Choose a Summer Program for Your Happy Camper

Not sure how to choose a summer camp that will best suit your child’s ADHD needs? Discover the best program for your child, whether he has issues with aggression, hyperactivity, or making friends.

Packed the van and set out on the perfect summer vacation
Packed the van and set out on the perfect summer vacation

It’s that time of year again – time to decide on a summer camp for your child with ADHD.

Should he go to mainstream camp, where he will be challenged to keep up boys and girls who don’t have ADHD? Does he need a camp that focuses on learning problems? What about a sports camp? A social-skills camp?

“Figure out which aspect of ADHD is holding back your child,” says Alan Rosenblatt, M.D., a specialist in neuro-developmental pediatrics. “Then choose a camp that addresses it.” Rosenblatt encourages parents to try mainstream camps. “[Kids with ADHD] can learn a lot from non-ADHD campers – everything from good behavior to social skills,” he explains.

How do you decide which camp will benefit your child the most? Evaluate your child honestly. “If he is extremely aggressive or impulsive, he may not do well at a mainstream camp, which is less tolerant of those behaviors,” explains Rosenblatt. “In that case, go with a specialized camp.”

ADDitude asked Rosenblatt and David Stoch, the director of Camp Kodiak – whose campers include children and teens with and without ADHD, learning disabilities, and Asperger’s syndrome – what types of camps are best for children with special needs.

[Get This Free Guide: Choosing the Perfect Camp for Your Child]

If Your Child Is Hyperactive

Can your child sit still and listen to directions? Does he get hyper only in certain situations, such as rough play or sports? Would his hyperactivity be a safety hazard at a swimming pool or on a bus?

If so, opt for a camp with a low counselor-to-camper ratio, where he can be monitored. Many parents think that sports camp is perfect for hyperactive kids, assuming that activity will allow kids to let off steam. In some cases, this is true. But for a child who can’t regulate his moods or can’t “turn off the switch,” sports camp presents too many challenging situations.

Hyperactive kids will probably do better in a specialized camp that combines quiet time with activities, says Rosenblatt.

If Your Child Has Learning Disabilities

Some LD kids do well in a mainstream camp, if LD is the only problem they face. If your LD child also has social problems, be sure that the counselors – whether in a mainstream or specialized camp – are trained to deal with them.

Pattie Allen’s nine-year-old son, Brian, has a slight developmental delay and can’t interpret social cues. Brian did well at a mainstream camp, but he flourished at the specialized camp that his therapist recommended. Allen attributes his success to counselors who helped him process social cues and directions.

“When the kids played dodgeball, Brian would start crying,” says Allen. “He didn’t want to play, because everyone was throwing balls at him. One counselor took Brian aside and let him throw balls at him, explaining that the kids weren’t targeting Brian, they were only playing the game.

After that, whenever Brian played dodgeball, the counselor would quietly remind him how the game is played.” Brian excelled in all activities that summer, thanks to the one-on-one style of the counselor.

[Free Template: Introduce Your Child to Camp Counselors]

If Your Child Is Aggressive

Physically aggressive children benefit from a structured program that clearly delineates acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The child knows what is expected of him, and he knows the consequences if he doesn’t comply.

If your child is aggressive, keep these points in mind: Camp counselors should cue a child throughout the day about situations that make him angry or aggressive, says Rosenblatt. For example, a counselor might say: “We are going to play basketball now. If you start to feel angry, wave to me and I will help you.”

This signal can be given in subtle ways – by hand or by a word – that don’t draw attention to the camper. The signal strategy can also work for kids who are verbally aggressive, bullies, or call other children names.

A specialized camp may have checks and balances built into its programs, while a mainstream camp may not. If you send your child to a mainstream camp, suggest ideas to the counselors that will help your child succeed.

If Your Child Has Trouble Making Friends

Kids who have trouble making and keeping friends will do well at a camp that seeks to develop social skills.

Parents should advise the camp director and counselors to set one or two goals for the summer: scheduling a play date with another camper or managing anger. Many behaviors of special-needs kids are off-putting to non-ADD children. If a camp allows the child to work on his problems in a safe setting, he can learn and grow.

Laura Davies, of Cleveland, Ohio, knows what could happen if the setting’s not right. Her son, David, had a “horrible experience” at a day camp a few years ago.

“Since David was doing well at school, I decided to send him to the camp that the neighborhood kids go to,” she says. “What I didn’t take into account was that the camp was run by teenagers who had little interest in a kid who was, at times, difficult.”

David was kicked out of the camp after a week. “Had I been honest with myself about David’s symptoms, I would have known that the camp wasn’t the right fit for him,” says Davies. The next summer, David did well in a mainstream camp, thanks to an aide who monitored David’s behavior.

Rosenblatt encourages parents of special-needs kids to talk with the camp about enlisting an aide. (This service often costs extra.) “A child may be told that the aide is there to help the whole group, not just him,” Rosenblatt says. “Having someone keeping an eye out for a child may guarantee that the camp experience will be a success.”

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