How To Talk to Camps About Your Child

Cgonley/ June 24, 2013/ Special Features

By Leslie Baer Cohen, Ph.D.

With summer upon us, many parents are actively exploring summer programs for their children.  As a child psychologist, one of the more common questions that I hear from parents during this process is, “What, if anything, should I tell my child’s counselor/camp about his/her neurobehavioral problems?”  For many parents, a tension exists between wanting to make their child’s camp experience a positive one and at the same time worrying that telling a camp about their child’s vulnerabilities will somehow be stigmatizing.  Although one size never fits all in the world of children with neurobehavioral difficulties, the following guidelines may serve as useful pointers:

1. Be proactive – Ask questions

Before making a final selection on a camp, you should be prepared to ask very specific questions about how the camp is run. Find out who will be working with your child, how old they are, what kind of training they have had and how behavior problems are handled.  The following questions also are helpful to ask: How much structure does the camp provide? What is their daily routine? What is the adult:child ratio? How many children share a cabin together? Has the camp worked successfully in the past with children who have had similar difficulties?  What kinds of options exist for a one-on-one aide?  What is the camp’s philosophy? Is it competitive?  If camp personnel are unable to answer these questions to your satisfaction, it is probably not the best place for your child.

2.  Define the problem

Most good camps will want to know as much as possible about your child’s strengths and vulnerabilities.  Generally speaking, knowledge is empowering.  Give the staff a true and honest account of your child’s special needs (e.g., level of inattention/hyperactivity; motor problems; language problems; trouble with peers; sensory issues; previous experience with camp, medications). Make sure they know this is something you consider to be important. You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child.  Rather than simple giving a label that is open to interpretation, it is often more helpful to provide specific behaviors that your child is likely to exhibit.  For instance, instead of just saying “My child has ADHD,” it may be more helpful to say, “My child has ADHD, which means that his ability to pay attention for extended periods is not as strong as others his age.”

3. Offer ideas 

When discussing your child’s special needs, offer some easy to implement strategies that you have found to be helpful.  Enlist help from your child’s teachers and other specialists (e.g., speech/language, therapist, psychologist, occupational therapist).  At the same time, provide some predictions about what types of activities at camp may be the most challenging for your child (e.g., unstructured time, overstimulating activities, getting dressed after swimming, lunch) so that the counselor can take a proactive stance.  Remind the counselor about the importance of positive reinforcement, close supervision, and appropriate boundaries and consequences.

4. Provide references

Don’t assume that camp staff will understand exactly what your child’s neurobehavioral disorder entails. Provide some simple and direct printed information stating what the problem is and how it may manifest at camp. (Staff at RNBC can help you with this information.) It is considerably more likely that teenage counselors will read a one-page summary than a book and a mountain of papers.  If your child is taking medication and will be attending sleep-away camp, be sure to provide the phone number of the child’s prescribing physician.  In addition, provide the staff with a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child’s camp stay. You may even want to sign a release for your child’s specialist to speak with particular camp staff, such as his/her therapist.

5. Keep in touch

Check in with your child’s counselor on a regular basis to see how things are going. Give them permission to tell you about any problems right away, and work collaboratively with them to resolve the situation. If counselors are willing, send a report form that lists desirable behaviors that can be checked off and returned to you each day. Be sure to read any information sent home from camp and respond promptly with questions.

The following list includes some camps that offer specialized programs for children with neurobehavioral difficulties:


Camp Hug the Bear (autism spectrum disorders-NSSRA)

Cove/Hyde Park Day School-summer reading and math programs

Camp Neeka (Josselyn Center, IL)

Julie Herr & Associates (Chicago)

Camp Firefly

Hidden Valley Camp (Maine)

The Learning Camp (Vail, CO)

Camp Buckskin

Wolfeboro: The Summer Boarding School

Summit Camp (Pennsylvania)

SOAR (North Carolina)

Global Works

Outward Bound

Talisman Programs

LEEP Forward (therapeutic preschool)

Rush University Medical Center also maintains a web-based resource which includes camp information.  The direct link to the summer camps is


There may be camps other than those identified in this article that would be suitable for your child. None of the camps identified in this article are owned by, affiliated with, related to or agents of Rush University Medical Center.

Note: This article was originally published on January 24, 2012.

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