Shortcuts to a Summer of Growth: Skill-Building Ideas from ADHD Camps
Learn the techniques that leading summer camps use to build social skills, promote a growth mindset, and keep brains sharp.
Some families look to summer camps — whether specialized ADHD programs, local day camps, or sleepaway adventures — to provide social, behavioral, and academic stimulation. But camps are not affordable or accessible to all families, and the need for skill building is perhaps greater now than ever before.
So we asked the directors of leading summer programs to explain the strategies they use to hone kids’ social, behavioral, and academic skills. Here are their tactics for you to try at home.
How to Build Social Skills
1. Host a game or project hour.
“Invite over a very small group — one or two friends — rather than a large group that’s going to overwhelm. Add structure to the activities. Play games or build something with LEGOs, for example. And keep it short so they can stay engaged and not get bored and become less sociable.”
— Linda Tatsapaugh, Co-Owner, Operations Director, Talisman Summer Camps, North Carolina
2. Role-play kindness.
“We do a lot of role-playing around being kind and giving each other grace. I pick a scenario that resonates with kids — like suppose the Internet goes down at my house and I can’t play video games. Does it do me any good to scream at customer service? They didn’t cut the wire. What can we do instead? Role-playing can increase frustration tolerance and help kids become more resilient when life doesn’t come to them perfectly scripted.”
— Brian Lux, Director, Camp Sequoia, Pennsylvania
3. Schedule opportunities for success.
“We’re trying to draw out, through our experiences at camp, what each child naturally does well. What are their gifts and strengths? How can we create opportunities to showcase and celebrate their talents? Because when we feel competent and good about ourselves, our social skills grow exponentially.”
— Rob Himburg, Director of Children’s Program, Hallowell Summer Camp, Michigan
4. Expand that comfort zone — with friends’ help.
Last year was Gabe Hund’s first time at Camp Nuhop, a special needs summer camp in Ohio. His mother, Keila, hoped the experience would help him make new friends and learn how to be part of a community.
“Being part of a group and seeing the other kids doing activities encouraged Gabe to try new things that he initially felt anxious about, whether it was hiking, trying the big swing, or doing the zip line. Eventually, he was able to take a risk and get out of his comfort zone. Once he tried these things, his counselors helped him process them by talking about how the activity went, how he felt about it, and whether he would do it again.”
— Keila Hund, Parent
How to Encourage a Growth Mindset
1. Make kids responsible for problem-solving.
“Kids need to take responsibility for themselves, but we don’t want them to be too hard on themselves. When there is a problem at camp, we sit down together with eight kids and three staff members. First, we name the problem: ‘I have an issue with Jack and Susan raising their voices.’ Jack’s next move is to take responsibility for yelling. ‘Next time, I will ask in a calm voice or walk away.’ If there is a logical consequence, such as apologizing, that happens. Then the issue is closed, and we don’t talk about it again.”
— Linda Tatsapaugh
2. Establish a daily routine.
“With fully unscheduled free time, kids tend to revert to less-desirable behaviors because it’s hard for them to regulate without some guidance. The summer structure can be relatively loose, but it should be there. At camp, the kids are active all day, with engaging activities like tree climbing or river paddling. That structure and focus help them practice how to stay attentive and complete a goal.”
— Linda Tatsapaugh
3. Provide the tools needed to meet expectations
“Our staff at Camp Kodiak use the acronym HALT to determine why a camper may be misbehaving. Is she Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, we know that this is impeding her ability to behave. No one is at her best if she needs a snack or if she is feeling hurt or excluded. It is essential to address the emotional or physiological concern before trying to address the behavior.”
— Ilana Stoch, Director, Camp Kodiak, Ontario, Canada
4. Enforce natural consequences.
“When necessary, we use consequences that are reasonable, relevant, and immediate. If possible, these consequences should also be restorative to the group if a disruption was made. For example, if a child gets upset during arts and crafts and dumps out a bucket of markers, he would need to clean up the space and apologize to peers.”
— Becca Mitchner, Co-Director, Summer & Respite Programs, Camp Nuhop, Ohio
5. Reflect on successes and challenges.
“Our counselors are trained to find and create teachable moments related to social skills. Learning, practicing, and refining these skills in context makes it easier for kids to understand how and when to apply them independently.”
— Ilana Stoch
How to Promote Academic Accomplishment
1. Piggyback on their passions.
“I advise parents to find activities that are of high interest and also tap into academic goals. If your child is interested in World War II, give her things to read about the war or build a model plane together. Camp Sequoia offers interest-based programming, from 3-D printing to Dungeons and Dragons, so kids can find a high-interest activity and friends to join them in an inquiry-based experience that skilled staff can scaffold to reinforce core academic concepts, particularly in the STEM fields.”
— Brian Lux
2. Remember: self-advocacy is an academic skill.
“One of the most important academic skills is the ability to speak up for yourself in a respectful and responsible way. That might involve clearing up with a teacher what’s expected in a certain class or asking for accommodations. We practice those skills through role-playing.”
— Rob Himburg
3. Lean on puzzles, riddles, and escape rooms.
“Summit has a program called TOMS, aka ‘theory of mind,’ that focuses on activities such as solving riddles. We introduce critical reasoning skills, explain how they can help in everyday life, and practice them by using activities that require campers to think outside the box or solve a mystery using clues. Once the child understands that thinking is a process that he or she has an ability to control, it is a major ‘aha!’ moment.”
— Leah Love, M.S., Assistant Director, Summit Camp, Pennsylvania
4. Empower your child to use her voice.
“Because camp is a safe place, I think it made Olivia more confident about raising her hand and giving her opinion in school. She also gained the self-esteem to understand that if someone has an opinion that’s different from hers, it is their opinion.”
— Emily Calamita, Parent
What Makes a Summer Successful?
ADDitude readers answer, “What is the measure of a successful summer for your child?”
“A worthy pursuit, whether a paid job or taking classes in an interest, and getting outside often. Sitting around and playing video games is the worst option for both of my girls.”
“Successful playdates and family days out. Also, activities that are marked mostly by fun, play, and friendliness rather than sibling rivalry and general moodiness.”
“If my child keeps busy developing talents, socializing, and learning with a minimum of electronics, his summer has been successful. This includes playing outdoors, learning an instrument, and creating with LEGOs.”
“A routine that gives her purpose.”
Summer Camp Skill Building: Next Steps
- Overview: The Complete ADHD Camp Guide
- Read: Your Summer Camp Checklist
- Read: Choose a Summer Program for Your Happy Camper
Stephanie Watson is a freelance writer/editor based in Rhode Island. She has been covering consumer health for more than two decades, writing for publications such as WebMD Magazine, Healthline, Arthritis Today, and Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
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