Summer camps give kids the opportunity to make new friends, gain important skills, and strengthen their sense of independence. As a director of many camps—and as someone who has ADHD and learning issues—I’ve experienced firsthand just how valuable camps can be. When I was a kid, camps were an oasis away from school where I could grow and thrive. However, camp is only rewarding if it’s the right fit. For parents of the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues like dyslexia and ADHD, choosing the right program can be a complicated process. Here are some tips to help make this decision easier.
CHOOSING A CAMP
First, what do you and your child want to get out of summer camp? Make a list of your child’s talents, interests, and challenges. Types of camps that many kids with learning and attention issues enjoy include those that specialize in helping kids with invisible disabilities as well as those that build outdoor skills, celebrate inclusion, include community service, and have smaller group sizes. Other options include camps that focus on specific interests and passions, such as dance, technology, sports, or academics. If you’re considering sleepaway camps, make sure your child is flexible and independent enough to feel comfortable without your help. It’s a good idea to have your child attend a day camp before jumping into the big-kid world of sleepaway camp.
Asking your parent network about camps is a good way to start identifying options. Teachers and school counselors can also give great suggestions because they’re so familiar with your child’s comfort level. It can be helpful to visit camps in person, as many websites don’t accurately portray the current facility. Contacting the local board of health is also a smart way to confirm whether the camp has been cited for any recent violations.
Don’t be afraid to go straight to the camp for information about how they can support your child who may need accommodations, like extra time for activities and the opportunity to meet one-on-one with camp counselors. You may need to contact the directors to discuss how they integrate kids with learning and attention issues as well as how your child compares to the average camper.
Here are 10 key issues to cover during your conversation:
- How does the program accommodate kids with learning, attention, or emotional differences?
- What backgrounds do camp counselors have, and how much training do they receive?
- How flexible is the camp’s schedule? For example, will my child be allowed to take a break from activities if necessary?
- Are food substitutions available? How are food allergies dealt with? Ask for a sample weekly menu.
- What is the camp’s attitude toward competition, sports, color war, music, and performing arts? What types of awards do campers receive?
- Do campers go on field trips? If so, where? What is the level of supervision? Can parents volunteer to help on these trips?
- Who are the medical staff on campus? Can they administer medication if necessary? Where is the nearest hospital? Have there been any accidents at camp and if so, how were they handled?
- If the camp is providing transportation to and from campus, what is the type of transportation and the amount of time it takes to get there?
- What is the refund policy if things aren’t working out?
- If the camp is residential, what independent-living skills do kids need?
Ideally, these questions will help you get a better sense of which programs are the best fit for your child.
SET POSITIVE EXPECTATIONS
Once you’ve selected a camp, let your child know what to expect. Although it may be tempting, never make promises you can’t keep, like telling them they can come home early or that you can visit if things don’t go well.
Be positive yet sensitive to your child’s concerns. Talk about similar feelings you had when going into a new environment and how you made it a good experience. Try to introduce some of the aspects of camp your child will encounter. You might have your child help you plan and prepare a typical “camp” meal. Practice any camp songs or chants and go over any special terms the camp might use.
If they’re going to a specialty program, point out that your child will be with campers who share the same interests, but some may have more developed skills. Reminding kids with learning and attention issues of their strengths will set them up for success in any situation.
BEING A GOOD CAMP PARENT
If your child is going to day camp, check in on how it’s going each evening. Ask questions about your child’s day that will prompt positive responses. Praise your child’s accomplishments and show them how proud you are of their efforts.
It’s also important to make sure your communication with the camp managers remains consistent. Check your child’s backpack for any letters from the program. If your child shares bad news, ask the directors how the situation is being handled.
For sleepaway camps, send an encouraging letter before camp starts so it’s waiting for your child. Kids love being reminded that their loved ones are thinking of them. Try to avoid sharing any major news about family or pets without talking to the director first. If you send care packages, make sure it includes things that can be shared with other kids and doesn’t isolate your child or cause unnecessary fights with other kids.
Summer camp is a great way for kids to grow and have fun. For kids with differences, it can also be a place where they can find success away from the pressures of school — and really thrive!
About the Author
Jim Rein, M.A., is an Understood.org expert and has lectured across the country on summer programs for children and young adults with learning and attention issues. Rein co-founded Introduction to Independence, a summer work-study program at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), and Camp Northwood, a sleepaway camp for children with learning disabilities in Remsen, New York. He also co-founded and served for 20 years as dean of the Vocational Independence Program at NYIT.