Ten Questions to Ask When Deciding If a Special Needs Camp Is Right for You and Your Camper

For any parent, choosing the right summer camp is a huge decision. Parents have to balance the camp philosophy, activities offered, expertise of the staff, ratios, site facilities, and recommendations. For parents of children with disabilities or challenges, the decision is even more complex. In addition to all of the typical considerations, parents need to consider whether their child would do best in a regular camp program, with or without an inclusion program, or whether they would be better served by a camp that specializes in children with special needs.

Research conducted at the University of Waterloo (Glover et al., 2012) tells us that kids benefit tremendously from attending summer camp across five separate domains: social integration and citizenship, environmental awareness, attitudes towards physical activity, emotional intelligence, and self-confidence and personal development (http://ccamping.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CSCRP-Report-reduced.pdf; p. 16). In short, summer camp is good for kids. However, we hear from parents that their children with special needs often have difficulty finding these same levels of success at summer camp. Problems with bullying, exclusion, or simply not fitting into the existing camp structure plague some youngsters and prevent them from experiencing the personal and social development that their peers enjoy. And neither kids, nor parents, nor camp administration want to set children up for failure by forcing them into an environment that is not equipped to manage their needs.

“Every time we would send our son to a summer camp, either a day camp or a sleepaway camp, he would always be the kid who was in trouble. He either didn’t listen, or he wasn’t on cue, or he was over there when he was supposed to be over here. And somehow it didn’t bring up anything positive in him.” (James’s mother)

Given all the factors, how can a parent decide? The following is a series of questions you might consider asking camp directors before deciding which camp would be best for your camper.

1. What is the background of the senior administrative team with regards to children with special needs?
Directors who are experienced and passionate about working with youngsters with special needs are more likely to ensure that your camper will be included in real and valuable ways instead of just trying to fit in.

2. How many staff members have expertise in working with campers with special needs? What kind of on-site training is provided for staff members without prior experience?
If only a handful of staff members have training in working with campers with special needs, your camper will likely be in a position where counsellors at activities or in his or her cabin might not know how to best manage the needs that arise throughout the day. At some camps, campers might be assigned a one-on-one support worker. This may be appropriate for helping a camper be successful, but in order for these campers to be fully included in the program, other staff members need to consider their needs when planning larger activities or facilitating social events. Consider, too, the age of the counsellors. Many camps hire high school students as counsellors, and they may not have the experience or maturity to meet the needs of campers with exceptionalities.

3. What is your camper-to-staff ratio and how is it calculated? Who is included in the ratio?
Do counsellors sleep in the cabin with campers, in a separate building, or in separate quarters within the cabin? How many counsellors and campers are in the cabin at night and during the day? Does the stated camper-to-staff ratio include CITs, kitchen staff, or other staff members who do not work directly with campers?

4. What does supervision look like?
Aside from the physical dangers of poor supervision, we know that bullying, arguments, and mischievous behaviour are more likely to happen when children are away from adults. Find out if campers are ever left unsupervised, such as when they need to go back to the cabin to get something, during rest hour, after lights-out, or when they are in the health centre. Bullying behaviour, especially, can be subtle and pernicious, and it can be easy to miss that a camper is being excluded or targeted if a small number of staff members are trying to supervise a large group of campers. How are campers supervised during less structured times? Are people available to assist with tasks a camper might find difficult such as getting ready for activities, doing daily chores, or preparing for bed? How is the waterfront supervised, and what are the qualifications of the lifeguards and waterfront director?

5. How does your camp structure the day to ensure success?
We know that some children need structure almost as much as they need oxygen, so find out how the camp is structured to see if it would be a good match for your camper. Is there a schedule of activities, or do campers get free choice about how they would like to spend their day? How does the camp ensure that all campers are on time for activities and meals? Is there any way a camper could get lost, decide to stay in their cabin instead of going to the activity, or not know where to be? Are mealtimes structured, or do you eat cafeteria-style where campers get their own food and have to find an empty spot to sit? Does the group work together to set or clear the table, or do they play games (such as putting a finger on your nose) to determine who does these chores, which could disadvantage a camper who is not as observant or quick to respond? Is there a lot of free time during the day, and what do campers do during free time? Who monitors campers during free time? Is the schedule for the day predictable, or are there a lot of last-minute changes to activities and schedules?

6. How does your camp promote social success for campers with special needs?
Including children with special needs must be more than just having them attend camp; they must be given every opportunity to participate meaningfully in activities and in all aspects of camp life, and they must have a real chance of making genuine, reciprocal friendships. While a one-on-one aide might help a camper navigate an uneven terrain or facilitate breaks for a child with self-regulation difficulties, an adult assistant is not the same as an age-appropriate friend. Is any consideration given when forming cabins to which social group would be an appropriate fit for an individual child, or is the camp tied to age-based or request-based cabin groupings? What do staff members do to help campers make friends? Do they look out for kids who are either ignored or actively rejected? Does the camp have a culture of social inclusivity, or is it generally difficult for a new camper to integrate into an established group? Are there any sessions that are better or worse for introducing a new camper into your camp (i.e., Would it be difficult to come just for the second session because most campers stay for the entire summer)?

7. How do you make sure that campers are not excluded or targeted, especially during less structured times?
Many children with disabilities, especially ones with “hidden disabilities” such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or ASD, have experienced bullying at school. While summer camp is a wonderful place to learn social skills and make new friends, it can also be a demanding social environment from which kids cannot escape at the end of the day. It is paramount that camps are on the lookout for kids who are victims and ones who seem to attract negative attention by engaging in behaviours that turn other kids off. Both of these types of campers want friends, but they simply do not have the skills they need to make friends, and they may not have the self-advocacy skills to ask for help in solving their social problems. Are counsellors trained in how to spot and deal with bullying, social rejection, and isolation? Are there other resources in camp to help kids with social difficulties? Are there procedures put in place to avoid problems during challenging social periods such as free time or camp dances? Is there anyone who can specifically teach social skills to campers who are having difficulty? What kinds of team-building activities do cabins engage in? Does the camp use restorative practices to help rebuild relationships after there has been a problem?

8. What is your camp’s approach to behaviour management?
It is not unusual for children to misbehave sometimes, but how the adults handle that situation will determine what the youngster learns from it. Who manages campers’ behaviour? Is it the cabin counsellors, a unit head, or members of the administrative team? Does the camp ever use public embarrassment as a response to misbehaviour? Are campers forced to participate in activities (or pressured to by, for example, threatening to take away their dessert, push them into the water, etc. as punishment for non-participation)? Does the camp have certain strategies that counsellors are encouraged to use when dealing with misbehaviour? Are there zero-tolerance policies (and what are they), or does the camp consider the context when deciding how to manage a specific behaviour? Do all of the campers know the camp rules, and are they enforced consistently? Many children with special needs are very black-and-white thinkers. It can be difficult to understand what the rules are and whether or not they need to be followed if some counsellors enforce them and other counsellors are more relaxed about them.

9. How can your camper’s needs (e.g., sensory, behavioural, social, medical, fears) be accommodated within the camp program?
Here, it is important to be honest with the camp about your camper’s needs, and it is important for the camp to be honest about what they can or cannot accommodate. Is there small equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, or small routines such as establishing a safe place to go for some quiet time, that could help your camper be successful? If so, be upfront about them and work with the camper intake team to ensure that these accommodations are manageable within their camp environment and culture. What are some difficulties or successes that your camper has experienced at school, at other camps, or at home that would help facilitate a successful camp experience? Are parents updated about issues that have arisen with their camper and are parents used as a resource to solve problems if they do arise? How are medical needs managed (such as daily medications, seizures, asthma, anaphylaxis, etc.)? Where are campers’ medications stored and who administers them to the campers? What are the qualifications of the medical staff (i.e., doctor, nurse, first aider)? How many medical staff work at camp, and how campers access them?

10. What kind of communication is there between parents and the camp?
Many camps have policies prohibiting parents from speaking to campers except in emergencies because phone calls can be very disruptive and can unleash a wave of homesickness, not only in the one camper, but also in cabin-mates and friends. It is still important, though, for parents to be able to contact the camp and speak to someone who is knowledgeable about their camper’s experience. Find out who you can talk to at the camp (i.e., the cabin counsellor, unit head, director, etc.) and when they are available. What are the office hours in case you need to reach someone at camp? Can you send emails? Are there any written reports prepared about your camper’s experience?

All camps have exciting activities. The question for me, as a parent, would be whether or not I trust the camp to care for my child. Take time to ask questions and build that relationship. Camp should be an exhilarating time for your child, but it should also be a restful time for you. If you do your homework in advance, hopefully you can find a program that fits your child and your family just right.

About the Author

Shari Stoch

Shari has worked at Camp Kodiak since it began in 1991. She has been the Academic Director since 2010, and is one of the Camp Directors. During the year, Shari works for the Peel District School Board as a special education teacher. She earned her Masters of Education from Queen’s University.