Do you and your baby really need to suffer through the Infant Swim Rescue program's classes in order to have a baby who can rescue themselves?
We don't do it in Australia, here's what we do do instead, and why it's better.
I was raised in the water.
I started swimming lessons at about 5 months old, which is common in Australia now, but was still pretty rare in the early 80’s. The lessons were private classes, with a lady down the road who had been a swim instructor for years, but as a single mum in they time before reliable day care and after-school care, now just ran lessons from her little backyard above-ground pool. All the kids in my block went, and at least half of us ended up in swimming club for years. Those who didn’t, it was their parents holding them back, not a lack of interest from the kids.
Before I was 2 I was able to swim the length of the small pool (probably about 5m) dive for rings on the bottom of the pool, and happily hung out on Moreton Bay on my dad’s Hobie Cat. By Pre-school I had joined swimming club and continued lessons at what would become my primary school.
Between my swimming club (which was at my primary school,) and the other club in the neighbourhood (the one at the nearby high school) in the kids born within 2 years of me, two grew up to be Australian Olympic swimmers, one a Commonwealth Games swimmer, and many more made the state team.
And about 5 minutes down the road, the man who would help train them to medal wins- Olympic swim coaching legend Laurie Lawrence had a swim school in his semi-acreage backyard, where he was specialising in teaching babies and young children pool safety.
In 1998, when I was in year 10, Lawrence obtained a federal grant to raise awareness and improve prevention of child drownings which culminated in the launch of the “Kids Alive Do The 5” national awareness campaign. Throughout my late teens Kids Alive posters, tv ads, and radio jingles went up everywhere, there’s a series of kids books on water safety, school swimming lessons were increased, and there’s a dvd that goes out to every new parent in the country, when they have a baby with important safety information, step by step lessons on teaching your baby water safety.
My son who’s now almost 6, has been a Laurie Lawrence swim school student for most of his life, and he’s never worn any sort of flotation device (neither did I). Orgionaly, we lived with my mum, so we were only 5 minutes away, but when we moved, I kept him there, choosing to drive past multiple other learn to swim programs, to stick with Laurie's staff, (He doesn’t teach himself anymore, except for the occasional surprise guest spot) many of whom have taught for him for decades. But originally i’d tried a different swim school.
Whilst C’s very first swimming lesson was at LLSS in a Kids Alive free block at 4 months old, for reasons I really don’t remember now, I enrolled him in Aquatic Achievers instead. Aquatic Achievers are probably the largest swim school franchise in Queensland with six locations across Brisbane, and the impressive goal of having all students able to swim 1KM unassisted by the time they complete the Juniors program, if not before.
So if you’re American, you might be thinking that they probably run something similar to the Infant Self-Rescue program. They don’t.
There’s only one Swim School Franchise in Australia that teachers ISR techniques, and they only have 5 locations across the country, none of which are in Queensland.
I first heard of ISR via discussions about swimming in international Gentle/Attachment parenting Facebook groups. I didn’t know there were any in Australia until googling it today to write this article. Needless to say after years at LLSS and a few months at Aquatic Achievers I was mind-blown that ISR is considered *the* way to teach kids to swim in America considering the accounts i’d read of it.
The ISR official website is pretty sparse on the details, but on the website of the one ISR swim school in Australia, Kids Aquatic Survival School, they outline the aims and approach of their program, so i’m using that as my guide. But what I did find on the ISR website is a couple of blog posts talking about the issues of people who aren’t ISR accredited teaching similar tactics and giving ISR a bad name.
Now, I come from an equally unregulated industry, (dance teachers) so i’m well aware of the issues posed to kids physical and emotional safety by bad teachers, especially when they claim to use an accredited program, but they actually don’t, and have no training in safe practice or first aid or child development or how to teach. It’s a huge problem in the Aussie dance industry, and i’m sure it’s just as bad in the US swim industry. But, I’ve also experienced working with or learning from enough ballet teachers who have all been trained in the same syllabus as I have, and have the same codes of conduct and professional standards to adhere to, yet disregard physical safety, child development or emotional safety to doubt the ISR’s claim that finding an ISR certified teacher will mean a safe environment for your kids.
It’s always a good starting point to check for credentials, but it’s far from a guarantee. I’ve experienced syllabus accredited ballet teachers telling students to only eat sunflower seeds and drink water, (because they’ll swell up and make you feel full so you don’t eat and therefore don’t gain weight), scream in kids faces, teach pointe work to 9 year olds or 15 year old beginners who’ve only been doing ballet for a month, push little kids into 90 degree turnout and completely discount the syllabus updates that were developed alongside physiotherapists and child development experts to be age appropriate.
So credentials are not a guarantee of quality, and with 600+ ISR teachers in the world, I guarantee you that some of them are “quite literally throwing a child with varying levels of skill into the water” despite ISR’s claim that this doesn’t happen in ISR classes, ever.
Some of them will be purposefully making the babies upset, either because they’re just really not suited to working with babies, or because they believe that it’s safer if the baby screams when they hit the water because that will bring help.
Some of them will be traumatising children.
But even with those who are good teachers, is the ISR approach necessary in order to get babies and toddlers water safe?
Having experienced the Laurie Lawrence method, and drawing on my own learn to swim experience, my response would be absolutely not! It is completely possible to teach the same skills, without the crying.
A few weeks ago I saw a comment from an ISR trained instructor (telling a mum who was feeling unsure about her child’s swimming lessons) that there are “Two types of swimming lessons, the stroke instruction kind which is pointless before age 4 and ISR.”
I challenged that and added links to Laurie’s World Wide Swim School website.
It is a topic I see somewhat regularly, and it always makes me shake my head in confusion as to how this technique gained so much traction, and why people seem to think that the “tough love approach is the best”
Because it’s absolutely not necessary.
The following are ISR’s Curriculum aims
From 6 months to walking age
With the exception of the last two bullet points my child learnt all that too. But at not point was he forced into a submersion, or to do anything that was making him upset. He wasn’t separated from his primary caregivers and wasn’t just chucked in.
He stared at 4 months, two months earlier than ISR, and started learning to hold his breath for water submersion right from birth using the techniques on the Laurie Lawrence DVD from my Bounty bag. By the time he could walk he had been able to climb out of the pool by himself for months.
He had been taught how to fall in, turn around, find the wall, hold on, monkey to stairs or climb out, and could also propel himself through the water as long as he had something to push off. He was able to push himself up through shallow water to sitting or standing with his head clear - which is a majorly important drowning prevention skill, because water is denser than air, and requires more muscle strength to push through. Babies often drown in shallow water, because they can’t push themselves up due to lack of strength. He could hold his breath, and knew to close his mouth if he was going into the water (either falling or a controlled submersion) and could roll over onto his back.
He couldn’t float for long yet, but that would improve with age.
Now granted, the skills he learnt are primarily useful for a pool, or a shallow water situation, like a bath, or the beach, and not so applicable to falling off a boat, or a dam where the water is deep, the edge is inconsistent and the floor is slippery. But in the case of the boat, it’s a legal requirement that children wear a PFD with head support anyway, and I’m not sure how a child who can’t yet walk would manage to fall into a dam far enough out to be in deep water, unless from a jetty……. Maybe i’m missing something.
And as for the last point, both swims schools we attended do safety week drills where the kids wear their regular clothes, but it’s not a requirement of passing the course at this age.
From walking age (around 12 months)
Points one and two, C and his classmates were learning at 4 months, just sayin. Breath control is the very first skill taught at Laurie Lawrence.
Point 3 he could do consistently and completely independently by 9 months. Everything else he was already learning before 12 months, though this instruction continued after that age too.
So it’s not like these babies put through ISR are actually learning more skills. Sure they might learn them at a faster rate, but that’s purely because of the 5day/week for 6-8weeks intensive format.
The LLSS kids make huge gains in their abilities in a week of the Kids Alive holiday program too. And I know from my years teaching ballet, just how great an intensive week is for improving skills quickly.
But you can’t fast-track development.
Whilst it took C four months of once a week lessons plus at home practice, to learn the skills the ISR kids learn in a two month intensive, they start the kids two months later.
Because you couldn't teach a 4 month old to do it. They can’t roll consistently, sit up independently or hold their heads up on land yet, so they’re sure as hell not going to be able to do it in the water. But by 8 months…..yeah they can. And they arrive at the same basic skill level at the same time, regardless of doing 1 lesson a week or 5 lessons a week. I’ve seen plenty of kids over the years who started later, perhaps at 6 months not 4, or 2 years not babyhood. Yet they have all caught up to their peers by the end of the term, because they are developmentally capable of doing what is being asked of them.
And as you might have guessed from the breakdown of what C could do by 12 months, a 12 month old is capable of more than what the ISR approach demands of them.
The only difference being floating. A Kids Aquatic Survival School ISR promotional video claims that the 22 month old AJ floated on his back for 15 and a half minutes. That’s extremely impressive, I’m not sure that I could do that, although babies are pretty boyuant.
And yes, in a situation where your child is unsupervised around water that’s going to save their life, and unsupervised falls into water are the biggest killer of children under 5. But, is the method worth the results when there are so many practical steps parents can take to minimise the chances of a worst case scenario happening?
I’m not sure. Some would argue yes, bad things happen, even to vigilant parents, and AJ certainly looks like he got over the discomfort and fear from his early lessons.
But, of note is the fact that the Royal Lifesaving Society of Australia and Austswim, Australia’s national organisation for the teaching of swimming and water safety, have both warned against these ISR style lessons in the Australian media.
Now in their “Our Difference” page the Kids Aquatic Survival School website continues to state some of the things they/ ISR technique does differently, so let’s break them down.
1: With KASS the child is skilled in WEEKS not years, because taking years to teach a child aquatic survival skills may be too late.
I think i’ve already covered this one pretty well, intensive training is always going to produce faster consistency of results, but not before a child is developmentally capable of doing so. Starting at 6 months, children attending 1x 30min class/week are achieving the same or greater skills by 8 months or the end of the ISR course anyway.
2: We do not permit parents in the water with children (even the under 3’s) whilst they are still learning.
Teaching adequate skills and playing in the water are two very different things. Most parents simply do not have the knowledge or training to teach their child adequate skills in the water. A parent in the water can delay the learning process. We want the child equipped with survival skills as quickly as possible to prevent a tragedy. As a parent your intentions are good, however you may act like a floatation device for the child allowing them to grab hold of you rather than the pool edge or safety. Parents may also have their own fears or anxieties regarding water and unintentionally project these onto the child
I have a few questions and concerns about this.
First of all, a parent can still project their anxieties onto their child even if they aren’t in the pool with them. In fact i’d say this probably happens more often when the baby is separated from the parent, because both the parent and baby have a natural anxiety spike when separated in the first place. Add in a crying baby, and you get a hormonal response from mum where her anxiety spikes again, baby is panicking, so their stress levels are increasing, and with a 10 minute lesson, there’s certainly not time to calm the baby down and get them used to the instructor and feeling safe.
I’m not entirely sure how the parent delays the learning process. If anything i’ve seen parents pushing kids to do things they are clearly uncomfortable with even when the teacher tells them that it’s important that the baby is calm, relaxed and voluntarily participating.
Considering that tagline on one of Kids Aquatic Survival School’s banner photos reads “We encourage children to learn new skills out of their comfort zone, because challenge creates change” making the baby feel comfortable with the instructor and the process doesn’t seem like a priority.
But calm kids are considered vital to effective teaching at Laurie Lawrence.
Why do the LLSS teacher’s want calm babies, even if that means it takes a bit longer for them to learn the skills?
Because people can not learn in high stress situations.
A small level of stress helps learning, but high levels shut your brain down. You can’t concentrate, you can’t absorb new information, you can’t develop skills. For most 8 month old babies being separated from their mum, and put in a pool (which might be cold) with a stranger, who doesn’t care that they are crying, whilst mum is there just out of reach, also feeling anxious (unless the parents are sent away where the child can’t see them, in which case baby’s anxiety is going to be even higher due to a lack of understanding of object permanence) and then being dunked into the water mid-cry is not going to be a positive stress situation. It’s going to induce the kind of stress that inhibits learning. That’s not challenging your comfort zone, it’s ripping your comfort zone away entirely. Challenging your comfort zone is gradually increasing the distance bub has to propel themselves for over the course of a lesson.
The co-owner of KASS states that they have a client who is a child psychologist who has no concerns with the program’s approach. My response to that is that there are plenty of child psychologists who advocate for sleep training, or using love withdrawal methods as punishment, or that Autism “management” technique where they stop the kids from styming and force them to sit with “quiet hands” all the time so that they appear neurotypical.
One child psychologist’s recommendation means fuck all.
Anyway, back to parents hindering things. Does it happen, yes of course. Especially since, as the KASS site says, “Most parents simply do not have the knowledge or training to teach their child adequate skills in the water.” but the job of a good swim teacher is to educate the parents. In fact at Laurie Lawrence that is the philosophy. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a teacher there explain that “the parent, is the child’s teacher.” The instructor’s job is to give parents the skills and knowledge to reinforce the lessons at home and out and about, and to stop them from holding their child back - be it through their own fear, or by trying to push a distressed child to do something that’s distressing them.
More from the ISR model and KASS website.
3: We only deliver private lessons for the following reasons;
The training sounds great. I don’t know if that’s LSR training or specific to KASS, but i’ll always advocate for teachers of any sport to have a well-rounded education. But the AustSwim teacher training covers all these aspects too, so in Australia, this is simply the industry standard.
So moving on to the bullet points.
Safety. If you’re teaching a baby or toddler without their parents, then yes, you absolutely need private lessons. But if a parent is in the water too, then there’s 1:1 adult to child ratios.
Efficiency. At LLSS the parents stay with their kids in class until age 4. Why? Because that means that there’s no waiting times, every minute is used, and most importantly - you aren’t asking kids with no impulse control to sit still and wait in a situation where not doing so could mean their death.
That’s one of the things I love most about LLSS, and I do think that the usual swim school approach of having kids in the water without their parents in classes of 3-5 kids at age 2 is dangerous. Convenient for the parents, especially if they have multiple children, sure. Best safety practice, no.
And it also means that the kids aren’t swimming as much, so they aren’t getting as much time to develop their stamina and strength.
Effectiveness: It’s always easier to tailor a lesson to an individual in a private lesson setting. The mark of a good teacher though is their ability to differentiate a lessons to meet the different, and sometimes competing needs of multiple students. Private lessons are fantastic, no doubt, but a lesson can still be highly effective and meet the needs of each child when there’s a group.
No flotation devices and no goggles: Yeah, that’s pretty standard across the industry for baby swim classes. C only started using goggles this year, at age 5. In the baby and toddler classes they aren’t used so that your child learns to open their eyes underwater.
As for floatation devices, well both the swim schools we attended use kickboards and noodles as teaching tools, to teach the kids that they can grab one, and use it to help them rescue themselves or (for the older kids) someone else, as well as for teaching propulsion, kick strength and correct technique. But I don’t know any swim school that teaches using floaties or vests. Because that would impede movement and doesn’t allow for the child to float of their own accord or have correct positioning in the water.
In the little images cross the page, they also mention no toys, no games, and no bubbles.
There’s a blog post expanding on the no bubbles one, which seems sensible. But I know C was taught breath control long before he learnt bubbles, and the bubbles were only in specific situations, not a regular thing. He’s now learning to blow bubbles for correct side breathing, but he’s almost 6, so the breath control instinct has been well ingrained! Again, breath control was actually the very first skill introduced.
What about toys and games?
Well this is a tricky one. Are there swim schools that rely too much on toys, games, and songs to the point where it means the babies and toddlers aren’t really learning anything? Yes.
That’s why we left Aquatic Achievers. Every lesson was exactly the same every week for a whole level, which meant that the babies weren’t really leaning skills, and certainly not how to apply them in a variety of contexts. They were just learning a sequence of events that happened in a predictable pattern. Sure enough when the little girl from our mum’s group who also went to Aquatic Achievers went up a level, she kept trying to do the routine she’d learnt for the past few months, and was completely thrown off. It took her a couple of weeks to adjust, and then she learnt the new routine.
We didn’t stick around long enough to really get an idea of what their class structure was like when they moved out of the baby classes, but I do know that they have kids in the pool without parents at age 2.
At Laurie Lawrence, toys, songs and games were used as teaching tools, but every lesson was different, with the same skills being taught in a variety of ways and being practiced in different circumstances. The toys and songs and games, added to the learning providing familiarity and fun (which is actually an important component to effective learning), but the focus was still on safety skill development, and applying skills in all manner of situations.
I remember our teacher talking about the importance of going to lots of different pools as well as the beach and creeks or lakes outside of lessons, and then doing the safety drills, having baby practice finding the edges, and ledges, and standing up from submersion in shallow water, dealing with waves, or big kids running around or rocky/slippery/sandy ground, moving water vs still water and so on, because that’s what water safety in the real world looks like. Adapting to the conditions.
So games can be detrimental, yes, but they can also be useful, and they don’t have to undermine safety.
Finally the image reel shows a picture that has a caption saying “the pool is not a playground teach waters safety not just water familiarity”. The second part isn’t an either or situation. You can teach both. I know because i’ve been watching it happen every week for 5 years.
As for the first part of that sentence, which is expanded upon in a blog post warning against programs that teach the children how to enter the pool into a submersion from sitting, or jump in, Swimming is primarily a recreational activity, and kids are going to play. That’s reality. Hell, how many times do you see a group of adults playing catch in the shallows at the beach, completely oblivious to the small people around them. I feel like this is kind of the abstinence only approach to swimming, “if we teach them early enough that the water is dangerous then they won’t fool around in it later.” and just like abstinence only sex-education, I doubt it works in reality.
But a good program won’t simply have the babies fall in to be rescued by their parents when Humpty Dumpty falls. A good program teaches the baby to rescue themselves. By turning around and grabbing the wall, then climbing out, or swimming to the ledge, or finding something they can grab onto. Exactly the same things the ISR program teaches by flipping the child into the pool. The only difference is the child is entering the pool on their own steam. Which is arguably more realistic anyway. (The videos of the instructor tipping the child in show an extremely controlled backwards flip where they are being held the entire time until they hit the water - that’s not what’s going to happen in reality.) In a real situation, baby falls in water on their own. Unless some dipshit adult throws them in.
So what point is there to tramatising your baby when the (skill) outcomes are the same?
Summary: a good baby swimming program
Hi I'm Nicole