We have now officially entered summer, and that means that camp is in full swing for millions of kids around the country. There are so many options available to families — from day camp at the local rec center to months-long hard core adventure camps — but they all offer kids the opportunity to stretch and grow in ways that they aren’t able to during the traditional school year. One of the most important things summer camp teaches kids is how to engage in and manage new and different peer relationships. But what if your kiddo struggles with social skills? Can they handle camp? We of course say yes, of course they can handle camp! There are many camps designed for kids with special needs (we’re lucky enough here to have access to Camp Yakety Yak), but “regular” camp is an option as well. Simple strategies like stories and mapping can go a long way in facilitating a successful camp experience for any child, and especially those with social challenges.
You may be familiar with the concepts of scripting, Social Stories, Comic Book Conversations, and the like. These are very popular (and powerful) tools that we often use to help kids understand and navigate the social world by illuminating the “hidden” social rules that are being played out, and giving a road map for social success. Spend a few minutes checking in with your child to see if there are any social aspects of camp that they are particularly anxious about. Getting undressed and ready to go swimming with the group? Picking a buddy for the water balloon toss? Knowing where to sit at lunch time? Or maybe there is some situation that you know your child consistently struggles with, like initiating conversation, or staying off their topic of choice. Once you’ve identified the situation, work together with your child to come up with a script that they can follow (i.e. “I will look for an open seat at the lunch table. I will walk up and say, ‘Can I sit here?’ . . . “) . Kick it up a notch and do some visuals to go with it . . . if you’re like me, this will consist of awesome stick-figure drawings on sticky notes that your child will literally guffaw at. I can take the laughing at my art, though, as long as it gets the message across and allow us to practice for success.
Behavior mapping approaches the same issues from a different perspective, and can also be hugely helpful. Mapping is based on the Michelle Garcia-Winner classic “What’s does expected/unexpected look like?” I personally love this dandy Social Behavior Map from Winner, on which you list the behavior, how it makes other people feel, the natural consequences of the behavior, and how it makes you feel. So, for example, the unexpected behavior might be not changing your shirt for 7 days in a row (c’mon . . . you know this happens). It makes other people feeluncomfortable. The natural consequence is that you start to stink and people don’t want to be around you. Then, you feelsad, hurt, and lonely because you have no one to talk to. You would then, of course, talk about the expected behavior of changing your shirt everyday and complete the chart with the feelings and consequences that go with that behavior.
Summer camp is awkward for everyone, but hopefully these little tips will help ease some of the anxiety for everyone involved. Oh! And remember to share whatever you come up with with the staff at your kiddo’s camp! They’ll appreciate it, and are more likely to cut your child some slack if an issue does arise if they have a heads up. Here’s to a summer camp full of new friends, roasted marshmallows, silly songs, and not too much poison ivy!