How to Dunk a Child and Manage their fear

If you are teaching swim lessons to a child you will inevitably get one that will not willingly go underwater. The most important thing for you, as a teacher, to know is to not be afraid of the child. Any sign of hesitation, apprehension, or fear will be apparent to your student and make them more afraid. Their fear will make them act out more strongly. They might do things like cry, run away, or refuse to leave their parent’s side. Your confidence and deliberate action will give them a reassuring sense of command.

How to dunk a child:

  • Grasp them by their chest as if you are catching a football. Thumbs should be on their pecs, or front shoulders, fingers should be wrapped around their shoulder blades.
  • Hold them feet away from you
  • Hold them with their shoulders in the water
  • Be at eye level with them, your shoulders in the water too. Face to face.
  • Tell them, we’re going to go underwater one time on the count of three.
  • Say close your eyes, close your mouth, 1, 2, 3
  • Scoop them underwater as you take a step backwards. Their face should follow a U like shape.
  • Ignore any sputtering / coughing / crying immediately after going underwater.
  • Ask them questions, give them high fives, smile, laugh, exclaim how good they are.
  • Ignore any sputtering / coughing / crying (unless an emergency). Embrace the cold heart of indifference: they will be better for it.

The goal is to be clear, establish routine (1,2,3) and respond in only a way that conditions the child to good behavior. Avoid indulging your own desire to coddle or comfort a child. We’re in the water to teach them to swim and the first step is going underwater.

Here are some steps you can take beyond your confidence that will help a child that won’t go underwater on their own.

  • Give them a clear expectation, and follow through.

The first lesson you have with the child, you may or may not want to “dunk” a child. You should evaluate their temperament.  If you feel they are ready to do at least one dunk, then tell them, we are going to do x activity, then afterward we’re going to go underwater one time together. Reiterate that they only have to go underwater once, and that they have no choice in the matter.  This does three things. It gives them a time expectation: after the current activity. It gives them an amount expectation: one time. It also tells them that they have no control over the situation.  (sometimes a child will take this opportunity to cry or exit the water screaming. Do everything you can to distract them with the current activity. often times they’ll not react because they’re unsure if you’re going to follow through or not, and they’ll wait until the moment.)

The most important part here is to be unwavering and actually do the dunk. Follow through without hesitation on your promise of one dunk. Do not do more than you promise.

  • Give the child multiple and repeated opportunities to go underwater on their own or with help.

Lets assume that you’ve dunked a child once in a class. After their initial reaction they may become withdrawn, or hesitant to participate in another activity with a fear that you’re going to take them underwater again. It is now your job to still teach the lesson, have that child participate, but do so in a way that isn’t forcing them to do anything. One of my favorite things to do to “trick” kids into participating is to do jumps from the side.

Have the children hold your hand with their hands. Before they jump in (while holding your hands) ask them, “Do you want to go underwater, or not underwater?” Whatever their choice, abide by it. Sometimes it is helpful to do this with another child in the class that doesn’t like going underwater, but will when forced. This will show the unwilling child you dunked that you’ll listen to them when they say they don’t want to go underwater. Have them jump in while holding your hands, and when they get up to their chest make sure they don’t go underwater by lifting your hands up.  Do this two or three times for each child always giving them the option to go underwater or not.

Their repeated choice gives them an opportunity to go underwater, and it gives them an opportunity to be in control of their underwater experiences.

  • At the end of the lesson speak with the parents and tell them, “We went underwater one time this week/lesson. Next week/lesson we’re going to go underwater 2 times.”

Bring the parents into the lesson/expectation. Doing so will add an ally to your underwater cause (hopefully! this can sometimes backfire when you have a too hesitant/overbearing parent.) and it will give the parent a clear expectation for the next class. If your facility does weekly lessons the child will have that expectation that they are only going underwater two times, and that beyond that they can say no or yes on any other activity. Remember, follow through on your promises, and remember to stick to the number you give them to expect.


Do you dunk children? Have you dunked them in the past? What are your thoughts on how/when to do it?

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