Our Struggle to Swim: How Hill Country ISR Swim Lessons Changed EVERYTHING
For the past few years, our kids have taken swim lessons each summer. We started with group swim lessons for our oldest, but those just didn't suit her learning style at all. So, we switched to private, one-on-one instruction for both of our older kids and they did better, but it still seemed that very little progress was being made. Naturally, this year, as I was filling out the paperwork to return to those same swim lessons, I started to wonder if it was really worth it. Thirty-minute lessons, four days a week for two weeks means four total hours of instruction each summer. That's a long time to be in the water. They should have learned some significant skills in that amount of time, right? Yeah, I thought so too.
I decided to put off registration to give it some more thought. Right around that time, I came across Hollie Oelkers-Brown and her business, Hill Country ISR (ISR being short for Infant Swimming Resource). The more I read, the more excited I became. Then I watched this video and was hooked. Did you see what that tiny baby did? If a BABY can do it, why couldn't my kids do it too? I knew they could, but traditional swim lessons just weren't getting us there. So, we signed up.
Hollie teaches from her home in Boerne, which she shares with her husband Beau and their four children. It was a scary pool incident involving two of her own kids that encouraged her to seek out ISR swim lessons for them and later to become an instructor herself. When I asked her what she loves most about her job, she replied,
"What I love most is seeing the excitement on the face of a child as their confidence in their skills starts to grow. I have seen kids who were fearful of the water happily jump in and swim across the pool in just a few short lessons. Kids who struggled to put their face in the water or find stillness in their float do so beautifully and willingly. Nothing beats a child's excitement at swimming and floating on their own."
In the beginning, I was skeptical. I mean, after several years of swim lessons, what about this method of teaching could really bring results when the others didn't? How would they learn anything in just ten minutes a day? What I ended up learning though, is that this program is based on over fifty years of research and development and it is nothing like traditional swim lessons.
"What makes ISR different is the lifesaving skills aspect", Hollie explained. "Just like with traditional lessons, children are taught to swim. However, ISR also teaches kids to float which is a position that can be held for very long periods of time and allows them to save their own lives! A properly skilled ISR graduate can get into the float no matter how they enter the water, use their problem-solving skills to determine a safe way to exit, and get to that exit on their own."
And even though lessons were short, our kids were working hard and ten minutes proved to be just long enough. When I asked Hollie about the short lessons she told me that they are "intentionally kept short and frequent not only for safety reasons but to also accommodate how young children learn. By moving slowly and teaching in small increments, children are quickly able to fully understand the skills being taught. This is all done through very precise hand placements and quick reinforcement. By using this method, ISR instructors are able to teach children who may not speak the same language, cannot hear or are completely nonverbal, and also those with specific medical conditions or disabilities. Lessons are always positive, focusing on reinforcement of even the tiniest improvements."
In the first week, our Big Girl, who did NOT like having her face in the water at all, started out by learning to float.
Our son preferred to stand on the steps and "swim" toward the instructor's hand. She would then turn his head to guide him into a float position.
Two different kids with totally different learning styles, starting points, and sets of fears...and she was able to effectively teach them both. Hollie said she has her training to thank for this skill. "ISR instructors go through a rigorous screening, training, and certification process. This includes extensive education in anatomy and physiology, child development, and common childhood medical conditions." She continued, "This, coupled with many hours of hands-on training, produces highly skilled and qualified instructors who are able to alter lessons to any child's experience level or needs."
By the second week, Big Girl was beginning to get comfortable being on her tummy with her face in the water and was actually making her way to the stairs, pool ladder, or the instructor in a swimming position. By the third week, they were both doing really well on their backs and their fronts and the remaining weeks of lessons focused on refining these floating and swimming skills and giving them plenty of practice to build their confidence.
In the fifth and final week, they were put through a "test" of sorts to see if they could find their way out of the pool in pajamas and also in winter clothing, including shoes. They were put into the pool from just about every angle in which a kid could potentially enter a pool and successfully got themselves to the edge and pulled themselves out of the water every time. There was no panicking, no sinking to the bottom, no swallowing water, no choking; they knew exactly what to do! The technique: float, swim, float...repeat until you reach the edge. Amazing. And guess what? Ten-minute lessons, five days a week for five weeks equals the SAME FOUR HOURS OF INSTRUCTION we'd had in our previous swim lessons (plus ten minutes, to be technical); only now, our kids could SAVE THEIR OWN LIVES.
Do I think I could effectively teach this method to my own kids? NO WAY. There was a lot of attention to detail and great care and precision involved, that I'm just not qualified to handle. We started each lesson with a quick overview of what they'd had to eat, how much sleep they'd had the night before, a discussion on bowel movements (yes, you read that right), and whether or not any medications had been taken. Then, throughout each lesson, Hollie monitored their body temperature, watched for signs of exhaustion, felt on their abdomen for any signs of water in the belly, helped them work up a burp or two when they actually did take in a little water (or too much air), and made sure they were never underwater for longer than was safe. She literally "trained" my children with keywords, finger taps, specific launch positions, and tiny little tweaks and corrections until it was all just right. By their last day, they were going after dive rings in the shallow end and jumping from the side of the pool through a hoop in the water like little acrobats...and it was AWESOME.
Did my kids always think it was so awesome? HECK NO. That first week was hard. Then just as they were starting to get used to it, the weekend came, and we were back to square one the following Monday. But then, as they began to grow more confident, the fear began to subside. By the end of our lessons with Hollie, they were crying because they didn't want to leave! We made it through those first two weeks, we made it through to the end, and now we have successful "aquatic problem solvers" to show for it...and I can breathe a sigh of relief.
"If there is one thing that I could stress, it would be the importance of proper life-saving swim skills in regards to ending childhood drownings", Hollie concluded through our email interview. "Drowning is the number one cause of death among children four-years-old and younger. Flotation devices used in the pool do not improve the likelihood of a child surviving a drowning event; in fact, they greatly lead to a false sense of security for both the parent and the child and teach the child to attempt to tread water to survive. Treading water is the most energy consuming position in the water and often leads to drowning when attempted for any duration. A comprehensive approach of barrier methods, adult supervision, life-saving swim skills, and CPR is the key to better outcomes for drowning situations."
While ISR instructors are only required to teach kids aged six-years-old and younger for certification, Hollie is able to teach older children (and adults too!) with the ISR method. Lessons are ten minutes each, five days a week, for an average of six weeks and are always one-on-one and tailored to each child's skill level and needs. The cost per week is comparable to what we were paying for private lessons with another popular swim instructor in our area, and discounts are offered for siblings, military families, first-responders, and medical personnel. You can find Hill Country ISR on the Web, Instagram, and Facebook and you can also contact Hollie by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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NOTE: The cover photo for this post is courtesy of Hill Country ISR.