Why Summer Camps Work For Children with ADHD

Thinking about sending your child to camp this summer? Consider these qualities that make camp a fun and useful journey for a child with ADHD.

Kids with ADHD in woods around camp fire toasting marshmallows
Kids with ADHD in woods around camp fire toasting marshmallows

After a long trip to camp from the airport, a young camper got out of the van, threw his head back, spread his arms, and said, “Ahh, I’m home.” John Willson, executive director for SOAR, which operates summer camps for children with ADHD in Balsam, North Carolina; Dubois, Wyoming; and internationally, likes to tell this story to drive home the fact that kids should feel excited about attending summer camp, as if it were a second home.

“You want camp to be like that for kids,” he says. “That’s what parents are looking for — a safe place where their kids learn, grow, and do fun things that will help them when they go back home and start the school year.”

Summer camps for kids with ADHD and LD come in every size and shape — from day camps to short- and long-term stay-away camps. There are also adventure and travel camps, each offering its own special experiences. Determining which camp best suits your child’s needs is challenging. A child’s age and level of independence are key considerations, as well as how well he reacts to the stress of being away from home. Some campers are ready, “thirsty for the opportunity,” as Willson describes it. “Or maybe they’re not ready, but they definitely need the opportunity.”

I talked with Willson and two other directors of summer camp programs to find out what parents should look for in ADHD camps.

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The Application Process

Parents don’t have to go it alone in deciding what experience will be best for their camper. The application process should guide them toward the perfect fit. A camp that specializes in ADHD should have an extensive application. Gene Bell, executive director at Summit Camp and Travel Programs, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, explains his camp’s process.

“There’s a lengthy questionnaire that we ask the family to complete, as well as a questionnaire that we ask the potential camper’s teacher to complete,” says Bell. “If your youngster has been involved in any kind of therapeutic relationship with a psychologist or social worker or social skills group, we ask for an evaluation from that professional or professionals. If there’s been a recent psychological or neuropsych evaluation, we request a copy of that as well. We use all that, plus our conversation with the family, to determine if we would be a good match.”

Trevor Dunlap, executive director of Camp Nuhop, in Perrysville, Ohio, explains why a thorough application process is important. “We want to know as much as possible about each child, so that we build a program that fits his needs,” says Dunlap. “We want to put a child with kids he’ll have a good experience with, so they can build good, solid friendships. Many parents hope that a camp will do that, among other things.”

The behaviors that are challenging at home and school may be issues at camp. Camps designed for kids with learning and attention issues should have a higher staff-camper ratio, which means more one-on-one attention. This results in less problematic behavior.

“The staff-to-camper ratio is important, when you think about our kids’ need for transitions from activity to activity,” says Dunlap. “If you don’t have things structured and organized in a format that’s going to work for our kids, then they’re going to find something to do. And that’s where behavior problems occur. At our camp, one of the staff members will make sure everything is ready for the next activity, so that when a child is done with one activity, it will be game on when he or she attends the next session.”

When problems occur, more staff means more individual attention. “Let’s say little Billy’s having trouble,” says Dunlap. “The staff member that has the best rapport with that child can do some one-on-one exercises with him without taking away from the experience of the group.”

[Click to Read: ADDitude’s ADHD Camp Guide]

Staff Training and Development

When thinking about which camp best fits your child, ask the director about the training of the staff who will be working there. All three camp directors stressed the importance of a well-educated and trained staff that has at least a basic knowledge of ADHD to handle meltdowns and crisis situations. A staff needs to be well-versed in protocol, camp routines, structures, and goals.

“We’re very specific about the staff we hire,” says Dunlap. “We recruit staff who are studying in the fields of education, social services, and psychology. When they come here, we have a camp culture, a way of working with kids. In our 10-day in-service training, staff members learn that approach and our belief in unconditional acceptance of every kid for who they are, where they are.”

Dunlap says the camp helps staff become certified in the skills they may need while working at the camp. “We bring in experts to help with this. One of our trustees was one of our staff members in the 1970s. Now he has a doctorate, teaches at a university, and is one of the leading researchers on families who have children with special needs. He visits the camp and gives them non-violent crisis intervention (CPI) training. Our staff leaves with CPI certificates.”

“Our staff training takes from 2 ½ to 3 ½ weeks, depending on how you will be working with the kids,” says Willson. “We begin the training with an overview of the types of kids who attend camp, their gifts, strengths, and abilities. We teach that first because that comes first. We believe there are tremendous, amazing, bright things about these kids. Let’s find them and accentuate them. Then we talk about common areas of challenge. The rest of staff training is spent learning how to facilitate this idea.”

“When people visit us, it looks like a camp,” says Summit’s Bell. “They don’t see the higher ratio of staff, they don’t see the background and skills and credentials of the staff. They see kids having fun.”

Kids with ADHD see the school year as a time of negative experiences and constant struggles. Camp should be a place that focuses on strengths, fostering a sense of confidence and empowerment, says Willson.

“We’re focused on catching kids doing right,” he says. “So when we need to give corrective guidance, it comes after having praised them a lot. We structure our environment so that kids can succeed. The biggest challenge for ADHD students is to transition from one activity to another. We help kids manage the transitions. We say, ‘This is what’s about to happen. Does anyone have any questions? Let’s go ahead and do that.'”

We reframe what teachers and, perhaps, parents see as negative traits by finding positives in them, says Dunlap. “Let’s say, a child is out on a hike, and he has a keen awareness of everything around him. He may be as slow as molasses and very methodical. Our staff members accept that. They’re not pushing him to hurry because they have to get to the next exercise. They understand that this kid perceives things differently. We let that child spend an extra 15 minutes on the trail where he found the coolest bug in the world. We allow kids to be who they are.

“At dinner, when we acknowledge and praise our campers, a staff member might say, ‘Johnny was a great contributor to our nature hike today. He was our naturalist, and really in tune with nature.’ That habit might drive his mom and dad or teacher nuts because Johnny can’t transition, but we celebrate it. We have the opportunity to see, and help our campers see, those traits as abilities, not disabilities.”

Discipline Approaches

“These kids have often had a lot of discipline,” Willson says. “What they need most is a vacation from failure.” A good camp can handle problem behavior in a positive way. “When there are incidents of challenging behaviors, we handle those in a compassionate way. We see it as a chance to problem-solve, not to say that the child messed up. One thing I teach my staff is that if you are in conflict with a student, try to understand where he’s coming from and help the child find a solution.”

Growing Friendships

“Our kids find it hard at a neurotypical camp because of their organization issues, peer communication issues, and a range of social skills that require cueing and redirecting,” says Bell. “These kids’ peers don’t call them or invite them to fun activities. They are usually left out, and they feel as if most kids in school don’t like them. The kids are skilled on their computers and their electronic devices, but they find it challenging to interact with and relate to their peers.”

A big benefit of summer camps is that a child shares his day-to-day experiences of living with learning and attention issues with other kids. Add this to a positive, nurturing environment, and staffers who help a child navigate the murky waters of friendship, and something magical happens.

Dunlap shares his favorite takeaway from summer camp. “What parents are most pleased with when they come to pick up their child is seeing him walking arm in arm with another child.”

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