The Gentle Method -> Guidelines

Serenity Swim Network (SSN)®recommends the following specific guidelines on ethics, standards and practices. The SSN Guidelines are designed to encourage safe, child-centered, age and developmentally appropriate water learning for babies, toddlers and tykes, ages 3 months through 4 years old. The guidelines set the stage for tear-free, fear-free, non-traumatic and holistic baby swimming.

  • (1) Positive and Playful. At their core, water learning programs for infants, toddlers and tykes ages 3 months thru 4 years old should respect and honor the whole being, the inherent humanity of the child—body, mind and spirit. Programs should be long-term, positive, fun and playful, geared at the child’s pace and age and developmentally appropriate. Learning to swim should be a joyful experience and engender a lifelong love of the water as well as safety in it. The water classroom should be enriched with games, songs, toys and activities developed specifically for this age group. Serenity Swim programming is designed to be interactive, multi-sensory, and multi-dimensional. The program should “embrace the journey” in a mindful way celebrating and acknowledging each small learning stage along the way to skill mastery. The SSN certified teacher has been trained to structure a learn thru play atmosphere and to implement additional playful activities as the need arises on a case by case basis as the individual child or group requires.
  • (2) Open and Accepting. SSN programs are open and accepting of all nationalities, religions and spirituality, races, genders, sexual orientation, ages, differing physical abilities and special needs, varying partner relationships, marriages and single parenting. Babies come into the world loving all…our programs will help them continue to appreciate and accept diversity of all humankind. Water is a vital part of our heritage and is for all to share.
  • (3) Teacher in the Water as Positive Guide. The teacher in swimming programs for the very young should serve as a gentle, positive, encouraging guide for the child, never pushing or forcing. The teacher should be aware of and in tune with the sensitivities, mood and needs of the baby swim student. The tone is always one of positive reinforcement, allowing learning to unfold at each child’s unique pace. This is a co-operative activity with the child as he learns, not a competitive atmosphere, nor one of dominance. The teacher should have a soft, reassuring voice; soft, relaxed hands and soft, harmonious intentions.
  • (4) The Teacher as Example. The teacher who conducts an SSN program should serve as an example of high minded intent for positive parenting and holistic lifestyle around the most innocent and vulnerable of our human family. The teacher comes to class as a clean, clear and mindful facilitator and will refrain from the use of alcohol, smoking, drugs prior to or during work with babies. He/she will use appropriate language around babies and parents and act as a gentle, centered, calm and loving guide. He/she will offer instruction in a kind and respectful manner, teaching rather than criticizing and offering positive suggestions and helpful, honest information. For questions he/she cannot immediately answer, he/she will research and consult a Master Teacher and get back to the parent with an informed answer. He/she will continue to learn and grow as a teacher using the SSN certification system as a professional standard and continuing education resource.
  • (5) Group Classes. SSN recommends the use of group classes for this age group as it creates a community of learners, stimulates socialization and fosters peer learning. A group class creates an atmosphere of fun, joy and motivation. It is also a resource for positive parenting skills. The community of learners supports each other’s children in a positive atmosphere with loving intention and acceptance. Games and songs have more energy and impact in a group setting allowing more reserved children to mimic their bolder peers. In a Montessori style setting, where beginners are mixed in ages from 3 months thru 4 years old, older beginners have the opportunity to see how the younger babies are fearless and love water and younger babies can observe and imitate their more coordinated older classmates who can kick, jump and splash .
  • (6) Parent(s) in the Water.  A parent is always in the water at all ages and skill levels as a nurturing co-teacher and provides a sense of security, familiarity, calms any anxiety and helps practice through play. Parents are a child’s first teacher and as such have an important role in the water as a trusted source of example and encouragement. Parents are part of the process and learn and grow in understanding of their baby’s capabilities and personality as the classes progress. Group classes also provide socialization for new parents who can become isolated during early child care. The pool is the one place an entire family can join in a recreational activity and participate fully.
  • (7) Educating Parents Prior to and During Classes. SSN recommends that its teachers/programs educate parents fully on the child-centered, holistic Serenity Swim method using their web site, brochures, hand-outs and advertising to educate prior to and during enrollment. A parent who is fully aware of the gentle, child-paced nature of the method makes an excellent learning partner in the water for both the child and the teacher and together they create a support team for the baby’s smooth transition during all phases and levels. Swim classes at these ages are an important avenue for teaching positive parenting skills that carry over into other aspects of family life.
  • (8) Ratios. Group classes should consist of between 4 and 12 students with a student/ teacher ratio not to exceed 6 students to 1 teacher (hence, a class of 12 students would have 2 teachers). Private lessons for this age group are not recommended by SSN since they tend to heighten unrealistic expectations in a compressed timeframe…there is an expectation of accelerated performance. Note that early childhood programs on land are taught in groups “parent and me” style for the same reasons…it is age appropriate, joyful and effective and adapted to the way a baby actually learns.
  • (9) Classes per Week and Weeks per Session. SSN recommends that in the initial water adjustment phases and when initially learning breath control for submersions, babies ideally attend class 4 times per week, but 2 times per week is the absolute minimum. Early learning needs practice and repetition over time. In order to practice “a little bit on a lot of days” SSN advises that a minimum of at least 16 lessons be in place for parents and children so that adequate practice/repetition, time/duration, shaping of behaviors and stress-free learning can be accomplished. Without consistent pool practice and repetition in a class setting with teacher supervision there is a greater risk of undue water swallowing, choking and developing unnecessary fears, vertical swimming, thrashing …..Imagine trying to teach a baby to toilet train, speak or eat using a utensil only once a week for 30 minutes and it is easy to see how a physical skill like swimming requires consistent practice for babies.
  • (10) Adjusted Time Frames for Frightened or Traumatized Children. Children who are naturally fearful of water or are cautious and reserved by nature benefit most by attending classes 4 times per week with additional bathtub practice at home with the parent. The gradual playful approach will ultimately, over time and with patience and play, result in water comfort and down the road skill acquisition. For fearful children or those traumatized by aggressive lessons either through forced survival back float or through aggressive submersions will require not only 4 days per week in class but also an extended number of weeks to overcome the violation of their trust. During this time they will slowly and playfully re-acclimate to water, a teacher and basic foundation skills for swimming. This extended time frame may take as many as 16 to 48 lessons to de-program a child who has experienced an abusive water program, gradually bringing them to a point where they will become a willing participant in the initial facial water acclamation period and gradual submersion process. This is based on the child’s own willingness, comfort and readiness with the process. This should always be a positive and interactive water activity
  • (11) Length of Each Class. A 30 minute group class with a variety of child-paced activities provides substantial exercise, play and parent-child bonding without over extending the baby beyond her physical and emotional limits. If a younger aged baby exhibits signs of fatigue or crying before the 30 minute end of class, it is time to exit the lesson and towel off.
  • (12) Ages of Baby Participants. SSN recommends that a child not start formal swimming lessons until age 3 months thus allowing parents enough opportunity to know their baby’s mood and schedule and for the baby to have an adequate medical history.  Ages 3-5 months should stay on top of the water and work on water adjustment above the surface. In general, babies are most receptive to begin the gradual and incremental submersion process from 6 months thru 18 months old once they have completed the water adjustment stage and prior to the “age of independence”, (which normally starts at approximately 19 months old). However, a beginner swimmer can start at any age 3 months thru 4 years old and reap all the extraordinary benefits of baby swimming.
  • (13) Water Adjustment Phase. SSN classes are designed with a water adjustment phase prior to any submersions. During this very individualized phase, the parent and teacher are slowly, playfully and gradually adjusting the child to varying amounts of water poured over the eyes, nose and mouth. Parents model water poured over themselves, toys and objects and encourage children to pour water themselves. The process should be fun, enjoyable and child-paced. Ultimately it is acclimating them to the same feeling that a submersion will have and prompting initial cued breath control. This is all based on the child’s comfort and enjoyment in the process. No submersions happen in an SSN class until a relaxed readiness is observed in the child who is having water streaming down over his eyes, nose and mouth and is comfortable with cheek dips. This is a gradual, gentle process and the child’s comfort zone is always respected during this phase. As always, it is case by case, step by step. This stage normally lasts 5 or more lessons. Reluctant or anxious children can be in this stage for weeks, even months, until they are relaxed with water poured down their face and comfortable with the teacher. These children need to be given space and time to have fun and play, with no pressure to perform. In the beginning stages this would involve very small amounts of water poured, as long as the child is comfortable with this. Over time you can increase the amount poured in small increments, always making sure that the child is happy and comfortable. For those fearful children, this process may begin with a wet puppet or a slightly wet wash cloth. Just make sure to stay and work in the child’s comfort zone and progress only a their comfortable pace.
  • (14) Teaching Breath Holding and Recommended Initial Submersions Per Class. Gentle, brief teacher-assisted submersions only begin once the water adjustment phase is successful and cheek dips have been successfully initiated. In the initial stages of learning breath control and first short swims, it is recommended that beginner babies only submerge safely and comfortably between 1 to 4 times per class depending on the comfort, readiness and willingness of the child. Initial submersions while learning breath control are limited to a brief, ½ second to a one second dip. Never blow in a child’s face to activate a startle reflex prior to submersion. When taught gently and at the child’s pace and level of comfort the child can easily learn a breath holding cue and then initiate their own breath holding when given the cue.
  • (15) Increasing Duration and Frequency of Swims. Once the baby is comfortable and competent with submersions and has demonstrated mastery of breath control, you can slowly increase the length and number of swims. Follow the gradual, child-paced facial submersion progression outlined in the SSN teacher training manual, “ A Guide for Teachers, Part 1”. If you follow all these guidelines there should be no water swallowing or fear. But as a precaution, this guideline provides adequate practice that is not too tiring and minimizes the risk of water swallowing. In the beginning learning stages plunging, deep submersions, tossing/throwing a child into water, jumps from a height are inappropriate and violate safety guidelines and proper learning progressions. Older babies, 3 and 4 years old, should not be submerged but encouraged to self submerge using the games and tips taught in the SSN certification courses. Control by the older child over their own submersions is critical in confidence building, over-coming perceived fears, and meeting challenges at their own pace.
  • (16) The Terrible Too’s For Teachers and Parents. SSN members need to be aware of and adhere to the child paced philosophy of the programming. To maintain safe conditions that are tear-free and fear-free, avoid the adult “Terrible Too’s” by teachers and parents—expecting too much, too soon, too far, too deep and too often –as referenced in Rob and Kathy McKay’s Learn to Swim (DK Publishing). The Terrible Too’s actually hinder and slow down the learning process.
  • (17) When to Stop or Not Conduct a Lesson. A lesson or practice session should be stopped and a child removed from the water if they are cold and shivering, crying and cannot be distracted and calmed, or over-tired. A child should be calmly removed and toweled. Children should not enter a lesson if they are ill or are compromised sufficiently physically or in energy levels or breathing. Children with diarrhea or intestinal distress should not enter the pool for several days until the illness has passed and symptoms have disappeared. When in doubt, a parent should seek a doctor’s clearance to return after an illness.
  • (18) Safety Skills Taught at Age and Developmentally Appropriate Stages. SSN programs are not “survival swimming” or “drown proofing”. All safety skills are taught when a child demonstrates comfort with foundation skills and is the appropriate age to readily accomplish safety sequences with ease, comfort and confidence. Safety skills are age and developmentally appropriate and follow the sequential, building blocks theory of learning…basic foundation skills are mastered and a level of readiness and co-ordination is observed before introducing higher level skills.
  • (19) Back Floating. SSN does not recommend introducing back floating until it is developmentally appropriate and never in a forced manner. Back floating is introduced to a relaxed, confident, willing and able baby swimmer at approximately 3-4 years old and only after sufficient intermediate level foundation swimming skills are already established.
  • (20) Pool Conditions. Pool water should be clean, clear, safe and properly maintained, regulated and tested for baby swimmers. Pools should be in compliance with all local health regulations and standards. Water temperatures should ideally be 88 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit and the ambient room or outdoor air temperature should be sufficiently comfortable. Babies’ bodies do not have fully developed thermal regulation systems and if they become uncomfortable/cold/shivering during class they should be removed from the pool and toweled.
  • (21) Swim Diapers. Non-toilet trained children should wear the proper swim diaper while in the pool in addition to their swim suit. These can be the re-useable cloth swim diaper with snug elastic leg and waist or the disposable swim diaper specifically designated and designed for swimming. Toilet trained children, when they indicate they need to go potty, should be removed from the pool, allowed to use the rest room, cleansed properly and then return to class.
  • (22) The Role of Baby Swimming…is Larger than Just Baby Swimming. Your loving, nurturing, caring teaching is helping to ensure happy, confident, safe and proficient baby swimmers as well as centered, well-balanced children who will become the future caring stewards of the Earth. What you do is not just about swimming, not just about the water…it is an honor to have this important mission in life.


Copyright April 2014 Rob and Kathy McKay Serenity Swim Network