Gymnastics can benefit kids tremendously, especially kids with special needs. Liam, my 7-year-old with autism, has been working with a gymnastics coach for almost two years, and in that time, he's made huge gains in motor skills, following directions, expressive language, and confidence. Once a week, in an hour-long, one-on-one session, he walks on the beam, jumps on trampolines, swings on ropes and rings, climbs ladders, and completes obstacle courses. When he first started, he was timid, resistant, and uncoordinated; now his confidence shines through in every activity he completes. I sat down recently with his gymnastics coach, Sarah Banck, who runs "Flips 4 All" in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, to get her take on the benefits of gymnastics for kids with special needs.
What is your background in teaching gymnastics and how did you start working with kids who have special needs?
I began coaching preschool gymnastics in college, and by the time I graduated with my degree in Interpersonal communications from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee I was Preschool Director at a nationally recognized gymnastics academy. I spent 11 years there, and in that time honed in on my love of and abilities for coaching young children. Early on in my coaching I integrated children with special needs into our classes, even if I needed mom or dad to be right there facilitating all my instruction. Then, about 6 years ago was I began working with children considered to be on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Many of these children could not possibly be in a class with other kids, but could absolutely do the skills and activities with modified individual instruction. I have been working one-on-one with children of all disabilities ever since.
What are the benefits of gymnastics for kids with special needs?
Gymnastics is a phenomenal developmental foundation in its own right. However, unlike other sports or disciplines, gymnastics encompasses a vast arena of developmental skills, including cognition and motor skill development, gross and fine motor skills, social skills, self esteem, and body confidence.
In gymnastics not only is the brain constantly working in connection with the body as the child becomes physically stronger, but by integrating conceptual themes such as start/stop and lead/follow, apart /together, positive reinforcement, and various approaches to problem solving and social integration we are also able to encompass so many positive components for children with disabilities.
What are some of the greatest successes you've seen so far?
I cannot begin to describe the many successes I have seen in the time I've been doing this work! Kids who didn't jump, or hang, kids who were terrified of putting their head on the floor or picking both feet up now swing high on a rope or can be suspended upside down on the rings or run and flip on the vault. This success is what compels me to continue through difficult obstacles, because a smile, the laugh, my first high five, the building of confidence is spectacular! The progress and success is so tangible for these kids.
(I can totally vouch for that in Liam!)
I know Liam's had times where he's pinching, hair pulling, and screaming—but you always seem to calm him down and help him keep working, so how do you help kids work through challenging behaviors?
Challenging behaviors and opposition can be difficult, but there's a difference between structure and rigidity. I try to supply structure—for example, we always start and end on the trampoline, and I always facilitate the same counting or process on a station or apparatus. This structure and consistency lessens anxiety and each week those expectations are known and become more habitual. However within our lesson I may have to adapt, change, or break down a skill to meet the specific abilities of that child. If they are in a magical kingdom, I may have to be a dragon, if they walked perfectly on the beam, I may make a computerized sound as though they have just correctly chosen an answer on a computer game. It's a lot of improvising to be in the moment with them. Communicating through touch, sound, imaginative play, or showing by example are some of my most important strategies. It has taken me almost twenty years as a mother and almost equally as long as a coach to learn the tools and techniques, and often it is trial and error. Overall, I keep going until I find what works.
What's your general philosophy on the abilities of kids with special needs— especially in the gym?
My overall philosophy on children with special needs is very similar to how I approach coaching children of all abilities. Confidence comes from success, however children cannot make the distinctions between failing at a skill and being a failure. This is why progressions or deescalating a skill is so imperative in teaching. Adjusting and breaking a skill into its most minute parts assures individual success regardless of skill level and is pertinent in developing a positive sense of self and task mastery.
So many kids with special needs have gross motor/fine motor challenges— would they even be able to do gymnastics?
Even kids with the most severe gross and fine motor challenges can begin work in the gym. For a neurotypical child hanging on the bar may be a beginner's skill, however when working with a child whose basic dexterity is underdeveloped we deescalate that hang on the bar. This is where those progressions become vital. If a child can barely grip tightly is it realistic that they are going to hang from a bar? Of course not. So, instead we use our lummi sticks (hardwood sticks for making music), and we grip them, tap, pound, roll, and stack them . These are all skills working us up to that bar swing at an appropriate pace with proper expectations ensuring success and confidence. Children with special needs can be successful in the gym—we just have to scaffold that success and break each skill into smaller parts, which is what happens often in therapies.
Images provided by Jamie Pacton