JONESBORO, Georgia (CNN) -- When Melina Slotnick was 6 years old, she nearly drowned.
Melina Slotnick, right, founder and teacher at the Swimmerman School, with student Kai Hannah.
The boat she had been swimming around lost its anchor and started to drift away. On board, her parents had no idea that the boat was moving or that their child was left behind in the water.
Slotnick swam until she lost strength. The next thing she remembered was a warm light, and being resuscitated.
Afterward, Slotnick joined a swim class at her local pool. Having nearly drowned, afraid and trying to ease her mind, she wanted to know the reason behind every instruction her teacher gave her. She remembers him saying only, "Because if you don't do it, you won't get your candy bar."
Then Slotnick joined a class for young swimmers, where she found a teacher who would answer all of her questions. She took the class over and over until the instructor finally invited Slotnick to help her teach. She was 7 then. She taught her first class solo at 13 and has been teaching people to swim ever since.
Determined never to turn a person away, Slotnick, now 49, has often found herself teaching the students others could not, including disabled children and those with special needs.
"Clawed, bitten, nose broken, I've had it all done to me," she says. "When you work with special needs children, there is no cut formula. You have to get to know what's going on in their heads, read the signs that maybe aren't clear to other people."
Working with disabled children made teaching other kids seem much easier. It also led Slotnick to the conclusion that being comfortable in the water is as much psychological as it is physical.
"You have someone who is afraid," she explains, "what is the key factor of their fear? Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it a lack of trust? Is it that they are insecure with their environment?"
As an Army wife, Slotnick traveled the world teaching swimming lessons everywhere she went and taking extensive notes on her students' learning processes. She introduced her own children to the water as infants; as soon as they could swim, they were helping her teach.
In 2000, she opened the Swimmerman School just south of Atlanta, Georgia, where she and her children, Mannfred, 22, and Melora, 19, make up most of the teaching staff.
In August 2005, she and her children attended a workshop aimed at helping adults forge strong workplace relationships.
The speaker, Bruce Sullivan, a self-described "relationship specialist," proposed that people can be divided into four basic personality types, which he labeled with colors. According to Sullivan, to foster good communication, the different personality types must learn each other's languages.
"It was like fireworks went off. It clicked all of the pieces of the puzzle together for us. We understood why this would work in the office, but couldn't wait to get back to the pool," Slotnick said.
The teachers at Swimmerman took Sullivan's idea of four basic personality types and combined it with their own research and experiences to develop their own personality classification system. Often, the Slotnicks say, they can tell a child's personality type the moment the child walks through the door.
Mannfred Slotnick says the color system has made his job as a teacher much easier. "If I know a child's basic personality," he says, "I pretty much know what kind of thing they need to hear to get them to try swimming."
Swimming tends to bring out a person's rawest emotions and behaviors. The Slotnicks use the color system as a guideline for determining if new, scared swimmers need emotional support or simply more information about what's going on around them.
"It's figuring out their personality, the dominant words [to use], the way they react, the skills they already know," Melina Slotnick explains. "Everybody has their own little quirk or way that they process material. If you're not tuned into that, then you're not going to be able to teach them as quickly as they would like to learn," she says.
It's the end of a long day at the Swimmerman School, and Mannfred Slotnick drifts slowly through the water with a small girl. Mannfred is teaching Maya Pomfret how to float on her back.
But Maya isn't completely ready to float on her own and has wedged her foot in the crook of her teacher's arm. "She's a smart one," he says of the 4-year-old girl. "She locked her foot in there so I won't get too far away from her."
Maya has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, which causes mental and physical impairment, including stunted growth. Maya is 10 pounds lighter than her 2-year-old sister, Hannah.
Maya is one of numerous children with disabilities, including 50 autistic swimmers, who make up the 800-strong roster at the Swimmerman School.
She's also a "red" swimmer who expresses sensitivity and a need to trust her instructor in the pool.
Although she is not completely free of her fear of water, as evidenced by her foot in Mannfred Slotnick's armpit, she's on her way.
Melina Slotnick calls herself and her two children "citizens of the water." They know they are teaching children a skill that will stay with them throughout their lives.
"Swimming is a common bond that we all share," Slotnick says. "We all came from water, and we are all pretty much the same when we go back to it." E-mail to a friend