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Overnight camp for my kid? Selecting the right camp and understanding common misconceptions about overnight camp for children with learning differences & social skill needs.
By Ryan Wexelblatt, MSS Camp SequoiaOvernight summer camp is one of the most rewarding experiences that you can provide your child with if you know how to choose a camp where your child can be successful. Overnight camp can provide children with learning differences, social skill needs, mild Autism Spectrum Disorders, Non-Verbal Learning Disability and ADD/ADHD with many benefits. It can nurture their independence, help them develop important social skills and friendships. It can also increase a child's self- esteem and self- confidence.
Finding the right overnight summer camp for your child can be a daunting task given the number of overnight camps available. As a camp professional who has worked with campers for over 20 years in camp settings, I have seen first hand which types of camp environments work best for children diagnosed with learning differences and the diagnoses mentioned above and which can be challenging for them. As a parent of a child with learning differences, I know what questions I would want answered by a prospective Camp Director and am happy to share my expertise with you.
I would like to orient you to the various types of overnight summer camp options and share with you my professional opinion on the pros and cons of each of these types of options. I use the abbreviation "L.D." for Learning Differences, which for the sake of this article encompasses the mild Autism Spectrum Disorders, Non-Verbal Learning Disability, and ADD/ADHD diagnoses mentioned previously.
Let's take a look at the overnight summer camp options available:
MAINSTREAM OVERNIGHT CAMPS
- Some offer what are called 'high profile" activities that smaller camps do not offer such as water skiing, go-carts, etc..
- May offer from 1 week to 7 week programs
- Wide variety of price points
- High likelihood of inexperienced or immature counselors who have little understanding about the needs of kids with an L.D.
- Number of campers in a group can be large (more than 10).
- Potential for social pressures such as mandatory participation in competitive sports leagues, having to attend co-ed "dances", etc.
- Easy for kids with social skill deficits to withdrawal and fade into the background.
- Can be less structured with the expectation that campers can handle significant periods of unstructured time.
- Frequent and often unannounced changes in schedules due to special event days, etc.
Some people assume that for a child who struggles with social skills, placing them in an environment of neuro-typical peers at camp will help them learn age appropriate social skills.
Many people who work in special education and camping (including myself) believe the inclusion model might work in the classroom but it doesn't offer kids with L.D. profiles what they need at overnight camp. There are definitely some mainstream overnight camps that are better suited for campers with L.D. profiles however my experience has been that some of these camps lack the degree of structure some kids require to be successful.
MAINSTREAM OVERNIGHT CAMPS WITH AN INCLUSION PROGRAM FOR L.D. KIDS
- Provides multiple campers in a family to attend the same camp.
- Some camps with an inclusion program have the same benefits as mainstream camps section.
- Often there are few administrative staff members who work directly with campers in the inclusion program.
- Overall camp program is not designed for campers with L.D. and may be isolating.
SPECIALTY CAMPS (Focus on one activity or interest i.e. computers, sports, etc..) PROS
- Offer unique programs
- Staff members who are competent in their program specialty.
- Staff may have little experience working with children.
- Staff may have no experience or understanding of L.D. profiles.
- Short time frame of these program isn't helpful to kids who have difficulty forming social connections.
- Does not expose campers to a wide variety of activities.
- Can be long periods of unstructured time.
- People who run specialty camps often do not have an educational or summer camp background.
Specialty camps often appeal to children with L.D. profiles as many of these programs focus on the narrow interests of children with L.D. profiles (video games, computers, etc..). I do not recommend them for children who have social skill needs or have the tendency to perseverate on a few interests. When a camper is in an environment where they can talk strictly about their interests and are not required to move out of their comfort zone there is little opportunity for social growth.
CAMPS SPECIALIZING IN CAMPERS WITH L.D. PROFILES
- Experienced staff who works in special education during the school year, some with clinical backgrounds in mental health fields.
- Greater staff to camper ratio
- Counselors receive more extensive training
- More structure
- More communication with parents and child's mental health providers when necessary.
- Less competitive and less social pressure.
- More skilled at getting campers to step out of their comfort zone.
- Well equipped to handle 'melt downs" from campers who are struggling.
- Some offer programs/activities focused on developing independent life skills.
- Some are designed to facilitate age appropriate social skills.
- Some offer academic remediation for campers who need academic support in the summer.
- Typically cost more per week due to the need to have a greater staff to camper ratio and to employ highly skilled staff.
- Some camps have a wide array of neurological profiles that don't always mesh well.
QUESTIONS TO ASK A CAMP SPECIALIZING IN CAMPERS WITH L.D. PROFILES
- Do you allow video games and do you have computers at camp? Author's note: I do not allow electronics at my camp and find that my colleagues who run what I believe are the best overnight camps for kids with L.D. profiles do not allow them either. Children who struggle with social skills often isolate themselves with technology, so we believe that having electronics at camp is counterproductive to our goals.
- What percentage of your staff is returning from the previous summer?
- How do you group campers together?
- What clinical diagnoses do you accept at camp, are there some you will not accept?
- How does your staff handle melt-downs?
- What do you do to help campers improve their social skills?
- Do you have parent/camper references I can speak with?
- Are you accredited by the American Camp Association (the national governing body that sets standards for camps in the U.S.A.)?
As a parent it is natural to be concerned about your child's ability to be successful, particularly in a situation where you will not be present. I have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions and misconceptions I've heard from prospective camp families over the years pertaining to their child's ability to be successful in an overnight camp environment:
#1: Isn't my child is too young for overnight camp?
Any seasoned overnight camp professional will tell you that often the youngest campers (elementary school age) typically have the easiest transitions to camp. I believe that many children with L.D. profiles as young as 7 are ready to attend overnight camp and a child's readiness to attend overnight camp has more to do with parents preparing their child for the experience rather than their chronological age.
#2: My child is too dependent on me and would never survive without me.
As parents of children with learning differences it is our parental instinct for us to overcompensate and overprotect our children by doing things for them they should be doing on their own. This is where camp is a tremendous asset to our families. Camp has daily routines, which help to alleviate camper's anxiety and help to foster independence as well as learn new, important life skills. When in a group of same age peers most campers are more inclined to meet the expectations of daily routines than they would be at home. The newfound sense of independence children experience at overnight camp provides not only improves their self-confidence but teaches valuable life skills. Granted it takes some kids longer than others but all children learn how to be more independent at camp, however it's our job as parents, when they return home to foster this new level of independence.
#3: 3 or 6 weeks is too long for my child to be away from home, they will feel like I've abandoned them
Camp is a unique community, it is hard to explain this to people who did not attend overnight camp but time becomes rather irrelevant at camp. (Ask most kids at overnight camp what day of the week it is and you will receive a puzzled look). When having fun, bonding with peers and away from the pressures of school most kids don't think about how long they've been away, they're too focused on having fun and looking forward to what's coming up at camp. Living at camp is like being in a large family with many siblings and caring surrogate parents. The only times I have seen a camper feel resentful or angry towards their parents is during brief periods of homesickness (more on that later) or when a parent has unintentionally made a child feel guilty about being away at camp.
#4: My child will be homesick and will need to come home. They can't even sleep out for a night.
What is often perceived as homesickness is not actually homesickness but anxiety about being in a new situation, with new people. Children who exhibit high levels of anxiety and are rigid may be extremely resistant to attending overnight camp. When a child is engaged in activities and begins to realize he/she is safe the anxiety diminishes. Knowing there are adults who will be supportive and can empathetic with the feelings he/she can begin to feel comfortable with the peers and these feelings quickly diminish. I have found that 9 out of every 10 kids who experience homesickness pull through it by the end of the first week. A good overnight camp will be proactive and help to prepare you in advance how to deal with homesickness and will be there to communicate with you and support you should your child express homesickness.
#5: My child needs to talk to me every day or they won't survive at overnight camp
You might be unpleasantly surprised to learn that while your children do miss you they are often too busy having fun to worry about talking to you regularly. At most overnight camps campers are required to write home several times a week and you can make this process much easier by providing pre-addressed post cards or envelopes. Ask a potential Camp Director their policy regarding phone calls. Most camps permit campers who have a birthday at camp or who have a family member who's birthday is during camp to speak on the phone to family. Please understand that at almost every overnight camp-phone calls are not permitted during the first week of camp to help campers get adjusted and reduce homesickness. While some anxious parents demand to speak on the phone with a homesick child this typically perpetuates the homesickness and makes the child feel worse. When a child hears anxiety or fear in their parents' voices the child will become more upset or anxious and this is why frequent phone calls between parents and a camper often lead to a camper feeling anxious or guilty about having fun at camp.
Believe me when I say that when you don't hear from your child as much as you'd like, that's a sign that he/she is doing great at camp. By allowing your children to learn that they can function apart from you (and vice versa), you are helping them to gain maturity, independence, and most importantly, self-confidence.
#6: My child is so disorganized or has such difficulty with executive functioning skills that he/she will be a mess at camp, loose everything and never brush his teeth.
Camps that focus on children with L.D. profiles expect this and have put routines in place to support campers in their executive functioning skills, and make sure they are taking care of their hygiene.
#7: If my child writes me and tells me they hate camp then obviously she wasn't ready to go and should come home immediately.
As you are probably well aware anxious children tend to perseverate on the negatives. It's common for campers to write negative letters home during the first week of camp or whenever they have a disagreement with a peer. Often a parent will call up camp after receiving such a letter only to find out that the camper was fine a few minutes after they wrote the letter and whatever they wrote about in their letter they have forgotten about already.
#8: Overnight camp is too far away from home for my child.
When a child is settled at camp, the distance from home becomes abstract and irrelevant. Camp is a safe, contained community where kids have almost no exposure to outside surroundings except during trips. While your child may initially feel anxious about the distance from camp to home it is very unlikely that this will remain an issue while at camp. As I mentioned before, homesickness (or what is perceived as homesickness) isn't about distance it's about feeling anxious about being in a new situation. When kids feel safe at camp and are having fun distance from home is truly irrelevant to them.
#9: My child's ( therapist, psychiatrist, teacher etc.) said that they shouldn't go to overnight camp because (the separation will be too much and she is not ready, etc..)
With all due respect to these competent professionals who know your children well and have their best interests in mind, I can tell you with utmost certainty that most people who have never experienced overnight camp as a camper or have not sent their own child to a well run overnight camp may have difficulty understand why it's such a unique, healthy, rewarding experience for children with LD profiles. The question which I would present to these individuals is what does your child have to gain by not attending?
#10: My child already said "No way I'm not going" so I shouldn't push the issue.
On an average 8 out of 10 prospective campers who I meet tell me right away they will hate camp and don't want to go. This is a very common reaction from children who are rigid, have anxiety about the unknown or do not feel confident about their ability to be successful in new situations. It is our job as parents to help our children build confidence through exposing them to new situations in which there is the opportunity for them to grow and mature. Even the most resistant children can be successful at overnight camp when they recognize that their parents are confident in their decision and truly believe their child will grow from the experience. It's much easier to not fight our children's resistance but in the long term we need to question if giving into their resistance is for their benefit or for our own piece of mind.
#11. My child is such a picky eater, he doesn't like most foods so he'll starve at camp.
Many kids look forward to the food at camp as one of their favorite parts. I have never in all of my years at overnight camp seen a child who went hungry or had to leave camp because of the food. Every summer however I hear from very happy parents who find that because of their time camp their children have become open to eating healthy, new foods they previously would never eat!
Remember there is no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to your child's safety and ability to be successful at overnight summer camp. I encourage you to ask a prospective Camp Director as many questions as you'd like. Best of luck for a healthy, happy, successful summer!
About the author: Ryan Wexelblatt, MSS is the founder and Director of Camp Sequoia, an innovative overnight camp in Pottstown, Pennsylvania for children who need help with social ,skills. Most Sequoia campers are diagnosed with one or more of the following: ADD/ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome, high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders and Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD). Having begun his summer camp experience at age 3 Ryan worked in a variety of roles throughout his camp career. Ryan spent a good portion of his time during the winter working as a therapist and School Counselor at both public and private schools for children with L.D. profile . Ryan is also the parent to a child with Learning Differences. During the school year Ryan is active with the American Camp Association and presents at their largest yearly conference on topics pertaining to children with L.D. profiles and social skill needs. He lives in Narberth, Pennsylvania with his son Austin and their two dogs.
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