Summer Camp: Fun! Friends! Learning?!

3 summer programs that offer fun, friends and learning to children with ADHD and learning disabilities.

A multiracial group of boys and a girl wearing swim caps and goggles on their heads, in the water at the side of the swimming pool, looking up, smiling. Summer camp, sports

Like all parents, those whose children have ADHD want their kids to enjoy summer camp. But parents of kids with ADD want more. They want to know that — along with having fun and making friends — their kids will get the support they need to hold on to the academic and social skills they worked so hard to attain during the previous school year.

Fortunately, parents can now choose from a variety of camps designed just for kids with ADHD. For children who need just a bit of support, there are classic “campfire camps” that add limited academic instruction. Then there are the academic/recreational summer programs offered by certain boarding schools.

Finally, for children who need lots of support, there are highly structured “summer treatment programs.” STPs — first developed by psychologist William Pelham, Jr., Ph.D. — offer typical day-camp fare, but in a “therapeutic environment” that stresses academic skills and behavior modification.

Tremendous Gains

Summer ADHD programs can be of great benefit to the kids who attend them, experts say. “You’re always trying to close the gap between kids with ADHD and their peers,” says psychologist Andy Lopez-Williams, Ph.D., who is working to establish a summer ADHD program at the Psychological Center in Providence, Rhode Island. “Summer programs can be a booster shot to get them ready for the next school year.”

Parents share Lopez-Williams’s upbeat assessment of the programs. So do the kids themselves — although some are initially wary of any camp that offers therapy and academics along with swimming, hiking, and crafts.

The reaction of William Norris, an eight-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, was typical. Two years ago, when his mother suggested that he attend a local STP, William asked, “School stuff in the summer?”

But William’s mom, Vicki Norris, wasn’t budging. “He was having trouble in school,” says Norris. She wanted William to work at improving his study skills and organizational strategies — and wanted him to have a leg up when the next school year rolled around.

[Free Resource: Finding the Perfect Summer Camp for Your Child]

In the end, both William and his 10-year-old sister attended an STP operated by the University of Alabama — for two years in a row. “Both greatly benefited,” says Norris. “But for William, in particular, the effect was almost miraculous.” And, says Norris, both children had a great time.

“We had to sell it to my son,” admits a Manhattan cardiologist, whose 15-year-old spent last summer at an ADHD-oriented program offered by the Eagle Hill School, a coeducational special-needs boarding school in Hardwick, Massachusetts. “He wanted to go to a sports camp.”

The boy wound up having a terrific experience. “It was just enough structure for him to be able to shine,” the father says. Students woke up at 6:45 a.m., and set off on a day that emphasized academics and study skills, along with sports and other electives. Every weekend, the students left campus for special activities, such as deep-sea fishing.

By the end of the session, this teen, who had balked at the idea of going to “some geeky camp,” had developed a sense of himself as someone who cared about school. He was even given the Headmaster’s Award. “His getting the award was incredibly moving,” his father says. “It changed his life.”

In addition to boosting academic skills, summer ADHD programs can open doors that might have remained forever closed. Karin Sweeney, of Queens, New York, says her 11-year-old grew up hating sports. But at New York University’s Summer Program for Kids, he finally grasped the “rules of the game.” Now, Sweeney says, he enjoys sports at school — for the first time in his life.

[ADDitude’s ADHD Camp Guide]

Summer Treatment Programs

STPs are geared to children, ages five to 14, who have recurring problems at school. According to Karen Fleiss, Ph.D., co-director of NYU’s Summer Program for Kids, such children “have trouble with their behavior, are impulsive and negative-attention-seeking, have low self-esteem, and can’t function in a group setting.”

A typical program lasts for six or eight weeks, with activities from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to academics, most programs offer athletics (swimming, softball, basketball, soccer), as well as art and computer instruction.

STPs have been called “behavior-modification boot camps,” and that’s an apt characterization. Upon enrollment, goals are identified for each child, and an individual treatment plan is developed. Progress toward those goals is carefully monitored, with daily report cards and point systems that provide each child with continual feedback.

“We record all the data,” says Fleiss. “Everything is tracked, so we see over time how the children are faring.” Each Friday, children who have met their point quotas for the week are allowed to go on a field trip.

So much structure might seem oppressive, but parents, directors, and children often say it’s not. “Children love the structure and the routine,” says Mary McIntosh, director of the Achievement Center, an STP in Erie, Pennsylvania. “These are the rules for the classroom, for friendship, for life. Kids feel safer knowing them.”

STPs do all they can to ensure that the children don’t feel they are “working” or attending summer school, according to Fleiss. “If everyone is having fun,” she says, “then we can do what we need to do without the child knowing that he’s receiving treatment.”

Kids aren’t the only ones who learn from STPs. Parents are usually required to come in for special classes, in which they learn strategies to help their children at home.

“We talked about everything from problem-solving to tantrums to household routines,” says Lara Morrison, of Chappaqua, New York, who attended parent-education classes last summer as part of her son’s STP. “Rethinking your ways of doing things may seem too much to some. But when a child has ADHD, that extra structure may help your home operate like everybody else’s.”

In many cases, the therapeutic process extends into the following academic year, with counselors from the STP meeting with the child’s new teacher. The goal is to help teachers set up systems, including a daily report card, and to show them how giving effective commands and ignoring certain inappropriate behaviors can help students with ADHD stay in control.

“We can take that accumulated data and go into the school and say, ‘Here’s what works well with this child,'” says Lopez-Williams.

“My son was a mess,” is how one mother described her 10-year-old before he attended NYU’s STP. “He was bouncing off the walls. He was miserable in school.” This year, she says, they’ve continued to use a daily report card (an STP ritual), and the boy has seen great improvement at school.

Currently, STPs are held only at a handful of sites in the nation (see “Picking a Camp Program“), and children who attend them must have a place to stay locally. (Some kids who attend STPs far from home have been permitted to stay with their family in a nearby Ronald McDonald House.)

Then there’s the expense: STPs cost up to $8,000 a session. Some parents are reimbursed by their health insurer. Others get financial assistance elsewhere. “Don’t rule out an STP because you think it’s too much money,” says Karen Sunderhaft, former academic director of an STP operated by the Cleveland Clinic. “Check your options. Knock on doors.”

Summer Sessions at Boarding Schools

What about children with ADHD who would benefit from a structured, supportive environment but who don’t really need the intensive intervention offered by an STP? The best choice may be a summer session at a special-ed boarding school.

A typical boarding-school program lasts six weeks and offers a choice of academic courses, as well as structured evening and weekend activities. Given the first-rate facilities available at many of these schools (swimming pools, athletic fields, libraries, laboratories, and so on), such programs are often more attractive to children than “regular” summer school.

These programs — usually open to visiting students as well as children already enrolled in the school — can be great for children who need just a little help with their study skills.

A typical day at one of these programs might involve four academic classes and four electives, such as photography or mountain biking. The classes can be challenging, but low student-teacher ratios, minimal distractions, and behavior-modification programs help ensure a positive experience. Afternoons are devoted to outdoor recreation or sports. Evenings might feature club activities, such as cooking or karaoke. Weekends are spent on field trips and other organized activities.

Eagle Hill is one of the few schools in the nation to offer summer programs for kids with ADHD. Others include the Landmark School in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, and the Parker Academy, a day school in Concord, New Hampshire.

Like STPs, these programs are expensive. The cost of a six-week session can exceed $8,000.

Camps with an Academic Twist

There’s a third option — one that combines the “regular” sleepaway camp experience with limited academic instruction. This can be good for children with mild ADHD (kids with behavioral disorders typically aren’t allowed) who are willing to accept a little help with their study skills.

At the Learning Camp in Vail, Colorado, campers spend three hours each morning on academic subjects. But the “classroom” is outdoors, in the fresh air. Once their coursework for the day is completed, the children spend afternoons involved in traditional camp activities, including horseback riding and swimming.

“When she comes back from camp, it’s spectacular,” says Alexis Ofenloch, of Scottsdale, Arizona, whose 13-year-old daughter, Marisa, has spent the last three summers at the Learning Camp. “She was very shy and not assertive, and she learned to speak up for herself and become her own advocate. She comes back ready to hit school like gangbusters.”

[Summer Camp Success Stories]