Effectively Teaching Swimming Lessons to Children with Disabilities:

An Interview with AquaMobile Swim School instructor Catherine Lau


Catherine Lau is a Certified Lifeguard and Swim Instructor for AquaMobile Swim School. Catherine has over 7 years of specialized experience teaching people who have physical or developmental disabilities learn how to swim. She is currently working on her Masters of Applied Disability Studies.

In this Q&A session, Catherine shares her experience and advice on teaching children with disabilities how to swim and be comfortable in an aquatic environment.


Q: Catherine, what has been your experience thus far as a lifeguard and swim instructor for children with disabilities?

A: I have worked in various aquatic settings such as hospitals, lakes, and private pools. I have worked at Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital since 2005 assisting in aquatic therapy programs, educational pool therapy as a part of school, and in recreational swim. I was also a lifeguard and senior camp counselor at Peacekeeper Park’s Special Needs Adventure Camp, an overnight adventure camp for kids who have developmental or physical disabilities. I love working with kids, especially in the water.

Q: What attracted you to getting involved in the Integrated Education Pool therapy at Bloorview?

A: It is such an interesting idea to put pool therapy into the children’s school day. As a student, I would have been excited to have swimming as part of my classes and I wanted to be a part of this!

Q: What has made you most successful when teaching swimming to children with disabilities and how do you use these skills with your students at AquaMobile?

There are four main things I focus on:

  1. Stroke breakdown: It’s really important to break things down into smaller steps so the student can learn each component of the stroke, before putting everything together. It helps them learn the stroke without being overwhelmed.
  2. Patience: I find that being patient is a very important attribute for the teacher, when introducing swimming to kids. It may take a while for them to acquire the skill, but once they do learn it, they will never forget.
  3. Customize the lesson to each student: I believe that individualized lesson plans are imperative for efficient learning. It’s important to tailor the lesson plan to the student so we can focus on areas that need improvement during the lesson. This is not possible in group swimming lessons, so the student does not always improve/learn as quickly as possible.
  4. Incorporate songs and games: Songs and games are a great distraction for kids who are still afraid of getting into the water. It also helps to students more easily remember and practice the skills that are “hidden” in the games. Having fun is the key to cultivating interest in swimming!


Q: Can you give an example of how you keep your students engaged in the swimming lessons?

A: I like to use stories and motivational tools to get the kids excited about each component of the lesson. I let the student choose a few toys they would like to play with in the water, and use them throughout the lesson. This helps them feel like they’re playing rather than learning. The orange seahorse and sinking marbles are a huge hit!

Q: Can you share one of your ‘swimming success’ stories?

A: I had one student who was afraid of getting into the water. I used gradual steps to get her to be more comfortable in the pool. I brought a tub that I filled with pool water and we played in the tub, blew bubbles, and she was even comfortable putting her face into the tub to blow bubbles. With a bit of time, she was comfortable getting into the pool to learn how to swim!

Q: In your opinion, why are swimming skills important for every child to learn?

A: The swimming skills that a child learns will stay with them throughout their life. Being comfortable around water is important so the individual does not avoid opportunities such as getting on a boat, or venturing into a lake/ocean from the beach. It is also a drowning preventative measure, in the case that one falls into a large body of water by accident. Feeling confident in water is even more important in that case because you know how to react in such an emergency situation.