CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — A new program is getting preschool students with special needs in the pool.

The Cedar Falls Community Schools’ initiative focuses on water safety for the 18 3- and 4-year-olds who participate in the weekly sessions at Peet Junior High School. A lot of partners are working to give the children this experience.

Students are enrolled in the Panther Academy for Water Safety, which was started two years ago by Mike Hagensick. PAWS is designed to offer adaptive swimming for people with a range of special needs, from young children to elderly adults.

Jill White, Cedar Falls Schools’ executive director of student services, said Hagensick contacted her this winter about getting the district involved in the program. She saw an opportunity for early intervention on water safety skills useful for all children.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that officials decided to pilot the program with students in special needs classrooms at Southdale Elementary School, providing lessons that address issues particular to that population. They are being taught by graduate level students from the University of Northern Iowa’s speech and language pathology program and Allen College’s occupational therapy program.

“I would love to expand it to all preschoolers some day, that’s my long-range goal,” said White. The 30-minute lessons started at the end of March and will last for six weeks.

Around the edge of the pool, there are stations with various water toys focusing on different skills where the children spend time with the teachers.

They work on skills like pointing, naming, color matching, pretend play, reaching, visual scanning, direction following and how to be safe in the pool. Doing these “facilitated activities” in a water environment provides more sensory experiences for the children, noted Katie Jo Funk, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Allen College in Waterloo.

“It’s combining the best of both worlds,” she said. “Their occupation is to play and to learn, and so that’s what we’re facilitating with them.”

Children are asked to choose and name specific toys as they work with the UNI speech and language students.

“We are really trying to focus on what the individual needs of the child are, trying to elicit what the child understands,” said Suzanne Dripps, a speech and language pathologist and director of UNI’s Roy Eblen Speech and Hearing Clinic. “We look at what they already have as a skill and build on that.”

Students in both graduate programs who could work the sessions with the children into their schedules are volunteering at this point. At least some of the students are using the sessions to fulfill service requirements for their degrees.

“It’s just a trial for us right now,” said Dripps. “We’re hoping to integrate it into the curriculum.”

Funk likewise said her goal is to eventually include all Allen occupational therapy students in the program.

Utilizing graduate students fulfilling practicum hours helped keep program costs low, but White said there were remaining expenses of $50 per child. Among those costs were the purchase of swim trunks and swim diapers for any participating families that needed them.

The Cedar Falls Schools Foundation is supporting those remaining costs through the Slykhuis Family Fund, which was established in memory of Jane, Jerry and Steve Slykhuis.

Aside from the pilot program with Cedar Falls Schools, PAWS offers adaptive swimming and water safety sessions year-round. Learn more online at pantherwatersafety.com.

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

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