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A Summer of Fun for Children With ADHD

A variety of day and sleep-away camps are helping children with learning disabilities blossom like a summer flower.
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WebMD Feature

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.

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"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 girls.

"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.

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