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10 Tips to Finding the Best Summer Camp for Your Child with Special Needs

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I recently accompanied my niece and her 8 year old daughter to a classmate’s birthday party. I sat in amusement as I observed the young mothers who had gathered together to talk about summer camps for their children.

One mom recommended a trendy camp whose philosophy was “no mistakes, just opportunities.” Other suggestions included foreign language, magic, science, and sports camps.  All of the obviously “well informed” young mothers agreed that they wanted their children to have fun, make new friends, and be free from the rigors of the school year.

I couldn’t help but notice a couple of moms, whose children had visible special needs, sitting quietly away from the group.  I found myself thinking about what they may be thinking and feeling.  I reflected on an “eye opening” conversation I had  several  years ago with my parents whose children had special needs.

Consistent with most parents, they wanted a safe and fun environment but they also wanted an experience which would build on and reinforce the skills learned during the school year.  More importantly, they wanted a camp with staff who knew “how” to work with their children and were accepting of them. Many of their previous camp experiences ended in disappointment.

It was in response to their needs and concerns that we developed our Say N’ Play Speech Camp which became a parent’s dream and attracted diverse families from throughout the world.

We offered 4-8 weeks of fun themes, creative field trips and classes taught exclusively by our licensed speech- language pathologists.  Our assistants were eager young college students, many matriculating in our profession.  Everyone was full of energy and love for even the most challenging child.

Parents expressed genuine appreciation for the care provided to their children and the progress made in just 8 weeks.  One mom said, “This is the only place I can drop him off for 5 hours and know that he is safe and happy.”  That was in 1999 and to this day we still hear similar comments.

I quickly refocused my interests back to the moms and decided to move closer and engage them in light conversation about their children. My niece instinctively followed and gave me a “formal” introduction.  In time, the parents began to ask about my recommendations for summer camps and how they should decide which to choose.  One mom asked me what criterion I would use to find a camp for my child if she were special needs.  I was pleased to share my thoughts on the subject from both a parent and professional perspective.

I discussed 3 areas that would be of critical importance to me: 1) the program structure and design, 2) the staffing, and 3) my instincts and comfort level with the overall operation.   We talked for about an hour and the parents thanked me profusely.  We all agreed that other parents of children with special needs may be struggling with the same dilemma and suggested that I share my thoughts in a blog.   The following represents the criterion I would use in my camp search.

Program Design—Many camps for children with special needs may have a specific focus such as OT, Speech or behavior, while others are multidisciplinary. The following questions are related specifically to the program.  

  1. What type of activities are provided for your child? Do they sound fun and engaging to you as a parent?  Are the activities in alignment with the program focus?  For example, if it is a speech and language based camp, the objectives should reflect a speech and language focus with properly credentialed staff to do the job.
  2. Is there a daily and/or weekly schedule of activities posted so that both you and your child know what to expect?
  3. How will they communicate with you i.e. daily, weekly, biweekly? Communication is key so that you can facilitate the learning at home.
  4. How do they handle unexpected or challenging situations? Describe a challenging  behavior or situation and ask how it might be handled.
  5. What are their goals and objectives for your child? Are they clear and attainable?
  6. How are children grouped; by age and/or ability? There are many different configurations but there needs to be a solid rationale used to make the decision.

Staff– Oftentimes, parents are enamored by the credentials and degrees of the program director or the institution, overlooking the fact that this individual typically will not be interacting with your child on a daily basis. I would want to know the following:

  1. What are the qualifications of the direct care staff who will be working on a daily basis with your child?  Many camps provide a staff directory which lists educational background, years of experience and any areas of special expertise or interests. Training and experience matter. You are essentially paying in part for the caliber and expertise of the staff providing direct services to your child.
  1. What is the staff to student ratio? Does this include volunteers or professional staff only?  Ask yourself if this is a good ratio for your child’s needs?  
  1. Does this program include typical peers? If so, who are they and what is their training or preparation?  Are they included in the staff to student ratio?

Your Instincts:  This is probably the most important consideration to me as a parent.

  1. Trust your instincts. While you don’t want to be hypercritical, accept what you may be feeling. The camp could be great but lacking in an area that’s important to you. And sometimes you can’t identify that feeling but it is present.  Or it can be average but strong in another area of importance to you.

In summary, summer camps like traditional schools are not a one size fits all. And unless the camp is free of charge, you are the paying customer and should be satisfied. At the end of the day, you need to feel comfortable that you have done your homework or due diligence. If it looks, sounds, and feels good give it a try.

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