Jan 31, 2012

The kids who need us

I just started working for a skating program for special needs kids; two classes with about 10 kids in each one. There are several teen volunteers, 2 off-ice program "leaders" and me as officially the Program Assistant; in practice the on-ice program leader.

I've had many special needs kids in regular classes, sometimes with an aide, and sometimes just dropped into the class. Most of them have been variously developmentally delayed, or ADD and ADHD, but also several autistic students, my dyspraxic student Miss E (who still reigns as my all-time favorite student), Downs students, developmentally delayed, and cerebral palsy. They've all been in the regular classes, however. This new venture is an all-special needs program.

Currently the class is something of a free-for-all. There is no structure; not necessarily a bad thing. The kids are having a lot of fun, but I think they're being sold a little short.  There are only three who I think would really not be able to get anything out of a mainstream class. Being in this environment, however, is somewhat antithetical to structured learning.

The thing with special needs kids is, well, they're kids. They're individuals, and you need to reach every individual on his or her own terms. Some of the participants have really high barriers to really learning skating skills, starting with simply understanding that there's more to skating than gliding around.

But many many more of them are perfectly well capable of learning intermediate and advanced skills, with some extra understanding and outreach. And you reach them the way you reach any kid.

Just skate
I'm a big proponent of "just skating." It's the best way to bridge the gap from new to structured learning.  With these kids, though, just skating is too much of a metaphor for what their lives might be--going around in circles and never getting anywhere.

One-on-one instruction
All of the participants in this class get a personal aid in the form of a youth volunteer. These girls (and one boy) are pretty gifted at this, and they're doing something challenging and even scary with a lot of compassion and joy. But they're focused on undirected playing. It's something to talk to the program designers about--what is the mission of this class? Is it essentially a safe public skate for these kids, or are they supposed to be learning skills, or is it a combination? It would be interesting to have a lesson plan for each child.

Game-based learning
Singing songs, imitation, challenges. Just as these work with mainstream kids, they can work and sometimes work even better with these kids.

Mainstream with aide
Many of the children in this class could thrive in mainstream classes, especially with an aide, which most municipalities will now provide for the asking if your child has a special needs diagnosis. And I think for many of these kids, the structure would be helpful.

Mainstream on your own
For the specific individuals in these classes, mainstreaming without an aide would be problematic. But several of them could get there, if they were learning, not just to have fun on the ice, but to take instruction, and to get joy from learning more advanced skills.

Do you know any special needs skaters? What method helped them?


  1. There is a special Olympian at our rink. She is an adult with downs syndrome. She takes one on one lessons with a coach (ironically, the "mean" coach) and skates with her mother (who is 73 and in low freestyle group classes).

    She has amazing shoot the ducks, and regularly performs in our club shows. She doesn't take any group classes.

    Her Mom tells me that this is her daughter's passion, and she is willing to work for it.

  2. I am very ADD. It has actually helped me in skating because one component of ADD is hyperfocusing. If I need to learn something, say backwards crossovers, I keep doing it over and over until I get it right. I find also, that it has helped calm me down beause it gets out a lot of my energy. I am 16, so I am more low key than children, but I feel like it would've helped as a child.

  3. We have a couple of kids (well, young adults) at our rink who are somewhat autistic. They have been skating since they were little and are now both high-level competitors. The girl has been a national champion and the boy has placed at the regional level. They both practice really hard because they get very focused when they are skating. I know that when they were little they were only responsive to their coaches, but now they are very nice and talk to a lot of people. I think just skating and being around other people who are skating has helped them a lot. I don't really have a lot of advice about how to do it, but I do agree that they are capable of more than just a supervised session.

  4. well if you are including dislexia then there are a few in our rink that made it through the group classes and on to one to one lessons, including me. It means we both have short term memory loss so we will remember things weeks after were taught them. Also we have to do a lot more repition in life to learn things which helps with learning new moves, but it effects our attention spans. Also i am a adult but the other is a child and we both have gone for the same coach who is very pateint but knows when to push us. There are also two coaches in the rink who are to so maybe being dislexic is not really a problem.

    1. I think you inadvertently bring up one of the *most* important aspects of being an after-school educator with "occasional" (i.e. once or twice a week students) and none of the administrative resources or knowledge of classroom teachers:

      There is no way to know which kids really are so-called "special needs"

      It seems likely that I've had students with varying degrees of dyslexia--I am myself dyslexic (haha, just typed myslef). Like ADD, ADHD and other behavioral/perceptive disabilities, you just don't know unless someone tells you and NO one on the ice is trained to deal with these things.

      My point is--treat every student like they have special needs, because they do, even the "normal" ones. Skating classes tend to be small--seldom more than 15 students, plenty small enough to get to know what each and every student responds to.

  5. Xan, I think that your observations and ideas are spot on.

    I have worked with Special Needs kids as a professional, not with skating, but have been around LTS since my DS has been volunteering for a while now. What I share is basic stuff, you probably already know, but maybe someone might like to start a program like this from scratch somewhere else.

    Structure is a way for any child to feel safe, all kids will shine if they feel safe. It allows them to focus on new material and new skills. You must provide it. Structure can take many forms, it doesn't have to look like your typical LTS class. Doesn't mean instructor led all the time, just predictable (to a greater or lesser degree depending on the needs of the skaters).

    Keep the structure consistent from class to class (warm up, instruction, skate around, skate backwards, game here, game there...cool down, high fives, etc). Be aware of the transitions. These are often difficult until kids get the rhythm of the class. Let them know by routine when it is getting close to time to leave the ice etc.

    Be aware that if you have "aides" they should be consistent as much as possible (individual aides should work with the same kids). The least amount of change from class to class is best. I know it's hard with volunteer teens, but they can learn this lesson as well. It will make your classes go smoother.

    Invite a few "typical" skaters because like you said some of these kids do great in a mainstream setting with help. All kids need to have typical role models who aren't just adults or older kids.

    Then again, you said that some of the kids will thrive in the mainstream with help, and maybe yours isn't the best program for them. I guess defining your goals for the program would be the best thing to do first off. You can't be everything to every special needs kid. Some will want to compete, they don't belong in your program or at least not for very long. Or maybe they do...depends on your mission statement.

    Don't set the bar high, just don't set the bar. Reach for the stars. Good luck! Wish you were in our area, I'd love for DS to have this type of experience. It's such a gift to both instructors and students!

    1. sk8rmomp, thanks so much! This program was run by a long-time volunteer coach, who just did things her way. I've already got some ideas of where to go with it, starting with a much more structured ice entry (it's very much a free for all right now), and a more professional approach from the on-ice helpers, who also sort of come and go as they please right now, often without telling anyone, and who want to work with the cute, responsive ones more often than not. I think in this session I need to just let the program run, but the next session is going to need to start with both volunteer training, and participant/parent orientation. Now if I can just get them to budget for it....

  6. I have no suggestions, but wanted to applaud what you're doing! I agree that these kids deserve more than just randomly skating round, they're most likely capable of learning skating skills, even if it's not what "proper" skaters do. Skating is great for co-ordination, balance, spatial awareness (speaking as an able bodied adult who lacked all of those prior to skating).

    I think the ideal would be to have this as an intro class and then a learn to skate class for those starting to learn defined skills, and then freestyle for those who want to jump and spin and progress further, as at least some of them probably could. Or I think you'd be a fab private coach for any of these very special kids!

    PS. Any more Miss E anecdotes?