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You've done it - you've taken the plunge and decided to send your child to camp this summer. There are many types of camps to choose from, including camps intended just for your child's special needs to mainstream camps where your child will be with kids who have no special needs. You've done your research, and now that you and your child have made up your minds, what can you do to get ready?
Preparing Your Child - and Yourself
If you and your child haven't had the opportunity to visit the camp, make sure you get as much literature about the camp as possible, including a description of the layout and a video if the camp has one. You and your child should go over these materials together. Tell your child that you'll be checking in regularly with the camp staff and stress that he or she can always let the staff know if his or her needs aren't being met.
Talk to your child about his or her feelings. Find out if your child has any concerns, and do your best to reassure him or her that you and the camp staff will take every precaution to make sure he or she stays safe. You might find it helpful to talk about why your child is attending camp and what some of his or her goals might be, such as to try a new sport, to make new friends, or to just enjoy a break from doctors' appointments and therapy sessions.
If your child is intimidated by the thought of attending a residential camp or an inclusionary camp, you might consider starting him or her off in a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs. This step can give your child the skills and confidence he or she needs to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp. Start with regular sports activities and day camp. Then use a special-needs camp to get your child used to being away before sending your child to an inclusionary camp.
Another option you might consider is sending your child to camp with a friend or a sibling. If your child is attending an inclusionary or mainstream camp, the buddy doesn't have to have a special need. Going with a friend can reduce stress for both you and your child, since your child and his or her camp buddy will be looking out for each other.
Sharing Information With Camp Staff
Some parents are reluctant to share too much information with camp staff for fear it will have negative repercussions for their child (for example, they may wonder if the camp will still take their child or if they're setting their child up for failure). But good camps will want and need to know as much as possible - the more information they have, the better.
Consult with your child's doctor and other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to make sure you provide the camp director and staff with all the necessary information, and check with the camp staff to make sure they know everything they need to.
You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child. This can be critical. For example, if your child will be attending a mainstream camp, you'll want to make sure that everything is accessible for your child and that the staff understands your child's needs.
Many camps have paperwork you can fill out to share information as well, including information about dietary and medical needs. And regardless of whether your child is going to a day or residential camp, you should give the staff a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child's camp stay.
If your child takes any medication, include the phone number of your child's doctor, in the event the prescription is lost and needs to be refilled by camp staff. Check whether the camp infirmary stocks your child's medication, too. If it doesn't, make sure you send extra medicine with your child in case of an emergency.
What to Pack
Try to limit the special equipment your child brings, especially if it's expensive or breakable. If your child is attending a mainstream camp, he or she is likely to want to be like all the other kids, so do what you can to accommodate that desire. And mark or label everything with your child's name to make it easier to keep track of his or her belongings - that goes for everything from crutches to a retainer case.
If the camp hasn't sent you one, you should call ahead for a list of recommended items. Every camp has different requirements.
You also have the option to provide any support staff your child needs. If your child needs a therapist, you can have that person come in on a predetermined basis to provide care for your child. Or maybe your child needs more intensive, round-the-clock care - ask the camp director what you can do to accommodate these special needs.
Remember, however, that you may want to let your child have a vacation from therapy or other treatments. Before you decide to postpone any treatments, though, you should consult with your child's doctor.
Dealing With Anxiety and Homesickness
Many camps don't allow direct contact between parent and child while the camp is in session - they do this to help the campers stay focused on their activities. This can be a daunting prospect for parents of children with special needs, which is why it's important that you figure out, ahead of time, how you'll get information about your child's status. Will the camp call you with updates, or you can call on a regular basis to speak to the supervisor and camp staff regarding your child's performance?
Like any parent of a camper, though, parents of children with special needs can write letters to remind their kids that they're loved and missed, and that they can't wait to hear all about their campers' many experiences.
And just like any other child, your kid probably won't want you to cramp his or her style while away at camp. The best thing you can do is respect your camper's need for freedom and independence while he or she is in a safe camp environment.
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