Summer camp has positive effects on all children, no matter what their abilities are. Some camps specifically cater to children with disabilities and have the knowledge and tools to best serve these kids. Children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD, depending on where they are on the spectrum, can easily participate in and benefit from camp programming from all camps. As camp professionals, it’s our job to make sure we do all we can to ensure their camp experience is a positive one.
Kim Tackaberry from Foothills Academy gave a very helpful workshop at the ACA Annual Conference this year. Foothills Academy is a not-for-profit organization that offers school programs, community services, counselling, workshops, and camps for children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Camp Amicus is part of their organization and a member of the Alberta Camping Association.
Defining Learning Disabilities & ADHD
You can’t visibly tell if someone has a learning disability and it doesn’t mean that this person is less intelligent. In fact, the majority of people with learning disabilities have average to above average cognitive skills. A learning disability ranges in severity, is a lifelong condition, and can affect organization, acquisition, retention, and use of verbal or non verbal information. A person with learning disabilities could have difficulties learning oral language, reading, written language, math, organization and/or social skills.
At camp we might see children with learning disabilities struggle with paying attention, behavior, and regulating their emotions.
ADHD is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s a neurobiological disability that interferes with a person’s ability to sustain attention or focus on a task and to control compulsive behavior. There are gender differences with ADHD and although a child with this disability might have challenges, they are also likely to be the most creative and independent thinkers, determined to pursue interests and likely have a good sense of humour.
Although they should, sometimes parents don’t tell us if their camper has a learning disability and/or ADHD. Knowing ahead of time allows camp staff to prepare for that child, to make things easier for them and ensure the camp experience is as good as it can be for that camper and the entire camp.
Here are some signs to look for if you think a camper might have a learning disorder and/or ADHD:
• Talk compulsively
• Have difficulty following directions
• Always seem to ask the camper beside them what to do
• Have cabin areas that are much messier than their classmates
• Look like they’re paying attention but can’t answer the question when called
• Have a slow response time
• Seem to complete tasks very slowly
How can we help?
If you know you have a camper with ADHD/learning disability you can be proactive and use strategies to help them succeed at camp. There are things you can do to help the entire camp, as well as that child, being sensitive to not single them out.
- Learn about their struggles and speak with their parents about their disability. Hopefully, parents will tell you beforehand if their child has ADHD or a learning disability.
- Teach expectations to the entire camp and repeat it regularly. All campers, including those with learning disabilities and/or ADHD need to understand your expectations.
- After giving instructions at an activity have someone from the group repeat back the instructions.
- Keep instructions minimal
- Give the group, along with the specific camper, enough time to process the information they’ve been given.
- Give the child frequent positive affirmation that they are doing well to offset self-esteem difficulties and minimize corrections. It is suggested to use their name a lot when speaking to them.
- Provide appropriate stimulation during times where it might become difficult to pay attention and stay still like giving the entire group stress balls to play with during camp talks or play little games when everyone has to wait in line to do an activity. If it is during a time when focus and quiet is required, make sure your fidget toys or techniques are non-distracting.
- If it seems that camper needs a break, give them an errand to do like delivering an envelope to another staff member somewhere else on camp property.
- Make sure you repeat the upcoming morning schedule at breakfast, afternoon schedule at lunch and evening schedule at dinner. Have the schedule posted all over camp so campers can check it several times during the day and make sure they know where they need to be.
- Alert all campers of changes to the schedule and make sure you repeat it several times.
- Give cues. For example, blow a whistle 5 minutes before it’s time to get out of the pool so campers can prepare. Campers with ADHD live in the moment and respond well to change if they are given a warning. When it is time for cabin clean up, make sure you give your campers a specific time and enough time to actually clean up their area. Eliminate distractions, have designated spots for them to put their stuff and include visual reminders. One idea was to have a picture of a clean bunk area posted somewhere in the cabin. In the picture make notes like: ‘bed is made’ and ‘suitcase placed under the bunk’ so the campers can check and remember what to do every clean up time.
It’s important to encourage all of your campers, including the ones with special needs. Remember to always focus on positive behaviors, be mindful to say and do things that will help build self-esteem, and reward good behavior and accomplishments. Campers will feel capable, connected and that they can contribute to the group. This will enhance the camp experience for all campers!
Learn more about ADHD from LD & Associated Disorders expert Dr. Russell Barkley.