25 February, 2015

Accessibility for all: how to help and keep students.


I shared a picture on facebook and tumblr the other day of one of my new aerial hoop students. Her name is Maria, she's overweight and she can't yet get in the hoop. Aerial hoop would normally be inaccessible to someone like Maria but we've made an effort to make it accessible. Maria has only had two lessons but can do mermaid, man in the moon, secretary and pike away. The reason for this is that we rigged the hoop low for her - so she can simply sit in the hoop. She's still getting a work out as we do body weight exercises each class and the moves are still hard work. But the point is that - she can do it and by the time she can get in the hoop properly she will be able to do a whole routine of moves. 

In nearly two years of teaching I have met and taught a very diverse group of women (and my one male student of course, hi matt!). Every student has different needs and abilities. Some students struggle, some find everything easy. Some students are overweight, some students have behavioral conditions such as ADHD or are on the autism spectrum, some students self esteem is so low they struggle every single lesson to not feel inadequate, some students have mental illness. There may also be students with all kinds of disabilities who wish to take your classes. I can't speak for these people but I can tell you a little of how I have adjusted my teaching to ensure that all students feel supported and are able to make progress.

What can YOU do?

Ask your student about their situation/condition/disability and what you can do to make things easier for them. Maybe your student does not like to ever be touched, or maybe they'd rather not do activities which require them to get up in front of the group, maybe they need regular breaks and to take their time, maybe they had a traumatic experience which means certain moves need to be taken slowly. Maybe certain muscles in their body are underdeveloped and need to be focused on. Whatever the case may be, once you've found out what a student needs you can make their experience far more enjoyable. You can provide them with the support they need. You may feel embarrassed or worry that you'll offend your student but they will be happy to discuss how you can help them and it will benefit them in the long term.

Be Honest.

With yourself, not just your potential student. Are you turning them away because you're too lazy to figure out how to actually help them? Or because you feel like you don't know how? Talk to your potential student about your concerns. Be honest. Tell them if it's going to be hard work and they'll need to change their entire lifestyle to get where they want to be. Tell them if you need to go away and think about how to teach them (do ask other instructors about how they teach certain types of students!). If the exercise or activity simply is just NOT safe or suitable for them let them know. If you think they will do better in a private class - tell them!! Explain the difficulties your student may face and what you can both do to overcome them. If they need to do work outside of class then tell them! If a move is not achievable whatsoever, or just not yet, tell them!

Be Approachable.

From their very first lesson let all your students know they can talk to you about ANYTHING at any time. Then ensure you are there to listen. Sometimes I know something is up with a student but it can take them weeks or months to come and talk to me about it. I don't want to pressure my students and they will always come and talk to me when they are ready. Sometimes that's just via a quick fb message, other times a long chat in person, but I always make sure I am there to listen and help.

It's also important to be supportive and encouraging in class to ALL students but particularly those who struggle and need extra help. An extra word of kindness, a quick message after class congratulating them, sharing a video or picture of something they've worked hard on - all of these things can make a difference to whether a student feels welcome, regardless of their ability.

Get inventive.

Look at the way you teach and adjust it. I have strength training plans specially designed for students of a larger size or lower base level of strength. They can do modified versions of the same exercises everyone else can - for example; instead of pole knee raises they do a similar exercise where there is always at least one foot on the floor, or they can do pull ups without even taking their feet off the floor, or they can do floor exercises that are gentle but effective. It may seem too easy or pointless to you but for students who cannot hold their own body weight whatsoever to begin with - even the modified simpler versions of exercises are hard work. 

If they feel like they can't do anything then they are likely to walk away, but by taking an exercise back to it's most basic form they ARE able to achieve something. I also have lesson plans that I can use with students who are not yet ready to do spins or climbs/sits or inverts. There is SO MUCH you can do in terms of dancing and moves that will build strength but be safe for your students. Simple floor work is often great. I also teach assisted headstands against the pole with a spotter when I run out of things to teach. You can also do almost any spin as a slide to the floor. It is safer and requires less strength.

There may be adjustments you can make to your equipment also; in Maria's case we rig the aerial hoop low down. This isn't something all studios will be able to do but it's one solution for getting larger students involved in aerial hoop or other aerial apparatus. Most professional poles can take a huge amount of weight but if you are unsure then check with your manufacturer. I'm also in the process of making some VERY big hula hoops (I already provide up to 38" in class) for some of my larger students who still struggle with waist hooping.

Think long and hard about what you can do with your student. There is ALWAYS something.

Is there anything I have forgotten? Or an experience you would like to share? Pop a comment below!