Every parent wants his child to have an amazing summer kids camp experience. When your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, success at camp often depends on factors that go beyond what watersports are available and the particulars of the arts and crafts curriculum.
You want a kids camp that offers continuity of your child’s ADHD treatment and the right environment for managing ADHD symptoms. Kids with ADHD often have a harder time making friends at camp or participating in traditional camp activities, like competitive sports.
But at the same time, the right summer camp can be an asset for children with ADHD because it gives them a variety of experiences and a chance to learn valuable personal and social skills.
“Summer camp provides the child the opportunity for some level of independence with supervision,” says ADHD expert Sam Goldstein, MD, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Attention Disorders.
Summer camp is one more way to help children with ADHD learn to manage their own lives and relationships successfully. As a bonus, Dr. Goldstein observes that children and teens who go to camp usually participate in a diversity of activities rather than becoming enmeshed in one singular activity, usually something on the computer.”
Choosing the Right Kids Camp
At first, the endless list of summer kids camps might just seem overwhelming to parents trying to choose wisely. And as tempting as it could be to narrow your search to camps that specialize in ADHD, Goldstein advises proceeding with caution before you do so.
“I ask parents how their children function in groups during the school year, such as church, scouts, or at school,” says Goldstein.If the child functions adequately, then I suggest just a general day or sleepaway camp rather sending them to specialized camp with children who may be more severe and with services that their child may not require.”
As you investigate camps, keep these tips and guidelines in mind:
Look for a variety of outdoor activities.Very helpful for everybody, but particularly kids with ADHD is to be out of doors. That’s what camp is – there’s nothing between you and nature other than the walls of your cabin,” says Vicki Hand, a Toronto resident whose son attended Camp Kirk in Ontario, Canada, a sleepaway camp that specializes in children with ADHD and/or learning disabilities. At the same time, she says you shouldn’t get stuck on specific amenities. Camp Kirk, for example, has a large swimming pool but not a lake, and parents whose vision of kids camp includes a lake could miss out on a good option for their child.
Get your child’s wish list. Talk to your child about what he is hoping for so that you can make the best match. Sending your budding artist to a sports-themed camp could backfire for reasons other than ADHD. Older children and teens can have more input into the type of kids camp they attend. Once Hand’s son was too old for Camp Kirk (which accepts children between 6 and 13), he opted for more educational summer programs.
Get philosophical. It’s a good idea to find out about a camp’s philosophy to see if it matches yours. Henri Audet, camp director for Camp Kirk, says that children with ADHD are often stressed about how they measure up to peers and siblings, so his camp’s philosophy is one that focuses on having fun while doing your best, but without competing against others. On the other hand, if you want your child to have a good time with competitive sports, you might want a camp like the NYU Child Study Center’s summer camp, which specifically teaches children with ADHD how to play three of the most popular team sports.Unfortunately a lot of these children, because of their ADHD symptoms, have not been very successful on team sports,” says camp director Karen Fleiss, PsyD. But, she says, with fun and dedicated education about rules and good sportsmanship, they often go back to their home teams with renewed excitement.
ind out about food choices.Food can be a big issue for children with ADHD because ADHD treatments may interfere with their appetite, leaving them hungry at awkward times or inclined to snack during the day. Ask if healthy snacks will be available throughout the day or if you can pack more snacks for day campers, and whether your child will have access to more substantial fare if he gets hungry after dinner.
Get the facts on returning children. A camp that is successful in its programming will have a fairly high rate of returning campers.
Discuss your child’s medical needs.If your child is taking medication you should certainly provide all needed information so that the camp can administer the medication if necessary,” says Goldstein. If your child is going to a day camp and has his ADHD symptoms reasonably controlled by daily medications, you might be able to skip this step although Fleiss emphasizes that it is helpful for staff to know about medication issues in case your child needs emergency medical care or skips a dose and behaves differently that day. Be prepared to coordinate between a specialized kids camp and your medical team if there are more complicated ADHD treatment concerns.
Audet notes that parents and even physicians occasionally want to take a child off ADHD medications for summer camp. However, he says, if they need ADHD treatment to succeed in school, they should probably have it at camp as well. Even though camp is fun and different, navigating through the day (and night) at a residential camp can be stressful – this isn’t the right time to stop managing ADHD symptoms.
Make sure you follow the camp’s instructions related to providing medications for your child. This step is especially important if you are sending your child to a kids camp that is not dedicated to ADHD children. In this instance, says Fleiss, talk to administrators beforehand about your child’s ADHD treatment and introduce your child in advance to his counselor and others at the camp.Your child needs to have someone he can go to,”
Ask about socialization. Many children with ADHD have a hard time making close friends. They can be outgoing and funny, but at the same time, their ADHD symptoms can prevent lasting friendships from developing. If this is a concern, find out how the camp supports friendships. A therapeutic camp, like the one at NYU, may actually dedicate staff time and energy specifically to helping children understand when to talk and when to listen, how to read emotions, and how to be a good friend. Ask staff members of camps you’re considering how they handle cliques, conflicts, bullying, friendships, and the tendency for some children (especially those who tend to be inattentive) to end up sitting on the sidelines of activities.
she says. With a little upfront work, including letting camp staff know about your child’s particular challenges and how to handle them, children with ADHD should be able to have a pleasant time in any kids camp.
Ask about staff size. Find out about the staff-to-child ratio. Some specialized camps offer close to a one-to-one ratio (although staff will still have to move around during the day).A good staff-to-child ratio is one staff member to two children. One-to-three is acceptable, but more than that would be hard,” says Fleiss.
You should also ask about staff training with respect to managing ADHD symptoms. Specialized camps should require several weeks of training for staff to manage behavioral concerns.
Go over any specific behavioral concerns. For example, if you know your child has a problem coping with the frustration of not performing as well as his peers, ask how this is handled.If you have had a particularly difficult time with your child, you might want to run this by camp staff to see how they would handle that situation,” says Hand.
Hand offers this final piece of advice for parents who are sending their children to camp: Let them have their experiences – whatever they might be – on their own. Parents of special needs children often find that their child is the focus of their lives, but you should resist the urge to yank them out of camp at the first sign of homesickness or difficulty, although it is a good idea to be available if staff members want to ask your advice on your child’s needs. Staffers are (ideally) trained and experienced in getting kids through the tough spots.
“There’s a time in their lives where kids need to just be themselves,” says Audet, who makes a point of encouraging all his campers to be as different as they are and to enjoy being different.They need to enjoy being a kid, screw up, get into a fight, and resolve it. It’s part of growing up.”