skip to content

Strategies for effective intervention with learners with conduct, behavior, and emotional disorders in an aquatic environment must duplicate the strategies used in other phases of the learners life -- school, home, recreation center, and/or work environment. This is crucial so the individual has consistent feedback and reinforcement.

Teachers working with students with conduct, behavior, and emotional disorders in an aquatic environment need to be well grounded and self-assured.

Learners with emotional and behavioral disorders often "push the buttons" of perceived authority figures. The teacher must be secure enough to understand that oft inappropriate emotions/behaviors are not directed at him or her. These behaviors include, but are not limited to:

  • Absolute rejection of the authority figure
  • Conflicting demands
  • One minute the learner may be clingy, demand constant attention, and seek affection; the next moment he may be shouting "I hate you."
  • Temper tantrums, rages and outbursts
  • Unpredictable changes in emotions and moods
  • Physical and/or verbal aggression directed toward the teacher and other students
  • Significant withdrawal
  • Negativism, non-compliance and refusal behaviors
  • Impulsiveness
  • Destruction of equipment and materials

    When working with learners with severe emotional disturbances/behavior disorders the teacher must clearly define the limits and expectations regarding behavior. If possible, rules in the aquatic setting should mirror those used in the school, home, recreation center, and/or work environment. Rules need to be posted in simple language or in/through symbols or pictures. The learners need to be reminded DAILY of the rules and consequences if that behavior is not followed. Positive behavior and its positive consequences must be made clear. Always, "Catch 'em being good" and reward the appropriate behavior. As is true with every learner, the minimum amount of reinforcement in the hierarchy should be used to encourage appropriate behavior:

  • Smile
  • Verbal praise
  • Verbal praise with a sign - "thumbs up"
  • Clap
  • Verbal praise paired with a physical reinforcer:
  • High, medium, low, or behind the back "5"
  • Pat on the back
  • Tangible reinforcers:
    • Stickers for young learners
    • Praise notes
  • Primary reinforcers:
    • Goldfish crackers
    • Graham crackers
  • With older learners, more appropriate reinforcers may be:
    • Choice of activity
    • "Free time"
    • Choice of music (carefully screened)
    • Baseball or football cards
    • Sports posters
    • Slice of pizza
  • "Alone with me" time - Teacher commits to time spent with the learner, swimming laps together, for example.

Inappropriate behavior and its negative consequences must be clear. The learner must be reminded that the behavior and the consequence is always his/her choice. Always…always…always the consequence must occur and its must be explained to link cause-effect, e.g., "I'm sorry, Timmy, but you chose to (cite misbehavior)…you know this is the consequence."

It is vital there is consistency. Most learners require and demand limits for their behavior. A set structure and schedule is vital. These students need to know what to expect. From the minute they enter the locker room, absolutely every minute needs to be planned and monitored carefully. Please note: The locker room is the most potentially volatile situation for these learners. Issues tied to abuse, in its many forms, are more evident in this vulnerable setting. Supervision is crucial.

The aquatic program must be such that the student's success is guaranteed. A careful initial assessment must ensure success.  Start with "familiar" skills (walking, running, jumping in the water, for example) and move, slowly, to unfamiliar skills. Create small learning stations or areas for students so there is a "safe space." This can be done with lane lines, for example

With a particularly confrontational student, the best environment may be one in which the learner is, literally, over his head. It may be easier for the teacher to control behavior is the learner is dependent on the teacher. Touch, even for spotting, needs to be carefully explained and done with care. A learners with a history of abuse may misinterpret well-intentioned touch. There must be a "fail safe" plan for an emergency … a student or teacher "out of control."


Carol Huettig, Ph.D.
Texas Woman's University
Please reprint only with permission of the author

page last updated 10/9/2014 6:14 PM