Camp is a place where kids are free to be kids. A place where new friendships are formed, exciting discoveries can be made, and fun experiences become lifelong memories.
You’ll likely encounter children of varying developmental stages. Since one in five kids have some type of learning abnormality— such as autism (ASD), ADHD, dyslexia, or anxiety— knowing how to interact with exceptional campers is necessary.
As a camp counselor, you’re not expected to be a behavioral health professional. But you are expected to provide your campers with a safe, positive, memorable experience. This is also true for kids who require a little extra attention and guidance.
At Bloom, we know there can be confusion and stigma around neurodiversity. We’re here to give you some important tips when working with exceptional kids at camp.
1. Be Informed About Each Camper
Many families will inform camp directors about their child’s known behavioral challenges. Prior to camp, talk with your directors and staff about the students in your group. Take time to read through parent submissions to note who may need extra care.
You’ll likely be informed about individual food sensitivities, special needs, or medications. Learn about kids with any formal diagnosis or forewarned behavioral challenges. Get familiar with their triggers and habits; strengths and weaknesses.
Note that not all families understand or acknowledge atypical learning. Some campers may act out unique struggles that you won’t realize until camp is in session. Know the common signs of attention and sensory disorders, and how to respond.
2. Plan to be Flexible
Many out-of-the-box children struggle when faced with timelines and routines. Know that it may take some time for kids to get used to the new camp schedule.
Consider how you can leave room for flexibility for your campers’ experience. Neurodivergent kids often excel at an intellectual skill but lack the social awareness of other kids their age.
Give reactive children plenty of calm warnings in between activity transitions. Carry snacks or drinks in your backpack if a camper gets nervous at meal time or frequently forgets to eat. Compliment a child if you notice them trying a new or uncomfortable activity.
If a child has sensory issues, think of ways they can participate in group experiences in an adapted way so they don’t feel excluded. Try to turn a challenge into a learning opportunity.
3. Don’t Assume Kids are “Being Bad”
Kids who are wired differently may lash out or exhibit inappropriate behavior. Learn that there’s often an underlying emotion or need a child is having when they have an outburst.
For example, a camper may run away, throw things, or shut down and cry for seemingly no reason. What a typical child might brush off as nothing, another child might not know how to handle. This is often a reaction to unexpected emotions like overwhelm, embarrassment, or anxiety.
Even “normal” kid things like group play, touch, or fun music might push a child over the edge. Don’t write this off as bad behavior. Avoid publicly criticizing a struggling camper. Get on their level and help them recuperate. Give them time to calm down.
4. Talk About Behavior
Children need lots of directions, especially in an environment away from home. Kids who don’t naturally comprehend social cues or appropriate responses to rules may need more guidance. They may also need more compassion and understanding from their peers.
Consider how you can explain scenarios in a way that prepares campers for what’s next. Model good behavior, for example, by verbally checking in with a camper with ASD. Talk to them in ways that make them feel respected and acknowledged.
If things get too difficult with a particular child, seek help from another counselor who may have more experience. At leadership meetings, discuss behaviors with camp directors for guidance, then implement structured advice.
5. Practice Good Group Management
You will have a mix of kids in your group who each have unique personalities and preferences. The key is to create a positive environment for everyone.
Here are some ways to encourage group management:
- Verbally praise kids’ admirable behavior and notable accomplishments.
- Give verbal warnings before big transitions, such as 10-minutes, 5-minutes, and 2-minutes until moving to a different location for a new activity.
- Deliver verbal directions in a fun and encouraging tone, whether to an individual or the group.
- Overcommunicate with those who need more instruction.
- Display safe and approachable body language.
- Create visual timelines for visual learners. Help kids write down the camp schedule if they prefer to always know what’s next.
- Debrief big experiences with your group. Give everyone a chance to share their thoughts.
- Check in one on one with your campers.
- Encourage the existing strengths and skills of each camper.
If it helps, review camp rules and boundaries each day. Reward campers who keep the group on track and who help struggling friends.
6. Ask Kids What They Need
When you have campers who are older or more verbally communicative, you can outright ask them what they need for a better camp experience. Listen to them, repeat back what you hear them saying, and give them time to build trust.
For example, you can say: “Thomas, I know you don’t like arts and crafts. When it’s time for art, what would you like to do at the table? I’ll get something special set up that you enjoy. I’m here to help and we can find a learning activity you can enjoy while respecting others who want to make art.”
It’s also helpful to notice a child’s communication skills to better understand how they express their needs. Maybe they struggle with writing but you can easily read their body language, or vice versa. Notice what works best when they need to express their needs. There is more than one way to hear someone.
Loving All Kids… According to Their Needs
To facilitate an unforgettable experience with your campers, meet them where they are. Many gifted kids are used to feeling unwelcome, misunderstood, or merely “tolerated”. This is an opportunity to help them feel they truly belong.
Approach camp leadership as a chance to highlight each child’s strengths and accomplishments. Make them feel seen, acknowledged, and accepted— quirks and all.For more guidance, leadership methods, and real world insights into the lives of exceptional kids, join the families and facilitators at Bloom. Click here to become a member.