How To Include Children With Special Needs in Your Gymnastics Program

Education

At the Champaign Gymnastics Academy (CGA) we believe that gymnastics truly is a sport for everyone.  We have made steady progress over the last seven years since our inception to find ways to serve our special needs community.  As more funds, staff and other resources became available we have employed a number of avenues to welcome children and adults with special needs into our gym.  

Why is Gymnastics Important for Children with Special Needs?

Gymnastics develops agility, coordination, strength, flexibility, and balance.  In addition to fine and gross motor skills, gymnastics also offers the opportunity for students to learn a variety of social, emotional, and life skills such as patience, cooperation, following directions, commitment, respect, waiting in line, and builds self-esteem and body confidence.  Partaking in a gymnastics class can help develop a number of skills children with special needs may demonstrate a delay in.

What are the options for including a child with special needs?

Special Needs Open Gyms

Most likely the simplest program to initiate would be a special needs open gym.  Open gyms are a great way to have children acclimate into a gymnastics setting without any pressure on them or the staff.  Open gyms are an ideal space for children to develop their gross motor skills, sensory system, independence and social skills without the structure of a class.  Parents or aids can be present in the gym providing additional support to staff when needed.

Variations of a special needs open gym can include a family open gym where siblings could attend as well, or inclusion open gyms specifically designed to facilitate interactions between those with special needs and their peers.  

Open gyms are great because they don’t require any commitment.  A number of special needs families have to account for additional obligations such as doctors appointments, PT and OT appointments, and additional school meetings.  This can make an ongoing obligation difficult to commit to both financially and from a scheduling standpoint.

Special Olympics

Special Olympics is a global organization that changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion among people with and without intellectual disabilities. Individuals who are at least eight years old and are identified as having one of the following conditions: mental, and/or cognitive delays as measured by formal assessment, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delay that require or have required specially designed instruction are eligible to participate in Special Olympics.  

Setting up your gym as team or agency is a simple process and can be done through your Area Office.  To find the location nearest to you please click here.  All coaches are required to complete, at no cost, Protective Behavior Training and Concussion Training, and a background check if they are over 18 years of age.

Depending on the skill of an athlete there are both compulsory and optional routines for gymnasts intended to offer competitive opportunities for athletes of all abilities.  There are no costs from the organization to participate in Special Olympics and it would be your choice as a gym on whether you charge athletes to participate, pay for uniforms, etc.

At CGA our staff and senior gymnasts volunteer their time as coaches and we help fundraise to cover the cost of uniforms for our athletes allowing us to offer the program completely free of charge to our participants.

Additionally, Special Olympics has developed the Young Athletes program for children ages two through seven with intellectual disabilities.  This program introduces basic sport skills, like running, kicking and throwing. Young Athletes provides a complete 8-week curriculum and most of the equipment and props needed can already be found in most gymnastics facilities.

Special Needs Classes or Private Lessons

Creating a specific class geared toward children with special needs is another way to welcome these children into your program.  Specific special needs classes offer some flexibility since you can control the variables – who is coaching, what time/day is the class held, what is the coach to child ratio, is it caregiver-assisted, etc.  Special needs classes allow coaches to create a class explicitly designed to accommodate, motivate, and challenge the children enrolled. Specific staff can be scheduled for these classes that have the experience and knowledge to teach them.  They can be run at a time the gym is less crowded to accommodate those with sensory disorders and class ratios can be adjusted based on the individual participants.

Inclusion Assistance Programs

Inclusion Assistance Programs aim to place children with special needs in traditional gymnastics classes with children of a similar age and skill level.  Depending on the degree of a child’s disability a one-on-one aid may be assigned to the child. At CGA we work with the local college’s Special Education Department and our park district’s Special Rec Department to recruit volunteers to be assistants.  We will also allow parents to provide their own aid but do not let parents act as aids since one of our goals is to foster independence.

Inclusion programs have several benefits.  They create a more diverse class, challenge coaches to create different coaching strategies that enable them to teach ALL children, and provide an opportunity for the other children in these classes to develop an understanding of those with differences and find ways they can interact and relate to them with compassion and acceptance.  Additionally, children with special needs are proven to have an increase in learning when exposed to situations that challenge them. They are inspired by the positive performances of their peers, and rise to the higher expectations of their teachers

Things to Remember

Make exceptions to your class requirements.  One of the easiest ways to open the door to those with special needs is to make small exceptions to your class structure.  We have a girl with down syndrome who continued in our parent-assisted classes when she turned four (traditionally a 2-3 year old class) and is now independently participating in our preschool class (ages 3-4) at age five.  What fits for most doesn’t fit for all. Find what works on an individual basis.

Structure doesn’t mean rigidity.  All children thrive on consistency.  Find ways to keep the structure of your classes consistent but make accommodations for those that need it.  Structural elements of a class would be starting and ending class with a specific warm up and song, sitting the kids at the same place while explaining stations, and always moving circuits in the same direction.  Structure lessens anxiety and creates habits. However, lessons can be adapted to meet a child’s physical abilities and make adjustments when needed. Giving a child a bilibo to sit in instead of a carpet square may keep a child prone to running in one place.  

Set your objectives high but keep your expectations realistic.  Children will excel only if you give them the chance.  Aside from a skill being dangerous for a child with a certain disability to complete, don’t dismiss what one is capable of doing physically, emotionally or intellectually.  If a child does not have any grip strength it does not mean they should skip bars. Work with lummi sticks and spot them through a swing even if they are only lightly holding the bar.  Consistently catch a runner and bring them back to their station explaining then need to “stay and play.” Don’t give up and let them go to whichever station they desire but recognize it may take longer for them to understand and develop that self-control.

Bio: Ashley Lebeau was the Director of Preschool Gymnastics when the Champaign Gymnastics Academy (Champaign, IL) opened its doors in 2012 with 122 recreational gymnasts.    In 2017 she became the Recreational Director overseeing all recreational programing, including preschool, which now includes over 700 students.  Most recently CGA expanded, adding on a 2500 square foot preschool gym this past fall.  CGA’s motto to “Be Awesome Always” encourages their gymnasts to be their best selves both as gymnasts and individuals outside the gym.  She continues to develop CGA’s program and inspire her staff to embody the spirit that gymnastics is truly a sport for everyone regardless of age, body type, and athletic ability.

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