I sometimes long for the school year to be over. As a parent of ADHDers with learning disabilities, I get tired of the endless homework, tutoring and therapy sessions, IEP and 504 meetings that seem like wartime negotiations, and blood pressure spikes when the school's number pops up on my cell phone. The end of the school year is a relief for a weary parent who has fought her way through to summer break.
But summer can be dangerous for those who struggle to learn during the school year. The potential loss of hard-earned progress sends parents searching for alternatives to help their kids hold on to what they've learned.
The ground lost during each summer break accumulates, and the student falls farther behind as each year passes. Matthew Fisher, director of the summer program at The Gow School, in Buffalo, New York, compares summer programs that keep kids learning to an educational preemptive strike. "Let's say you're in the middle of a blizzard," says Fisher. "You can sit inside and wait until it stops snowing to start shoveling, or you can go out every hour and shovel six or seven inches and stay on top of it. The sooner you get on top if it, the less you fall behind." Summer camps that help children retain what they've learned shovel the snow before it's too deep to dig out.
Summer programs designed for children with ADHD and language-based learning difficulties teach to kids' strengths. The Gow School's summer program admits kids as young as eight to their five-week program. Parents and children select classes in core subjects like reading, writing, and math, and choose from many electives. All students take a placement test, a snapshot of their academic strengths and weaknesses.
Summer learning camps pick up where a student left off at the end of the school year, making sure that there are no gaps. The curriculum is balanced—between core subjects and electives in everything from art and theater to robotics. Electives allow students to explore their creative side while taking a break from core subjects. Electives also expose them to experiences that they may have missed out on during the school year due to being out of class to get special-ed services.
During the school year, ADHD students are often forced to adapt to traditional teaching styles and classrooms. Summer camps offer features that aren't found in most school settings: low teacher-to-student ratios, specially trained staff, a curriculum taught using a multi-sensory, hands-on approach. The flexibility to move and teach with the energy of the class allows young campers to be taught the way they learn best. Who wouldn't want to make pancakes to learn about verb tense, or to use sidewalk chalk to make an accurately scaled model of the solar system?
While summer programs help a child retain what she learned, many students walk away from them with more than knowledge. "One of the biggest benefits of summer programs is to turn students into confident learners," says Fisher. "They see that they can be successful and they think, 'I can learn all this; I just learn differently.'"
Middle School and High School
As children make the transition to middle and high school, their educational needs change. General reading and writing skills aren't enough to meet more complex demands. Programs catering to sixth- through twelfth-graders are different from those centered on younger children. While core subjects are still important—and learning camps offer electives and field trips—the curriculum becomes more dense. Summer programs teach reading for learning and introduce advanced writing skills. Advanced math skills are also a priority. Camps use core and elective classes to teach note-taking, studying for tests, staying organized, and communicating with teachers.
Dana Harbert, director of admissions for Eagle Hill's Summer Session, in Hardwick, Massachusetts, explains the goals for this age group. "The mission is to provide academic enrichment and skill development for students interested in addressing specific academic needs and maintaining progress achieved over the preceding academic year." Eagle Hill does that with a core curriculum that covers four academic classes and four electives, ranging from the creative to sports. Clubs and activities—swimming, woodworking, performing arts, and fishing—fill out the day, and give students the opportunity to use the skills they learn.
Class sizes are small, allowing counselors to address the needs of each student. The curriculum is hands-on and designed to teach in the way these students learn. Harbert talks about the feedback he receives. "Parents often say that their children hit the ground running in September."
High School to the Great Beyond
There are also programs designed for juniors and seniors in high school who are planning to attend college. Landmark College offers a three-week program that focuses on further academic success. It balances core and elective classes to build on current educational standing while teaching skills needed to finish high school and make the transition to college. For example, their writing courses are offered in three different levels, from "Building Confidence as Writers" to "Research and Writing," designed to challenge students a bit and prepare them to write term papers.
Landmark's program addresses learning and attention issues head-on. Students take a course to learn how their brain works, understand the terminology of learning disabilities and ADHD, and how to talk about ADHD with their teachers, advisors, and parents. As Susan Grabowski, with the Landmark Summer Program, points out, "If they can better articulate their needs and challenges to teachers and others with whom they work, they can get the help they need to be successful."
At Landmark, students retain and build on what they've learned over the school year, to become more confident in their abilities. They learn to take the torch from their parents to become their own advocate.
While worries about behavior, social skills, and separation make it hard for parents of special-needs children to let go, summer learning camps offer a positive experience and the opportunity to avoid the academic backsliding that happens during a long summer break.