Friendships & Activities

Next Stop, Summer Camp

Trying to find the best summer program for your child? Discover how to find one that meets your child’s ADHD needs, as well as how to prepare for camp and why a medication vacation isn’t a good thing.

ADHD summer camp transitions, from doing homework to roasting marshmallows
ADHD summer camp transitions, from doing homework to roasting marshmallows

With the end of the school year in sight, your summer plans are probably set. You’ve found a program that matches your child with ADHD’s interests and offers the structure he needs. If it’s a mainstream program, you’ve made certain the camp directors have experience with children like yours who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But despite your efforts, you may have lingering concerns. How will counselors keep your child’s interest in an activity from waning? How will they respond if he’s impatient or refuses to follow instructions? And what more can you do to make the summer a success?

We put these questions to psychologist Steven Kurtz, clinical director of the Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City. He draws on 20 years of professional involvement in camps, as a counselor, administrator, and consultant.

Some parents are reluctant to tell counselors about their child’s behavior problems. What’s your advice?

It’s understandable that parents want their child to start camp with a clean slate. But it’s better to be open about potential problems, especially since counselors may have little experience in managing disruptive behavior.

I recommend providing the counselors with a list of strategies to use in working with your child. Does she respond to incentives, like special privileges? Does it help to pull him aside when he’s rowdy? If a daily report card has been helpful during the school year, ask counselors to prepare something similar. And ask your child’s teacher to let counselors know what works.

I also encourage kids to write to their counselors before camp starts – to introduce themselves, describe their interests, and discuss problems they sometimes have. A child might say, “I have trouble listening to directions, and what helps me is… .”

If your child is going to an overnight camp, see if he can maintain some familiar routines. If he’s used to listening to music at bedtime, for example, ask if he can bring a cassette player with earphones.

What should parents do to help prepare their child for camp?

When a child knows what to expect, he’s less apt to be nervous. If this will be his first year at the camp, meet the staff ahead of time, or get a camp video and photos of your child’s counselors. Familiarize your child with the daily routine.

If she’s nervous about certain situations, role-play what might happen and how she can cope with it. What if she doesn’t want to take part in an activity? Praise her for good problem-solving, and make sure she knows whom to go to if she needs help.

Is camp a good time to take a “vacation” from ADHD medication?

Children with ADHD often have difficulty with social skills, and being in a new setting, with different kids and expectations, can be hard. Unless your child has already done well without meds in a similar situation, it’s wise to continue his medication.

Any reasons for taking a break from treatment should be weighed against the risk of having a negative camp experience – and the potential damage to your child’s self-esteem. Discuss the matter with the doctor.

Once camp begins, how much oversight should parents provide?

If your child attends day camp, chat with her counselors at the end of each day. If it’s an overnight camp, check in with them weekly via e-mail or phone. Behavioral interventions may need to be tweaked; invite counselors to call you if they feel changes are needed.

At the end of the summer, evaluate whether sending your child to a mainstream program was successful. Did she fit in socially and enjoy the activities? Were his counselors effective in managing behavior problems? If you conclude that your child would have done better at a camp with special services and specially trained staff, don’t view the experience as a defeat. Consider yourself a step closer to finding the right fit next year.