You have a young child with special needs, and you are thinking of sending him to a mainstream summer camp, but a question gnaws at you – is he ready for it?
I have faced this dilemma, as I have a son who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Back in his elementary school years, I worried his poor gross motor skills and impulsive nature would make him stick out like a sore thumb in a traditional camp. When I finally found the courage to send him to a mainstream summer camp when he was 10, I was so amazed by how well he did that I wished I had sent him there sooner.
If you have a child with a learning disability, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – on the mild to moderate side – the choice between a mainstream camp and one tailored for kids with special needs may not be easy. So, how do you make that decision?
Be sure to do due diligence to ensure the right fit, says Sarah Tannenbaum, Psy.D., Associate Director of the Boston-based Summer Enrichment Institute (SEI) at Judge Baker Children’s Center. SEI is an evidence-based summer treatment program for children who are six to 12 years old and have ADHD.
“The school year is a really good indicator of the types of support a child needs to be successful. If a child is in mainstream classrooms and doesn’t need any extra levels of support, he can be successful in a mainstream camp under the right conditions,” says Dr. Tannenbaum.
If you are weighing camp summer options for a child with mild to moderate special needs, Dr. Tannenbaum offers these five suggestions to help you make the right decision.
- Be open about your child’s special needs with the camp
If you’ve found a camp that appeals to you and your child, then initiate a conversation with the camp director right at the start and share information about your child’s challenges. Ask specific questions to gauge how the camp accommodates similar children and seek concrete examples of kids who’ve succeeded there.
“You need a camp that’s accepting and will consider the needs of your child,” says Dr. Tannenbaum. “If they give vague answers and say ‘we haven’t had a problem, they just blend in and we don’t even notice,’ that’s not a realistic approach for kids with ADHD and related challenges.”
2. Find the right mix of staffing and structure
The higher the number of kids per staffer, the lower the attention each child is likely to receive, so get information about staff-to-student ratios at the camp. If you have a really young child, say four to five years old, you’ll likely see six kids per staffer in reputable mainstream camps – anything exceeding that may not be ideal.
Some camps permit additional staff such as floating aides to accommodate special cases – this may be beneficial if your camper needs extra support during field trips.
Look for camps that incorporate a variety of activities, from sports to arts and crafts or academics, so kids avoid boredom and burnout by the end of the day. “We know that kids with ADHD often have a hard time in large unstructured summer camp programs that are not highly staffed; there’s a lot of downtime, and that’s when kids can get into trouble,” Dr. Tannenbaum points out.
3. Choose camps that use a positive approach to discipline
As kids with ADHD, ASD, or related disorders may have difficulty regulating emotions, avoid camps that use harsh disciplinary methods. Be proactive and ask the camp about their discipline, suspension and expulsion protocols; it’s important to choose a camp that has a higher degree of awareness and tolerance for behavioral challenges of kids with special needs.
“You want a program that focuses on giving the kids lots of positive reinforcement and attention, and when difficulties arise, facilitating those difficulties so that they can be moments for learning,” says Dr. Tannenbaum.
4. Gauge the extent of staff training
Even if they do not have specific certification in special education, camp staff should have received training to understand the basic behavioral principles for helping kids with special needs. Many camps hire young counselors who are in high school or college, and that’s okay, as long as they have received adequate training and are supervised regularly on the field by qualified staff members.
For children on the ASD spectrum, it’s helpful to have staff members with explicit experience working with those types of kids, who can be overly sensitive in loud environments or large crowds.
5. Trust your instincts
“When it comes to choosing a camp, it really comes down to knowing your child and knowing the environment where your child does best,” says Dr. Tannenbaum. Also, make your child a part of the decision-making process, discussing all the aspects so that you have buy-in before sending him off to camp.
If you still feel a nagging little voice inside your head after all your research, prep work and discussions, then heed it – it might just be that your child is not yet ready for mainstream camp.
Ultimately, it’s about enabling a smooth transition to a traditional camp, says Dr. Tannenbaum. “We want kids to have a positive camp experience at first, so it can be beneficial to start out in a camp or a program such as SEI for kids with special needs where they’ll learn the tools and strategies they need to be successful. It’s better to set them up for success and then have them work up toward a more typical camp, rather than the other way around.”
Do you have a child with special needs? Have you tried mainstream summer camps? What would you do differently? Feel free to comment or share your experiences with us!