“John is awesome!” the swim teacher told me with a big smile, as he and my then 9-year-old son climbed out of the pool and exchanged high five’s. John had just passed another swimming test and garnered another ribbon. This was a scene I couldn’t have imagined two years earlier, when John took his first swimming lesson.

Although John was strong and well-coordinated from an early age, he’d always resisted sports and structured physical activity. When he and his father played catch in the backyard, his dad quickly became frustrated with John’s lack of attention. John’s self-esteem collapsed.

No one has ever accused me of being athletic. Yet I was determined to help John find a sport or activity he could enjoy and succeed at. First, I carefully considered his needs and personality. Even before he was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)and anxiety, I understood that my son required a lot of structure in his daily routine and was easily distracted. He always had excess energy to expend; how could we channel it? And what activity might soothe his nervous nature?

Taking the plunge

After some thought, I suggested swimming lessons. First, we tried summer swim lessons at our local recreation department. John was placed in a class with ten other kids. Despite the instructor’s encouragement, my son refused to take the plunge. We decided to try private or small-group lessons where he’d receive more individualized attention.

I did some research and found a private, year-round swim school that offered “special needs” classes led by compassionate instructors. The teacher and I agreed to ease John into the lessons. For the first few weeks, I stayed in the water with John and his teacher. My presence gave John a sense of security. I helped the teacher understand John’s needs, while she befriended him and tried different teaching techniques. As John became absorbed in his lessons, I gradually eased out of the pool. After four lessons, I sat proudly among the other parents on the “observation deck.” John had become a happy little fish!

Over two years, he developed skill, control, and focus — even in a noisy, busy pool with several other lessons in progress. Best of all, the enjoyment and self-esteem he gained carried over into all other areas of his life — even to other sports!

Helping your child find the right niche

I’m certainly not a child expert, but I am an expert about my own child. I encourage other mothers whose kids struggle with learning and behavior problems to think of themselves the same way. To parents who want to help their kids find a special activity or hobby, I’d offer the following tips:

  • When it comes to extracurricular activities, don’t compare your child to her siblings or neighborhood kids — or to yourself as a child.
  • Don’t force your child into a mold; let her grow and blossom into an activity in her own unique way.
  • Unless your child is competitive, don’t “keep score” or focus too much on winning. Focus instead on her personal effort and enjoyment.
  • Participate with your child in her favorite activity; have fun together!