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ADHD and Summer Camp
Q: We just moved back from the Middle East to Texas. We were living overseas for 10 years.
We have one son and he has ADHD. He has settled down much more since we moved to U.S. He is under medication only during the weekdays, to help him concentrate and focus in class; but he does not have learning problems. He is very friendly and I would say that he has a mild case of ADHD.
Which kind of summer camp would you recommend for him? This will be his first time going to camp. Thank you in advance.
A: Summer camp for kids with ADHD can be a wonderful experience -- if it's successful. It's great to have time away from home to have fun doing the stuff that summers were made for. On the other hand, unless you plan carefully, the impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention that are the three major characteristics of ADHD, can get a kid into trouble pretty fast. It can be a miserable four to eight weeks if you're seen as the "bad boy of the camp."
If there is a person in your area who specializes in helping parents find camps, ask them if they have placed any kids with ADHD who have done well at a particular camp. Look for a camp that advertises that they like exuberant, energetic kids, but unless your son has significant difficulties related to his condition, I would not look for a camp just for kids with ADHD. It will be good for your boy to have a chance to interact with kids who can control themselves. He can learn by observing them.
I would look for a camp that has a well-trained and experienced staff. A bunch of high school age counselors with little or no training might not have the sophistication or maturity to deal with your son or his condition. You should let the camp director know that your son has this condition. If you get anything less than an enthusiastic response, choose another camp. You want a camp that will be able to provide your son with fun opportunities in an environment that's exciting, but not chaotic. A camp should be structured, but with some choice and flexibility. It should be firm, yet caring and understanding.
Some camps have resident or visiting psychologists who work with the kids and with the staff. This might be very important for a child with ADHD. Camps don't usually advertise that they teach kids self-control, but they might have activities that actually help with this. Well-coached sports activities, especially those that help kids learn the value of "mental readiness," can be very helpful. Hearing a professional football player talk about how he uses self-hypnosis before a game can be a very powerful message for a child who acts before thinking. Martial arts training that focuses on developing increasing levels of physical control through practice and self-discipline can also be very helpful for a child who is impulsive or impatient.
If the camp has a lot of choice, encourage the counselors to get your boy interested in a mix of calm, hands-on activities as well as those that get him up and running. Strenuous exercise helps to produce natural brain chemicals that help kids feel better and more focused. They also help kids learn skills that can be used back at home in school- or town-sponsored athletic events. Unless your son is a skilled athlete, the emphasis of sports at camp should not be on competition with others, but rather achieving his personal best. Swimming a faster mile will bring him a sense of pride that's hard to take away. If, on the other hand, he loses the camp soccer trophy by running the wrong way down the soccer field, he may be the butt of some very cruel summer jokes.
Last fall, I asked an 11-year-old patient why he said he liked summer camp so much. "It was great -- they only threw me in the dumpster twice this season." This is NOT what you want to hear at the end of August. Choose the camp carefully and your son will have a great time. And you might enjoy the break, too!
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.