Eliza Grace was born on March 15, 2006, at 26 weeks, 4 days, weighing 1 pound 4 ounces and measuring just 11.5 inches long. She is the light of my soul and this is the story of our life in the big city.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Special Needs Children and Athletics

If you search "children and athletics" on any book site you get dozens upon dozens of books on how to help coach and motivate children in athletics, whether competitive sports or just for fun. Add the words "special needs" in front of that same search and you pretty much get nothing (well there is a book about Oscar Pistorius, but I'm not sure he is the role model parents are looking for these days).

The same thing happens on a general Google search. You add in "special needs" and the search brings you various websites and blogs on how to make sure the school district is following the IDEA and implementing your child's IEP so that your child is not being denied to right to engage in PE class, even if modifications are necessary. You also find links to organizations that provide sports programs (for a fee that often far surpasses the fee for the same program for neuro-typical children) for special needs children, often with very specific special needs, such as Autism. And that's about it.

There is nothing that I have located (and I am a pretty darn good googler) that addresses how to encourage, support and motivate your child with special needs in athletics. I've yet to locate a book (or even article) directed at coaches on how to motivate, encourage and support children with special needs who are participating in a typical sports program.

Am I surprised? No. Am I disappointed? Yes. With the hundreds, if not thousands of articles and books written about the important life lessons children learn from participating in sports and how to motivate and coach children, you would think someone would have addressed the inclusion of special needs children.

Eliza has had two wonderful Physical Education teachers. But these are teachers in the public school system and they have years of experience teaching and coaching children with special needs because the school Physical Education classes are inclusion classes. They understand that Eliza may need to have the rules of the game broken down into individual steps and perhaps repeated a few times. They understand that simply telling her to try harder on her bounce pass in basketball isn't particularly helpful without something more definitive, like reminding her how to hold her hands properly to put the ball in play.  

But when we have ventured into those weekend sports activities, things have been pretty disappointing. Eliza takes gymnastics on weekends. It is a group class but the coach to athlete ratio is pretty good (20 athletes in Eliza's age group (8 to 10 years old) and 4 coaches) broken down into groups by level. Eliza enjoyed it last year in the younger age group (6 to 8 years old). In the younger age group instructions were broken down into smaller steps and I suppose there was an expectation that the younger gymnasts needed more structured coaching. Just my guess.

This year in the older age group Eliza has struggled. Eliza was enthusiastic when she returned after the summer hiatus. She is not as adept as some of the other gymnasts (some of whom have been taking classes since they were toddlers) but she is equal to many others and was eager to learn and try.  She has some fears (flipping over the uneven parallel bars), she is not as physically strong as some of the other girls and is by far the smallest of the girls in her class. Despite that, Eliza does quite well on the beam and mat.  

But Eliza struggles in the warm up session since instructions are given in bulk ("Now girls let's warm up by doing A,B,C and D and repeat that 4 times).  Eliza will remember A and B but then kind of get lost because she did not retain the entire instruction.  Or she'll remember the 4 step instruction but not the instruction to repeat that sequence 4 times). So to the average observer it looks as if she is just not paying attention. The coaches are relatively young and I've talked to them about Eliza needing instructions broken down or repeated, but, like many folks, they just think Eliza doesn't pay attention, is daydreaming or too lazy to try harder. And this makes me sad an frustrated. I'm not looking for Eliza to be catered to, just some small extra steps to help her succeed at something she enjoys in a setting with neuro-typical children.

Athletic endeavors have been a struggle for Eliza, not for lack of skill,but because since she does need more reminders or instructions broken down, and without that she cannot live up to her potential. (Welcome to the world of ADHD and working memory deficits). She sees her teammates master something with minimal instruction and she is standing there waiting to hear what the next step is.  As I've mentioned in my prior post about the lasting effects of bullying (real bullying, not just the routine kids being boneheads) Eliza has some self-esteem issues.  The effect of this combination has lead Eliza to believe that she is not good at it gymnastics, never be good at gymnastics. and therefore does not want to go to class. Clearly she loves her gymnastics since she enjoys practicing at home on our mat and showing off her skills.

The "solutions" are limited. Enroll Eliza in special needs gymnastics class (assuming I could find one), win the lottery and pay for private lessons to supplement the group class in the hope that this builds her confidence, switch from gymnastics to something else like tennis, which she did well at in an after school program (in large part due to having a great coach) or have her not participate in sports. My goal is not for Eliza to join an Olympic Team or an NCAA Division I team. I just want her to experience the camaraderie of being on a team doing something she enjoys, learn the values of team play and sportsmanship and simply have some fun.  

So my question is, when people decide to become coaches and instructors these days, do they learn about or discuss the fact that there may be a child with special needs in their program? Or is the goal in coaching to shunt children like Eliza off to a special needs program?  I know what the politically correct answer will be, but what really goes through the mind of a coach? Are coaches willing to take the time to break down instructions (something that would arguably benefit the neuro-typical children as well)? I'm not trying to be contentious, I am just really curious how this is addressed in coaching, since the Google was not able to answer my questions.


Amy said...

2 thoughts:

1. If she did well with the younger kids, and if the coaching breaks it down for the younger kids better, and if she's already the tiniest in the class, would you consider putting her in the younger kids class for another year, and trying to sell it to her on the basis of size, or would that be too big a self-esteem hit?

2. Is that Sokol gym on the UES? My kids do gym class there too, although they're still in the toddler classes. Hi neighbor!

Anne said...

Amy, I have thought about moving Eliza back to the younger class, but she is going to be 9 in a few months and pretty much thinks 6 year olds are babies. Also the couple of girls that she did make friends with are in the class she is in now, so it would be a tough sell to move her to a younger class.

And hi neighbor :)

Amy said...

Yeah, separating her from her friends would probably endear her to gym class even less, as would putting her with kids she thought were babies.

My kids, who will proudly tell you they're going to be 3 in January, are definitely babies to her, although I've been spending a great deal of effort lately convincing them that they're NOT babies any more.

I've got no good advice or suggestions... I guess you could talk to Miss Judith at Sokol and see if she has anything useful to say, such as making the coaches write out the lesson plan and give it to you ahead of time so you can pre-coach her on what the instructions will be, but mostly I'm drawing a blank.

Sympathy and good wishes, though.

Anne said...

Good wishes are just as helpful as good advice!

My Vegas said...

Not sure about where you live, but most coaches, or shall I say "coaches," are merely good athletes who are making a few extra bucks "teaching" kids sports.

My advice is to seek out homeschoolers. Those people usually have a ton of resources and information, and often take the teaching into their own hands and not rely on mainstream sport facilities. It really sounds like you just need to find the right group of people. Homeschoolers might be the right fit for athletics.

hn said...

Most coaches receive no training at all. Pretty much the only requirement to coach (or teach) most athletic activities (including all kinds of dancing) is that you can play/perform at a few levels higher than the level you are teaching. Some athletes/coaches are gifted teachers; others are not (since really, in athletics as with all things, *doing* the thing well and *teaching* it well are entirely separate skills). I'd wager that most coaches have not given more than a cursory thought about how they will approach teaching special needs students.

Laraf123 said...

Good points and well-voiced concerns. You can't be the only family experiencing this. Instead of special needs did you try searching with the descriptor "developmental"? That worked for us with soccer.