Each year, tens of thousands of kids across the U.S. say
goodbye to desks and books and hello to summer camp. For most it means a season
filled with swimming, softball, arts and crafts, and tons of fun.
For some, however -- a select group of children with a
behavioral disorder known as attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
-- it's also an opportunity to build skills and increase self-esteem and
confidence for a lifetime. That's precisely the point of an increasingly
popular type of summer camp -- programs designed specifically for children with
ADHD. Carefully structured, intimately monitored, even scientifically proven,
the focus is on improving behavior while still giving kids a darn good summer's
worth of fun.
Kids with ADHD have "gifts" -- and by helping them develop these gifts, parents give their children more control of problem behaviors, a child psychologist argues in her popular book.
In The Gift of ADHD, child psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, tells parents not to focus on the disturbing words "deficit" and "disorder" in their children's ADHD diagnosis.
"I tell parents it is a brain difference, not a brain disorder," Honos-Webb says. "Children's sense of identity is not yet formed at the time...
"We never forget that fun is an essential part of the equation
here -- the children need to enjoy themselves and they do, but they also know
and understand that the program is about fostering the development of important
skills and coping mechanisms that can not only help them when they return to
school, but throughout their lifetime," says Karen Fleiss, PsyD, the director
of the Summer Kids Program for children with ADHD at New York University
Medical Center in New York City.
A behavioral disorder marked by a specific set of symptoms,
ADHD frequently causes problems focusing or paying attention. Children with
this disorder are often considered "hyperactive," with a continual need for
stimulation and motion. Impulsivity, another common trait, often manifests in
the form of combative behavior. Although doctors aren't certain what causes
ADHD, many believe it's based on a biochemical imbalance in the brain that may
also be linked to anxiety and possibly depression. The National Institute of
Mental Health estimates 3% to 5% of all children -- more than 2 million
American kids -- have ADHD, with boys affected almost twice as often as
"Many of these children are singled out as being 'difficult' --
some are earmarked as bullies or troublemakers, who tease other children,
sometimes relentlessly, which frequently leads to fights or other disruptive
behaviors," Fleiss tells WebMD. This, combined with difficulty in focusing,
says Fleiss, often makes it hard to socialize with other children -- one reason
the special summer camps are such a plus.
"Here they learn to recognize their behaviors and, more
importantly, learn how to make smarter choices when dealing with others -- and
ultimately that helps build their self-esteem, which in turn helps them to
better cope in all areas of their life," says Fleiss.
Rewards and Self-Confidence
Yeah, but is it fun? Fleiss says definitely. "There is nonstop
activity along with built-in reward systems that give the children something to
work toward, so while we are building self-confidence, we are also keeping the
kids active and entertained," she says.
The NYU program, which unfolds each year at a bucolic private
school in Riverdale (about a 30 minute bus ride from Manhattan) is one of 17
treatment/fun summer "camps" across the U.S. and Canada modeled after a
prototype created more than 20 years ago by William Pelham Jr., PhD, a
psychologist from the State University of New York in Buffalo. Known as the STP
or Summer Treatment Program, thousands of children have participated since it's
inception in the 1980s, and, in fact, there are some interesting clinical data
showing the approach does work.