Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How gymnastics (and ice skating) saved our lives

Corazon does gymnastics 3 days/week for 3 hours each time. She is turning into a very skilled gymnast. I credit gymnastics and ice skating with saving our lives by giving us hope. This child has always been physically strong and very athletic although she is a tiny by most standards. From the day she came it was clear that she had no fear especially if it involved any physical activity. We tried to channel it by having her try a range of organized activities.

First there was soccer. At almost 5 years of age she was the only kid on her team who could move the ball down the field while most of the other kids seemed to be there for the snacks. She got bored and so her RAD self became fixated on getting the attention of the coaches. She was good at turn-taking and willing to try anything so she did well during all the skills and drills time except that while she waited her turn she monopolized whatever adult happened to be near her. And given the high cuteness factor, it left her moms pretty frustrated.

We also tried a ballet/tap/tumbling dance class. That worked pretty well in that it helped her to concentrate and focus and learn more about how to control her body. It also let her enjoy music which she already loved and she actually made a friend. The downside was that it was only 1 hour/week and not enough physical exertion for her. She wanted to dance all the time and wanted me to help her. You don't even want to imagine what I look like doing ballet.

We kept the dance but then thought we would try swimming. A good skill for anyone to have and C. was a swimmer so we thought we would give it a try. A local university has a large family fitness program so we enrolled her in a beginner's class. She was so excited to be in the pool and she was fearless so it was a good match. Until she got to be pretty good and moved up a couple of levels. Suddenly she realized that the kids who got attention were the ones who couldn't do anything or who were afraid. All of a sudden our drama princess emerged in swim class. Ultimately she did something really unsafe and scared the heck out of the instructors. We think they were relieved when we didn't return.

We continued on our quest. Memories of soccer kept us from trying that again but we still wanted to have her try a team sport so we signed her up for baseball. She was now almost 6 and again we encountered the athleticism problem. She was a strong runner, good hitter, OK catcher but there was too much down time out there on the field waiting for the ball and well there were these nice adults standing out there with the little ones and they were so much more interesting.....

Living in New England at the time we thought it would be nice if she learned to ice skate. She agreed and begged to try it. We bundled her little 6 year old self into her snow pants and took her to her first lesson. We found one of those massive, relatively inexpensive, no frills classes where about a hundred or more kids are taught the basics of ice skating. We lucked out and she ended up in a small group of 15 beginners with a teacher who spoke very little English. These instructors were serious about getting those kids comfortable on the ice. Day one they taught them how to fall and how to get up by themselves. And boy did she fall! She would fall and sit there on the ice waiting for a nice adult to come by and help her up. When they did they were efficient in that they picked her up and skated off while she was still trying to get them involved in a conversation. After a while she just sat there and poured on the drama. Someone came by and moved her out of the way. She did it again and someone asked if she wanted to get off the ice and go to her mom. Of course she didn't. She wanted attention and she was used to getting it for her drama. We stood on the sidelines and couldn't believe our eyes. At about the same time both C. and I looked at one another and said "this is wonderful!" We weren't being cruel and thrilled that our daughter was falling but we realized we had hit upon an activity where she might actually have a chance at not charming the instructors. The next week we put her in leggings (no more snow pants) and put her out in the ice. She quickly discovered that if she sat on the ice when she fell she would freeze her behind in the time it took someone to come help her up. She got herself up and slowly but surely stopped focusing on the adults and started focusing on learning to ice skate. She mastered the basics easily and we moved her to a figure skating club to continue her lessons. Each week she worked her little behind off to master the skills needed at each level and for the most part we saw a significant reduction in her need (and ability) to get the instructors' attentions. She started to realize that the more skilled she got and the harder she worked to learn what was being taught the more positive attention she got. While at the time I don't think she was able to consciously decide that getting positive attention was better than negative attention she actually realized that was the best way to get her instructor's attention and my baby loves getting attention. For one of the first times ever we started to see Corazon working and focusing on something other than getting adult attention. We were so excited. She worked her way up pretty far up the basic levels until we relocated to Texas this summer where we haven't been able to pick it back up again yet.

So, where does gymnastics fit in here? I took the long way to get here. At about the time swimming was becoming disastrous Corazon complained that her dance class didn't have as much tumbling as it promised. We found a tumbling class for 5 year olds right after her swim class and we enrolled her. After 2 classes the instructors asked to move her to their 7-8 year old class because she was the only 5 year old who was listening and able to do the stuff they were teaching. We obliged and she joined that class. She thrived but there was no where else for her to go once she finished that class. We eventually found a gym that offered gymnastics for her and it was a serious sacrifice because I had to drive almost an hour each way in traffic, with all the other kids in tow, to get her to the right class. We were seeing success in ice skating so I thought gymnastics would balance things out and give her the kind of physical activity she needed outside of school. I thought that since she was all about control what better way than to have her channel her energy into controlling her body and movement in very focused ways.

They gym was great for her! They were all about form and discipline. While they wanted to teach the kids a love for gymnastics they also quickly recognized her capabilities and strength and learned how to push her even when the drama emerged. She was six when she started at that gym and she did 3 hours/week. It was spread over 2 days which helped because then we had her attending some kind of disciplined physical activity three days each week and then had her doing as much jumping on her mini-trampoline and running around as possible. We even got her a chin-up bar for her room that Christmas and she did those, by choice, almost daily. Gymnastics was the ONLY place (besides ice skating) where Corazon conducted herself in a way that didn't bring up all of her RAD behaviors. She occasionally tried the drama but that usually got her extra work so it didn't pay off. Otherwise she was a nice, focused, engaged, involved, hard-working little kid no matter how long the workout was. She only lost it when there was a substitute coach or someone who was more of a "pushover." She made quick progress and even though she was out of gymnastics for 4 months when we were preparing for and eventually moved she was able to reenter in this new gym at a higher level to make the competitive team and she is handling these long hours at the gym quite nicely.

Those early years of watching her at the gym gave us a glimpse of WHO Corazon could be when all this other stuff got out of the way. We never saw that kid ANYWHERE else and it gave us hope. At the same time she found something she loved and it helped her become more disciplined, self-regulatory, and focused. We began to see it carry over into other parts of her life. Not to mention that she is is really great physical shape so she can help carry all that heavy stuff when we do the grocery shopping. :)


Dancing on the Edge said...

First of all I applaud you for going the extra mile to drive your kids to activities. I also applaud Corazon for doing great and working hard!
Ellie detests organized sports, or anything physical for that matter. Soccer was a disaster! She will jump on our trampoline and has just started to swing herself on the rings. She only learned to ride a bike last summer, because it was toooooo hard.
She loves acting and art, and I have been looking for a class she can take along those lines.

Lisa said...

I'm with Dancing. We tried gymnastics but she was bullying kids too much and there was too little clothing if you know what I mean. She does swim like a fish and we're about to start a new season of lessons. I think she's ready to do some new things I've just got to start scheduling them. I'm sucking wind in that area right now.

Dia por Dia said...

I think we were lucky to find the physical outlet for her. It also wore her out so we cut out sleep problems in the process too. Corazon did her share of bullying in any organized team sport too. Gymnastics and Ice skating pushed all the right buttons plus the coaches kept the kids moving ALL the time so I think that is part of what did the trick. In terms of clothes--that was a concern for us but in her case we kept her in leotard and leggings to eliminate some possible distractions and it worked like a charm. I really think swimming could have been her deal too we just made the wrong choices for instructors so her focus became attention. This has definitely been our saving grace!

Essie the Accidental Mommy said...

That is great! I had the same idea with Genea but she was just too unstable at the time. She barely made it through the class at all and I frequently became the mom with THOSE kids who never listen and run all over the room. Yeah, Teena was in there too. it was park district though, so it cost like $17 for 6 weeks of class. No big loss, dignity not included lol.
You have inspired me. I think it is time to try again.

Torina said...

Awesome. While we have tried so many things for Tara, with only the volunteer job at the nursing home working, joyous day for me when they asked her back!

My youngest kid, who has RAD, is a natural athlete like Corazon. He rocked out basketball and swimming. So fun to watch when our kids excel, isn't it??

Dia por Dia said...

Torina, I think we are "lucky" in that she does like to do just about everything (plus not being under my direct supervision makes her feel in control) so we have had little issue with people not wanting her back. HOWEVER, when we see her games and RAD stuff then we end up pulling her. Gymnastics was one of those places where we could see, really see, the kid she could be when that RAD stuff was out of the way. Not to see it doesn't gear up at times (like yesterday.) BUT yes, for us, the gymnastics has been a healing place mostly because those coaches DON'T play. They are serious and don't take her nonsense.

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