What to Do When Swimming Lessons Aren’t Working

You’ve ponied up the big bucks to give your kids swimming lessons. They have to learn—it’s unsafe not to. You want them to learn—it’s summer, and the whole family could be having fun at the pool. Somehow, the lessons just aren’t working.

Make sure you’re making the most of swimming lessons.

If you haven’t already, read the post dedicated to this topic. If you’ve tried those five tips as well as the ones below and your swimming school still doesn’t feel right, consider switching schools. Sometimes the associations kids make during the first few lessons can influence their attitudes as they continue. Sometimes the teachers aren’t a good fit for your kids. Sometimes the pool is just too darn cold.

Understand that plateaus are a normal part of learning.

Plateaus are normal. So are setbacks. Sometimes increased awareness of what’s going on can actually make performance worse for a while, but that awareness is critical. It’s part of the learning process.

Your kids might get frustrated or discouraged at this point and want to stop trying. At first, they weren’t aware of the mistakes they were making. Now that they’ve got more awareness, they can focus on the mistakes they were making before but just didn’t notice. Try to keep your own expectations reasonable and to keep from adding to your kids’ frustration. Encourage them and let them know that the experience is part of getting better. If you worry, you’ll pass those feelings on to your kids. Instead, focus on providing support and trying new things, like games, that will strengthen what your kids have already gotten and spur them on to try new things.

If the plateau lasts more than two weeks, consult your kids’ swimming teacher, ask for help, and consider adding two or three private lessons in one week. (If that’s daunting, get the book and try some lessons on your own.)

Help your kids learn by reinforcing their swimming lessons on your own time.

Even if you don’t have access to a pool, there’s a lot you can do to teach your kids to swim. Look at the category “on land” for a list of posts that include exercises for each swimming skill that you and your kids can do when you’re dry.

If you do have access to a pool, ask your kids’ swimming teacher for specific suggestions for exercises to work on outside of class, or use the posts on how to teach individual swimming skills for ideas. Don’t forget that just visualizing and talking with your kids about what they’ve learned gives their learning a big boost.

Get some insights into how your kids’ minds and bodies influence how they learn and how they experience the water.

Kids’ minds, bodies, and feelings aren’t the same as grownups’. It’s possible that you’re expecting something from your kids that they’re not developmentally ready for. It’s possible that you or your kids’ swimming teachers are sending signals that are making it harder for your kids to learn. Check out these posts for detailed information about how kids learn and experience the water:

Make it fun.

Take it slow. Enjoy each other. Have fun. If you don’t enjoy each other and have fun, not only is it going to be hard for you to teach your child to swim, but also you’re going to miss an opportunity for bonding and creating happy lifelong memories for you and your kids.

Remember your priorities: safety and fun. If you’re worried about your kids’ progress, you’re not having fun. If you’re not having fun, your kids aren’t having fun. If they’re not having fun, they won’t want to keep getting in the pool. Smile! Hug! Giggle! Relax into the process. Trust that your kids will learn to swim, if not today, then soon. Did I mention the fun?

Teaching Your Kids to Breathe: Putting it All Together

Now that your kids have extensive practice breathing by turning their heads, it’s time to teach them to combine it with the freestyle or front crawl. But how do you teach them to put it all together?

Putting It All Together

Have your kids swim from one side of the pool to the other in the shallow end, so that they’re confident that they can just put their feet down to stand anytime they want. Walk next to them in the water while they swim to provide them with an extra sense of security.

Breaking It Down

Once your child is swimming, the skill can be broken into two parts: the torso rotation and the head rotation and breathing. Start by working on torso rotation. Have your child do a couple of strokes of front crawl in the pool. When he would normally pop up to take a breath, have him roll onto his back and do a few strokes of the backstroke instead. The point of this exercise is to help him get a feel for keeping his body horizontal throughout the rotation.

If he has a tendency to lift his head, he’ll feel how it tips his body out of position. A simple verbal reminder like “turn don’t lift” or “turn don’t tilt” should help him to focus on keeping his head in line with his body while he swims. If verbal reminders not to lift his head aren’t enough to help him with the movement, you can have him practice rolling from a streamline position into a back float position while you support him.

Once he’s comfortable rotating his torso all the way over, have him practice doing the front crawl, rotating his torso and turning his head, but not taking a breath. Once he’s done that a few times, he’s ready to combine the skills: turn his torso and head during the stroke and take a breath through the space between the recovery arm and the water. Have him swim from one side of the pool to the other, practicing turning his head to breathe just once each lap and using popup breathing the rest of the time.

Back on land, you can reinforce the idea of turning-not-lifting his head by having him lie on his back on the ground and turn his head directly side to side.

What to Expect When You’re Teaching Infants to Swim

It’s never too soon to start thinking about water safety for your kids. What should you expect when you’re teaching your six- to eighteen-month-old to swim?

What You Can Expect

  • Developing comfort in the water
  • Some conceptual understanding of movement in the water

What You Shouldn’t Expect

  • Independent Swimming
  • Water Safety

How to Teach Infants to Swim

The most important things you can do when your child is this age:

  • Make sure the environment is safe
  • Give him plenty of experience in the water

Kids this age are too young to understand the danger of drowning, and they’re too young to coordinate their bodies well enough to truly swim. Just think about how they move on land. At the younger end of the range, they’ve just started crawling. At the older end, they’re toddling around. Their mental and physical development doesn’t give them the ability to swim at this point.

At this age—as at every age—making sure that they’re well supervised whenever they’re near or in water and that any pool is secured with an appropriate fence are the most important ways to keep them safe.

Once that’s taken care of, you can practice getting comfortable and learning to move in the water. You can progress to getting your child’s face wet, gliding, and floating. With enough practice, your kids will be able to toddle around in the pool as well as they do on land.

A Word about Infant Swimming

There are programs that work to teach kids this age to hold their breath underwater and flip onto their backs to float. Use common sense. Until they’re cognitively and physically ready to swim, this kind of training is unlikely to hurt them*, but only supervision will keep them safe.

Fall has come to the San Francisco Bay Area. Today is grey and drizzly, with the scent of fallen leaves in the air. Until spring, I’ll be posting three times a week and using the off days to drink hot cocoa and sit by the fire.

*There are risks associated with using infant swimming training, including the possibility that an infant will aspirate water. Use common sense. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

The 6th Sense You Need When You Teach Your Kids to Swim

All five of your kids’ physical senses are being bombarded while they’re learning to swim. In order to help them understand their physical experience, you’ll need a sixth sense. ESP? Nope. Something you already have.

Empathy. Imagine your child’s experience of the water. It’s different from his experience on the land in almost every way.

Kids’ Sensory Experience of Swimming

The experience of swimming is dramatically different than the experience of being on dry land for all five senses.


Things look weird underwater, and the water feels strange on your eyes. Goggles help if your child is uncomfortable with these sensations.


Your child can’t hear well underwater. Sound is muted. The feeling of water getting into his ears and draining out is strange.


Chemicals that keep the water in the pool fit for swimming can also be hard on kids’ noses. For the first ten minutes in the pool, until the awareness of the smell fades, a strong smell of chlorine can be distracting and unpleasant.


Swallowed pool water won’t taste like the water your kids are used to drinking at home.


The impact of the water on the other four senses is nothing compared to its impact on touch. It’s a bit of a cheat to call touch the fifth sense, because it’s much more than just the feel of the water on skin.

  • Weight: The feel of the water on his body is much heavier than the air he’s used to. The extra pressure on his body can feel confining.
  • Balance: The way his body balances in the water is different than it is on the land. It will make him feel less coordinated than he does on land.
  • Body Position: His body position is different in the water. On land, we’re used to aiming for an upright orientation. In water, horizontal is ideal. You can practice the idea of horizontal on land by having your child crawl or roll on the ground, just to remind him that he’s experienced this position and what it feels like.
  • Movement: Moving through the water feels different. The water resists more than air, so it’s harder to move through it. On land, our legs do most of the work moving our bodies around. In the water, our arms and torsos do most of the work.
  • Breathing: Breathing in the water is different. On land, your child doesn’t have to pay attention to the position of his head or the timing of his breathing. He just breathes whenever he needs to. In the water, he has to be aware of timing and position or risk getting a big gulp or snort of water.
  • Metabolism and heat loss: His body will lose heat faster—up to 25 times faster—in the water than it does on land. Even if he’s wearing a wet suit, he’ll be starting to cool off from the moment he gets into the water.

How Your Kids’ Sensory Experience Affects How You Teach Them to Swim

Pay attention while you’re teaching them. If it looks like they’re experiencing sensory overload, give them a break.

After they get out of the water, their brains will still be analyzing and creating a cohesive understanding of their time swimming. Rest and recovery time are important for your kids’ sensory and mental processing of their experiences in the water. Make sure to give them plenty of unstructured play and rest time out of the pool to process. Even when you’re not in the pool, they’re working on learning to swim.