or distract them from misdirected behavior toward the activities I want them to do.  If a kiddo refuses to do an activity, I will simply state, “This is what we are doing right now. If we finish this, then we can do that, but first we must finish this task.”  They may balk at my directions, and I repeat, “I’m sorry, I know you want to do that, but right now we are doing THIS.  We can do THAT AFTER we finish this.”

     2. Changing activities that aren’t working.  With my special needs children, I try to keep calming activities on hand.  Things that I use for calming include waterplay (pouring water back and forth between cups in a bowl), stringing beads, spinning or swinging on a rope or jumping on the trampoline for impact, rolling up in a towel for pressure, letting them run their hands through bowls of uncooked pinto beans, or brushing and patting them for sensory input.  I try to find a calming activity that the child likes and use it when I see them starting to hit “meltdown” BEFORE they actually hit meltdown and BEFORE there is actually an issue.

     3. Giving choices or allowing them to do an activity that they love to do, even if it’s only for a few minutes.  If I watch my kids, they tell me what they want or what they need simply by their choices and behaviors.  So, allowing them to have some freedom for those things or finding ways to incorporate those activities into their class helps eliminate the problems before problems ever occur.

     4. Pointing out the good behaviors and giving attention for those rather than the poor behaviors

     5. Using the words, “I need.”  For example, “I need you to listen to me.  I need you to look me in the eye.”

     6. Attacking the behavior, not the kid..”That is not okay with me.”

     7. Reminding the student of what they are supposed to be doing.

     8. Waiting them out.  Many times, my biggest disciplinary hammer is time, itself.  I simply sit down next to them and remind them that I will wait for them to make the correct decision.  Eventually, they give in and I get my way.  I “wait” for them to make the correct choice.  I have waited for up to an hour and a half for a student to make the correct choice.  I have alot more stamina than they do…and I don’t have to go home until 9:30PM.

     9. Consistency is key.  The more consistent I am, the more the child understands what to expect.

    10. I love the child.  No matter what.  I love the child.  I do my best to let them know that I care about them beyond anything else.  If they know that, they will walk through fire for me. 

Behavior Modification and Special Needs: The Gym Family

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

My heart goes out to parents with special needs children.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to raise a child who requires around the clock care for possibly their entire lives.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to fear that nobody will be there to care for my child if something should happen to me. 

My heart has broken for parents as they have described how their children are rejected by society at large.  I have listened to parents explain the stares in public, or the fact that people will not allow their child to participate in swimming lessons because they do not want to touch their child.  It really bothers me to think that we as a society can be so hardened to other human beings simply because they don’t “fit the mold.”

When I opened my gym, my learning curve increased significantly as I stepped into the role of owner rather than coach or preschool director.  I had my hands full just learning how to run a business.  So, I had not taken the time to start a special needs program in my new gym.  

One day, a mom came into my gym to sign her daughter up for gymnastics.  As she stood at the front counter filling out the registration forms, she commented that she wished her son could participate in something like gymnastics.  I asked her why he couldn’t participate.  Her response was, “He has autism.” 

I said, “Yeah? So, why can’t he do gymnastics?”  She stared at me for a moment with this stunned look on her face and I told her that I had worked with special needs kids before and that kids with autism could gain a great deal from gymnastics.   I explained that gymnastics was actually a GREAT sport for any kid, especially kids with sensory integration disorders including autism.

She seemed abit confused for a moment and asked me, “So, you would let my son come to your gym?”  It almost seemed as if she had difficulty asking the question.

“ABSOLUTELY.  Without hesitation.”

She burst into tears.  I mean..BURST into tears. 

Then she went on to tell me that there were no programs in our area for special needs.

That’s the day I knew I needed to make the time to start a special needs program in my new gym.  As I continued to find out, there truly was NO program for special needs children in our area.  There was a huge need.  I could not live with myself if I didn’t do something to fulfill that need.

So, I contacted the local hospital system and visited with the head of their Pediatric Occupational Therapy department.  She and I sat and talked for about an hour as she asked me about the sorts of things I wanted to do with the kids.  By the end of the interview, she and I had a really good understanding of how we could work together.  That relationship has blossomed to include the Child Psychology department within that hospital system as well. 

Then, I contacted the local school districts and put a flyer out to their special needs teachers to let them know that our gym would welcome their students.

That’s how our program started. 

I knew that my established clientele would have an adjustment as they got used to our new program.  I knew that it would be a learning experience for the children as they learned to accept other children who weren’t exactly like them.  I knew the parents would have questions.  People are simply not comfortable with things they don’t understand.  I knew I was going to have to educate my gymnastics family as they learned to adjust their perception of gymnastics and the pursuit of medals.

Still, I felt that it was the correct direction for our gym, and the incredible life lessons that could be gained by everyone involved were too invaluable to pass up.  Every child is someone’s baby.  Every child deserves dignity and respect.  Every child deserves the chance to succeed to the best of their ability.  The lessons in acceptance were just as important for my established clientele as the participation was for the special needs children and their parents.

I was able to mainstream several of the children who came to me, but my first severely affected student was Melanie.  She was 13 at the time she started gymnastics.  Melanie has Autism and Fragile X, so she not only has autism, but she also has mental retardation.  The first few times she came to the gym, she could only be in the facility for about 15 minutes before she overstimulated and lost control.  It was very overwhelming for her.  She would fly into uncontrollable rages and her mom and I would have to restrain her from running across the gym.  Melanie is quite the drama queen, and her tantrums are grand performances.  So, as she started, we had to gradually add time to her class.

Melanie also had an obsessive behavior she called “woofing.”  She would walk up to people and “woof” their hair, rubbing their heads rather briskly and messing up their hair.  That was Melanie’s way of saying “hi.”  Woofing their hair.  So, the parents in the observation area were fair game for Melanie when she walked into the gym..many heads were woofed before we were able to teach her to limit her woofing to my head or her mother’s head.

This behavior bothered some of the parents.  Her tantrums also bothered some of the parents.

One day, after Melanie had been in the gym for about 3 weeks, a dad walked up to me right before her class and said, “I am really uncomfortable with ‘those’ children being in the gym at the same time as the ‘normal’ children.”  I felt my blood start to rise.  He continued by telling me that if I was going to have “those” children in my gym that he felt that he was going to have to take his daughter out of my program.

There were many things I wanted to say to the man at that moment.  I SOOO wanted to point out that his daughter was likely to become just as intolerant, condescending and arrogant as he already was if his example was the only attitude she ever experienced in life.  Yep..there were alot of things I wanted to say at that moment, many of which would qualify as “unlady-like” not to mention “unprofessional.”

I bit my tongue the best I could as I tried to respond calmly.”I’m sorry you feel that way, sir, but ‘those children’ ARE normal children.  They simply have to deal with disorders that you and I are lucky enough not to have to deal with.  Any child will be welcome in my gym if I can serve them.  If that is uncomfortable to you, then this is probably not the gym for you.”  Sure enough..he pulled his daughter out of the program.  I have to say, I didn’t mind watching the door swat him in the backside as he left. 

Another parent also approached me with concerns.  A mom.  I told her as I have told many people over the years that as a mother, I simply could not turn my back on other mothers and their children who needed me the most.  I could not face myself if I turned my back and added to the rejection they felt directed at their child daily.  I couldn’t do it.  She could relate to what I was saying, and so she stepped back and watched. 

Over the next few months, I had the opportunity to watch an amazing transformation as I watched the entire gym learn acceptance.  The children in the gym opened their arms to our new members and learned to cheer for them when they achieved the smallest things.  They realized that something so mundane for them like walking up stairs was a huge step for Melanie because it meant she was overcoming her fear of heights.  I watched as the children themselves stepped up to the plate and began helping their new friends with special needs.  I saw the parents begin cheering for the special needs kids as much as they did for their own.  Our special needs program became a fixture and simply a part of the culture in our gym.

About a year later that same mother came to me and said, “Ya know, I would have never believed how much Melanie could progress if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.  It is amazing that the same kid who couldn’t last for 15 minutes in the gym can now participate in a three hour game night.  She has come so far.”

I felt a small victory…because that mom had grown as much as Melanie had progressed.

Behavior modification had to start with the community and the gym family. 

It had to start with letting the community at large know that there IS a program for special needs children in our area through the schools and through the medical community. 

It began with the gymnastics family already established in my gym.  It had to start with teaching people not only to accept others as they are, but also to celebrate the victories for each individual. 

It had to start with me setting aside my fears as a new gym owner worried about losing the business of those parents who might not “be comfortable” with children who didn’t fit their perception of “normal” and it meant changing the definition of “normal” for those willing to listen and hear.