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For the parent who’s child struggles socially: 5 tips for finding a perfect summer camp.

Look through any summer camp brochure, and you’ll likely find glossy images of smiling children playing sports, working on art projects, or simply goofing off with their friends. For many kids, this is a snap-shot of what a typical day at camp looks like. But for children that struggle socially, things tend to look a little different.

If you are the parent of a child who has trouble fitting in and making friends, you’ve probably found yourself asking a lot of questions that can’t be answered in a camp’s brochure, or on their website.

What will my child’s group be like? Will the other kids pick on him? Will he go sit by himself while the rest of the group is having fun? How will the counselors respond when they notice he isn’t behaving like a “typical” child? Will my child fit in here?

With these questions running through your mind, it’s no wonder this time of year can be so stressful. Nobody wants to spend the summer feeling like they’ve made the wrong choice for their child. One of the reasons I know this is because I often hear about the difficulties of summer camp decisions from parents at my practice. While I can’t choose a camp for you, I can offer some advice on how to make a choice you feel good about, and how to make your child’s experience run a little more smoothly once he’s there. Take a look:

  1. Get input from your child. You want your child to start the summer with a positive attitude and an open mind. It’ll be much easier for him to make friends this way than it will be if he’s bored, frustrated, and closed off.  Find out what types of activities he would like to be a part of, and look for programs that offer those. Remember, just because something sounds fun to you, doesn’t mean your child will be on board.
  2. Schedule a time to speak with the director. If you go about it the right way, a conversation with the director can give you a real sense of the type of environment the camp offers. For children who struggle socially, it’s important that the camp’s staff encourages inclusivity, patience, and acceptance. Find out how counselors are trained to deal with instances of bullying. Ask what happens if a child resists an activity. Decide which ideals, resources, ect. are most important for your child to have a good experience, and make a point of inquiring about them during your conversation.
  3. Take away the element of surprise.  Your child has a much better chance of hitting it off with the other campers when he’s feeling confident and willing to join in on the activities. It may be harder for him to do this if he’s trying an activity for the first time, especially if it’s a bit challenging. Make sure your child knows about the types of activities the camp offers, whether that’s tennis, painting, music, or something else entirely. If possible, let him try it out before the summer starts.
  4. Know the camp schedule. Many camps have a more laid back feel than your child’s school. Activities may be changed or skipped due to weather or special events. For some kids, going with the flow is easy, but a lot of times, kids that struggle socially are more rigid. Unexpected changes can throw the whole day off and have a negative effect on behavior. You can avoid these types of problems by giving your child advanced notice when things are subject to change. Check the weekly weather report, and your camp’s website for special event notices. Give your child a chance to deal with any disappointment over missed activities before showing up to camp that day.
  5. Make some positive changes this spring. The good news is that you still have several months before camp starts. You can use this time to start addressing some of your child’s biggest social challenges. Enrolling him in a social skills program is a great way to help your child break the habits that have damaged his social relationships in the past, and begin developing the skills necessary for building great friendships this summer.

We know that even the best plans are never fool proof, and even if you take this advice, there may still be unexpected issues that come up during the summer (that’s another reason why it’s always helpful to have the support of a good social skills program). But with some planning and preparation, you can make a big difference in how your child remembers his time at camp. By talking to your child, asking the right questions, and using this spring to make some positive behavioral changes, you can help make sure that this summer gives your child a chance to have fun, unwind, and be himself.

About the author: Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. She is an expert in the field who is frequently sought after by institutions and therapists to provide training for working with these and other disorders. Isa also served as a guest expert on Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect.com, and has been quoted by numerous top media such as Disney’s BabyZone.com, LoveToKnow.com, and Univision. She can be reached at 914.488.5282