Gymnastics is a sport that encompasses many different skills that aid in developing each gymnast as a whole.  A child with special needs grows up in a community that sometimes does not provide all of the necessary tools to help them.  Gymnastics offers a network filled with opportunities to foster a child with special needs’  cognition, motor skills, self-esteem, and social skills.

Gymnastics is a hands-on sport which is beneficial for children with special needs.  Gymnastics is a structured sport which has a framework that entails rules, independent thinking, decision making skills, self-monitoring, organization, rules and commitment.  This framework creates an atmosphere that stimulates the brain to continue to absorb new information and organize information accordingly.

Gymnastics promotes an environment where self-esteem can be developed through team building  and positive social interactions.   Through interactions with individuals within his/her social network, children learn vital skills of reciprocal exchanges and/or the ability to offer support as well as to receive it.  Positive social interactions among gymnasts displayed through various approaches such as positive reinforcement, participating equally, resolving conflicts, sharing techniques for a familiar skill, and celebrating success.  Children who were able to develop early relationships with peers had higher self-esteem, better mental health, greater levels of independence, and better employment records as adults.

Children with physical disabilities have been found to have a variety of social deficits, including limited participation in active and social play and increased dependence on others to make social arrangements, poor social skills, limited intrinsic motivation, lack of drive, and decreased concentration. For that reason, it is beneficial to note that social skills are fostered in the sport of gymnastics through development of the following skills: self-expression, problem solving, and self-esteem.  Self-expression is a skill that is developed by a child learning to understand his/her own feelings and others, through dance movements, skills performed on various apparatuses and through social experiences with other children.  Problem solving plays an integral part in a gymnastics routine, because gymnasts are routinely challenged by different obstacles.  Gymnastics is a sport that encourages physical activity which over a period of time develops flexibility and co-ordination in the body and ultimately leads to higher self-esteem for children with special needs.

Sarah Banck runs “Flips for All” in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, an exceptional special needs program.  Spirit Gymnastics has 11 special needs mentor programs nationwide with USA Gymnastics, “Flips for All” is one of those. Mentor clubs will be used by Spirit Gymnastics Academy to gain the best information to provide an exceptional special needs program for Polk and surrounding counties.

Gymnastics can benefit kids tremendously, especially kids with special needs. Liam, my 7-year-old with autism, has been working with a gymnastics coach for almost two years, and in that time, he’s made huge gains in motor skills, following directions, expressive language, and confidence. Once a week, in an hour-long, one-on-one session, he walks on the beam, jumps on trampolines, swings on ropes and rings, climbs ladders, and completes obstacle courses. When he first started, he was timid, resistant, and uncoordinated; now his confidence shines through in every activity he completes. I sat down recently with his gymnastics coach, Sarah Banck, who runs “Flips 4 All” in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, to get her take on the benefits of gymnastics for kids with special needs.

What are the benefits of gymnastics for kids with special needs?

Gymnastics is a phenomenal developmental foundation in its own right. However, unlike other sports or disciplines, gymnastics encompasses a vast arena of developmental skills, including cognition and motor skill development, gross and fine motor skills, social skills, self-esteem, and body confidence.

In gymnastics not only is the brain constantly working in connection with the body as the child becomes physically stronger, but by integrating conceptual themes such as start/stop and lead/follow, apart /together, positive reinforcement, and various approaches to problem solving and social integration we are also able to encompass so many positive components for children with disabilities.

What are some of the greatest successes you’ve seen so far?

I cannot begin to describe the many successes I have seen in the time I’ve been doing this work! Kids who didn’t jump, or hang, kids who were terrified of putting their head on the floor or picking both feet up now swing high on a rope or can be suspended upside down on the rings or run and flip on the vault. This success is what compels me to continue through difficult obstacles, because a smile, the laugh, my first high five, the building of confidence is spectacular! The progress and success is so tangible for these kids.

I know Liam’s had times where he’s pinching, hair pulling, and screaming—but you always seem to calm him down and help him keep working, so how do you help kids work through challenging behaviors?

Challenging behaviors and opposition can be difficult, but there’s a difference between structure and rigidity. I try to supply structure—for example, we always start and end on the trampoline, and I always facilitate the same counting or process on a station or apparatus. This structure and consistency lessens anxiety and each week those expectations are known and become more habitual. However within our lesson I may have to adapt, change, or break down a skill to meet the specific abilities of that child. If they are in a magical kingdom, I may have to be a dragon, if they walked perfectly on the beam, I may make a computerized sound as though they have just correctly chosen an answer on a computer game. It’s a lot of improvising to be in the moment with them. Communicating through touch, sound, imaginative play, or showing by example are some of my most important strategies. It has taken me almost twenty years as a mother and almost equally as long as a coach to learn the tools and techniques, and often it is trial and error. Overall, I keep going until I find what works.

What’s your general philosophy on the abilities of kids with special needs— especially in the gym?

My overall philosophy on children with special needs is very similar to how I approach coaching children of all abilities. Confidence comes from success; however children cannot make the distinctions between failing at a skill and being a failure. This is why progressions or deescalating a skill is so imperative in teaching. Adjusting and breaking a skill into its most minute parts assures individual success regardless of skill level and is pertinent in developing a positive sense of self and task mastery.

So many kids with special needs have gross motor/fine motor challenges— would they even be able to do gymnastics?

Even kids with the most severe gross and fine motor challenges can begin work in the gym. For a neurotypical child hanging on the bar may be a beginner’s skill, however when working with a child whose basic dexterity is underdeveloped we deescalate that hang on the bar. This is where those progressions become vital. If a child can barely grip tightly is it realistic that they are going to hang from a bar? Of course not. So, instead we use our lummi sticks (hardwood sticks for making music), and we grip them, tap, pound, roll, and stack them. These are all skills working us up to that bar swing at an appropriate pace with proper expectations ensuring success and confidence. Children with special needs can be successful in the gym—we just have to scaffold that success and break each skill into smaller parts, which is what happens often in therapies.