Summer Vacation: Finding the Best Camp

Worried about whether or not your child will fit in at summer camp? Find out why a program with a low staff-to-child ratio and sufficient extracurricular time is best for children with ADHD.

Kids at ADHD summer camp smiling and standing in line out doors
Kids at ADHD summer camp smiling and standing in line out doors

For most parents, summer camp conjures up thoughts of sun-filled days in the fresh air, doing crafts, singing songs, and making new friends.

But, for parents of children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), there are also a host of concerns. Will their child fit in? Will he make friends? Who will monitor his medication? What will happen if he needs to be disciplined? Can he handle being away from home? Will he lose the academic gains made during the year?

Bonnie Kayne never thought her son, Charlie, 13, would attend summer camp. “Charlie has ADHD and has a hard time making and keeping friends,” she says. “Early on, he was labeled the bad boy, and the reputation stuck, well into middle school.”

Kayne says that Charlie eagerly approached her about attending an ADHD camp, after he met a friend at school who had attended the year before.

“Charlie has been going to camp since he was 10,” she says. “He can be himself at camp, without fear of being labeled or teased by the other kids.” Kayne says that the benefits carried over into the school year. “Charlie has more confidence and is able to compromise more easily, two things that were very difficult for him.”

These days, parents have many ADHD camps to choose from-how do you select the best one for your child? We spoke to ADHD camp directors and parents, and found that, although camp programs are different, the best ones share most of the following characteristics.

  • A strength-based program. “A summer camp should focus on what the child does well, and help him succeed at it,” says John Willson, of SOAR, which runs camps in North Carolina, Florida, Wyoming, and California. “Our students often experience a high level of perceived failures-at school, on the playground, at home. It is crucial for them to succeed when they go to camp.”
  • A low staff-to-child ratio. One counselor for every two or three kids is ideal. (Children with severe learning disabilities or behavior problems should receive even more attention.) This allows the counselor to get to know the child and provide individual attention. Another benefit: Discipline problems are less likely to arise with smaller groups of kids under the watchful eye of a counselor.
  • A staff that encourages your child. Benjamin Mitchell, director of admissions at Landmark College in Vermont, says that having a staff of recent graduates with ADHD and LD helps. “For many students in our three-week high school program, it is the first time they have been in a community that really understands them and what they’re going through,” he says. “You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not, and you don’t have to apologize for yourself. That change in social dynamics can have a lasting effect on a student’s sense of self.”
  • The right approach to discipline. In most cases, close supervision and well-defined expectations eliminate behavioral issues. And when there is a problem? Natural consequences-if a child refuses to wear a life jacket while boating, he stays on shore-paired with forgiveness and understanding, are usually enough to discourage repeat offenses.

If your child has severe and consistent behavioral problems, a more detailed plan should be set up. It’s best to have a meeting or phone conversation with the camp director. Parents should discuss their child’s circumstances and follow up in writing with a copy to the counselor. If your child’s therapist is willing, arrange for a conference call with camp personnel. The more information the camp has about your child, the better they can adjust the program to his needs.

  • Responsible monitoring of medication. A mother of three children with ADHD worried about counselors being able to keep their medications straight. Check with the camp to find out who will be dispensing medication. Many camps employ a large staff of trained nurses, who systematically administer meds. Almost all of them work with companies that pre-package single doses of medication, so the nurse isn’t in a position of having to count out pills.
  • Sufficient extracurricular time. Campers should have ample opportunity to choose activities that interest them. These extracurricular opportunities allow them to learn new skills and form friendships with other campers. Many programs have cabin activities each day, to encourage bonding and to practice social skills.
  • The same goal for your child. For the child who struggles socially during the school year, camp may be a first opportunity to make lasting friendships. Social-skills training, integrated into camp activities, should be an important component of any ADHD/LD program. Some parents may have more than social skills in mind. Perhaps they want their child to be a better listener or to keep his hands to himself. Talk with the camp about developing a plan to help the child achieve such goals. Camp, parent, and child should always be on the same page.