Summer Programs That Ease the Post-High School Transition

Camping, canoeing, and fun in the sun? Check. Job training, social skills classes, and critical independence-boosting activities? Check! These summer programs have everything your teen needs to successfully transition from childhood to adulthood.

A teen holding a resume that he created in a summer transition program for students with ADHD
Student resume illustration with thumbs up green shirt

Kids running down trails, hiking in the mountains, or canoeing on a lake; days and nights of having fun and playing games. Summer camp is a much-needed break from the busy-ness of the school year — a place to relax, retreat, and regroup for kids of all ages, especially those with learning and attention issues. But what about older kids, those getting ready to leave the nest, head off to college, or start a career? Are there camp programs that help teens diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and co-occurring conditions prepare for the next step in life?

We talked with several camp directors about summer programs designed to help teens successfully transition into adulthood.

“We catch a lot of young adults who are falling through the cracks,” says Jennifer Buri da Cunha, M.S., director of the Staff Assistant Experience at Camp Ramapo, a residential transition-to-independence program for young adults, ages 18 to 26, who are pursuing employment opportunities and independent living. “Many of them have learning differences, ADHD, autism, or anxiety and/or depression. They don’t need a clinical setting, but they need more help than they would get at a college receiving accommodations.”

“There aren’t a lot of services out there for students once they leave high school,” says Alicia Bourdon, the summer admissions coordinator for The College Internship Program (CIP) and the Mploy program, designed for young adults with autism and LD who are interested in entering the work force and transitioning to independent living. CIP has programs for young adults ages 18 to 25.

It was parents’ concern about their teens’ next step after high school that inspired Gordie Felt to start The Northwood Center, a program for young adults. “The program was created to help kids who were beginning to age out of Camp Northwood,” says Felt, owner and camp director, along with his wife, Donna. “They needed a program to bridge the gap. We developed this residential program, which prepares them for a post-secondary experience, whether that’s a vocational training program or college. We want to give kids the tools to be independent.”

[Get This Free Resource: Picking the Right Summer Camp for Your Child]

Making It on Their Own

Independent living skills are at the heart of most transitional programs, and they encompass many aspects of life as an adult. Ilana Stoch, executive director of Club Kodiak, a transitional program for young adults ages 19 and older, told us about their program. “We address executive function issues, like organization, scheduling, and getting to work or classes on time. Young adults also learn about work-life balance, as well as the importance of proper nutrition and physical fitness.”

In the Camp Ramapo program, campers are called Staff Assistants and are assigned a mentor and a coach. Days start early. “Every day they meet at 8:00 a.m. for a head-to-toe check. It’s an opportunity to make sure that everybody is dressed appropriately, groomed, and has whatever items he needs for the day,” says da Cunha. “We send staff assistants out to volunteer sites and workplaces, and we want them to get into the habit of being ready to work in public.”

Northwood’s Felt explains the importance of building such routines. “We want to get young adults into a healthy routine, because that’s what they’ll need out in the world. Our program enables them to learn skills and apply them in everyday life, with the hope that those skills will become automatic. When they go back home, they will be better prepared to achieve their goals.”

What they learn is just as important as how they learn it. “We work on our curriculum in a discussion forum,” says CIP’s Bourdon. “We’re not sitting in a classroom working on math problems; we’re sitting in a circle in a common room. Teens have their program binders out, and we go over the topics for the day.” The binders go home with campers, so they can look back on what they’ve learned.

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Learning is geared to those diagnosed with ADHD or learning disabilities. “Our advisors at Club Kodiak lead all the workshops, electives, and camp activities so that everything is structured,” says Stoch. “We use task analysis, dividing tasks into smaller parts, and scaffolding to teach everything, because this is best way for our campers to learn.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Practical application is a key part of transitional programs, although each camp approaches it in its own way. Says CIP’s Bourdon: “We want campers to apply the skills they learn. Students learning interview skills may get dressed up and meet with staff to do a mock interview. We videotape the interviews, so we can review them and develop strategies that will improve their skills.”

Developing Social Skills

In addition to life skills and job training, all of these transitional programs include social skills training and strategies for handling emotions. Linda Tatsapaugh, director and co-owner of Talisman Summer Camp, explains the process. “When we work with a camper who is upset or disappointed, part of the staff’s job is to help him or her manage his or her emotions. A counselor might say: ‘I can see you’re upset’ or ‘I can see you’re disappointed or sad,’ and talk a camper through it. A counselor may help campers recognize their emotions: ‘I can tell you’re angry because your face is turning red and your fists are clenched.’ We spend time offering strategies to get past anger and anxiety, so they can deal with such issues when they get out on their own.”

Most summer transitional programs address social media training. “The young adults in our program are sometimes vulnerable and easily taken advantage of,” says Ramapo’s da Cunha. “Campers may have ‘friends’ on Facebook, but they don’t always recognize people’s intentions. We do workshops, some of which are headed by social media experts. They talk about digital footprints and how what they put online may affect them as they apply for jobs or in other situations. Our staff helps them with privacy settings. We analyze incidents in which somebody accepted a friend request from someone they didn’t know.”

Spotlight on Academics

If your teen isn’t ready for a sleepaway camp, or you want him to focus more on academics, Winston Prep, which has several locations, offers summer day programs that may be what you need. Jordan Yannotti, director of the Winston Prep Summer Enrichment Program, in Connecticut, says, “Our summer program gives students the opportunity to understand themselves better as learners, so they can gain the skills they need to deal with an increased workload, whether in their junior or senior year in high school or in college. The program also teaches students how to be good advocates for themselves.”

Peter Hill, summer program director at Winston Prep, in New York City, says, “Many schools expect your child to adjust to the way a teacher teaches. We adjust our teaching to the way a child learns.”

Winston also offers a summer elective that focuses on social skills and social media.“The communications class is designed to help students improve their social skills,” says Yannotti, “to be able to initiate a conversation, monitor body language, make a good first impression, and conduct yourself in an interview. We work on making eye contact, being thoughtful with your responses, being able to read the room.”

No matter which transitional program parents choose, giving their teen the freedom to be independent is hard. Talisman’s Tatsapaugh summed it up: “Most parents have a hard time letting their teen be independent. If parents think that their teen isn’t ready to be independent, it’s easy to put that off. Our kids need opportunities to build confidence to be out on their own.”

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