I run two different camps for kids with different needs, including a resident camp for kids with autism. A concerned parent called to talk about how she wanted her son to be “mainstreamed” in the camp environment. By definition, there is no mainstreaming at my camp; they are all living with similar challenges.

She elected to send her son anyway. She was pleasantly surprised at the end of the week to find he had learned a lot about himself, become more confident with new routines and environments, and made two new friends (and has confirmed this has lasted well into the school year).

She recently e-mailed me to tell me that he picked up a habit at camp — using (almost obsessively) a written schedule that he gets to control by adding to it, scratching things off, and moving things around. About a month ago, he proudly came into their kitchen and announced that he had outsourced his new talent for scheduling to the rest of the kids in his class. For one of the first times she felt that “typical” kids were learning something from a technique her son used to be successful.

That is the essential truth about what we often talk about as “best practices” for working with kids with special or different needs: They are techniques that almost everyone can benefit from.

Beyond labels and diagnosing, at camp it is easier to define special or different needs in terms of what we know and what we see. To say a camper has ADHD (while factually correct) can often lead to diminished expectations for his or her behavior. It’s easy to think he or she is going to be out of control, won’t listen, and will disregard specific directions. However, to say that a camper may feel anxious so he or she is having a hard time paying attention will lead to a much more productive approach and mindset.

If you can see every camper on a spectrum or continuum of anxiety (because every experience is different and the environment is new) and with various levels and skills of communication, you can set yourself up for more success. You’ll be pointed towards better solutions, interactions, and techniques — and your expectations will stay high.

When you frame kids’ behavior this way, all of a sudden, just about everyone fits into the definition of “different needs.” And that’s the key. If all the kids are different, with varying levels of abilities and skills, then our approach to working with each of them should be customized. We can start with the same set of ideas and expectations (i.e. camp is fun, we all need to treat each other kindly, we want to try new things, etc.) and then use our “tools” as necessary for each camper interaction.

Following are some useful ideas and tools for great camper interactions that help everyone decrease anxiety and increase their ability to communicate clearly.

Providing Structure and Clear Expectations

I don’t intend to be disrespectful with this next statement, but camp is weird! Many camps have created an environment and culture that are very foreign to most kids. The living space, the general enthusiasm of the adults, the fun and interest-based approach to programming — and the fact that almost everyone sings, dresses up, and pretends a lot — that’s not the average experience for a 12-year-old.

Providing some structure and clear expectations creates a solid foundation for the environment you are trying to create for kids. Explain what is going on and create some repetition in the schedule. This will give kids a sense of control, something to ground them, so they can let loose and get creative or enthusiastic about what is happening. I’m not advocating so much repetition that camp feels stale, but enough so kids can trust that things happen in a predictable way. In fact, most of you have this kind of structure and repetition built into your culture. Think about it like this: Structure and repetition are the building blocks for understanding camp and the culture; make sure you are sharing that with the kids in explicit ways.

There are several ways to work on making your expectations clear. First, make sure there are a manageable number of rules. There probably shouldn’t be more than three in any given situation. Three or less means people will have a better chance at remembering them. Second, write them down. It is always better for learning and retention to see or read something and hear it; or do something then talk about it; or make up new things, review them out loud, then write them down; or any other iteration of hearing, seeing, and doing. Combining these ideas helps everyone understand better. Finally, make sure you are always talking (and writing) about what campers should be doing and avoid discussions that are solely about what not to do. It’s fine to have rules, but nothing could be less clear than a bunch of no’s, stops, and don’ts without anything else.

Use a Schedule and Timer

How many of you have uttered the words, “Five more minutes until . . .” when working with kids? I’m going to venture a guess that 100 percent of you have. The thing is, it’s never really about the actual minutes; it’s more about the transition. Sometimes it’s three minutes and other times its seven; more than likely it doesn’t actually matter. Using a schedule and a timer is about supporting transitions. It is very difficult for anyone to transition from one activity or conversation without bringing closure to that thing before starting the next. Because we are transitioning campers hundreds of times a day, it makes sense to support these transitions and make them easy for the campers. Here are some great ways to support them:

  • Use a timer.
    Timers depersonalize the transition. If the activity is super engaging, chances are you will get a bunch of grief when you try to end it. Give the campers fair warning, then set a timer. When it goes off it’s time to do the next thing. “The timer went off, it’s not me!”
  • Program your transitions.
    Ask group questions, make up a group story, sing camp songs, play follow the leader, etc. Do something as you go that helps with your goals of transitioning without incident and keeping track of everyone while being engaging and getting to know your campers.
  • Review and preview.
    Talk about what just happened and what is about to happen. This will help campers articulate what they liked and didn’t (which isn’t always obvious from their behavior) and help you understand what they are excited for and anticipating about what is coming up. This is also a fantastic way to get to know your kids better.
  • Foreshadow.
    Talk about what will be happening during the next big block of time. If it is the morning, talk about some things happening during the afternoon. If it’s the afternoon, talk about that evening or the next day. You can create excitement for things to come and create a predictable set of events for the kids.
  • Give them a written schedule.
    There is something very empowering about having a schedule in your pocket. You feel more in control and have a sense of routine, and so much more. Giving kids a written schedule decreases most of the anxiety they feel.

Clear and Defined Choices

Most kids, most of the time, want to do the right thing. If you can start with that assumption, then it only makes sense to give them clear choices at the beginning of an activity as a way to help them be successful. Think about the last time you were someplace new (a foreign country, a new airport, a different school, etc.). In the absence of clear signs or a physical setup that forces you into an area, it’s pretty easy to make mistakes and get flustered. You probably can handle this pretty easily: You ask questions, look for signs or cues, or follow the crowd. Most campers don’t have the same experience in navigating new situations, so they’ll look to you for help. You can help by giving them clear and defined choices using these ideas:

  • Offer two to three realistic choices.
    “Realistic” is the key word. Can they actually do what you just offered?
  • Set a time limit.
    This creates the expectation of time and sets you up for the next round of choices.
  • Be flexible.
    It’s okay to give different choices to kids if they need them.

A side note about choices: Sometimes we aren’t actually giving choices, but we make it seem that way because we end statements with the word “okay.” “It’s time for lunch, okay?” Seems silly when you read it, but pay attention next time you are around kids. Ending a statement with the word “okay” automatically turns it into a question. This is not only confusing, but it is also a setup for a power struggle if they don’t want to do the activity.

Redirect to a Motivating Object/Topic

Everybody has a thing. Sometimes we think that just applies to kids with different needs, specifically, kids with autism. That’s because kids with autism often don’t have a finely tuned social filter that says, “This person may not want to talk about my thing anymore.” However, it absolutely applies to everyone. Everyone has a topic, activity, or item they would rather be talking about or doing. One way of avoiding bad behavior and supporting positive behavior and interactions is to redirect kids to their “thing.” Here’s how:

  1. Get to know them.
    Ask a lot of questions, observe their behavior, pay attention to what they do during their down time, take note of what they bring to camp, etc. The better you know each camper individually, the easier it will be to redirect them.
  2. Be aware of their behavior in the present moment.
    This one seems obvious, but it is harder than it sounds. You typically have more than just a couple of kids, so many need your attention. Also, your brain naturally wants to think about what’s going to happen next (future) or review what just happened (past), and is rarely just aware of right now. Train yourself to ask, “How can I make this situation better?” whenever you are with kids. It helps you to see what is happening and brings your awareness into the present moment.
  3. Get their attention.
    Most camp counselors are terrific at this. Use all of those creative ways to get a group’s or individual’s attention, and then introduce the thing you are redirecting them to. 

Meltdowns and Bad Behavior

Think about the last time you had your own meltdown, used poor judgment, reacted emotionally, or just made a bad choice. What did you want those around you to do? Politely ignore it and quickly move on. No one really wants to dissect and process their bad behavior right after it happened with the person or people who witnessed it. So why do we subject kids to that? Of course, our jobs are to keep kids safe and hopefully help them learn to make better choices. When you see meltdowns and bad behavior:

  • Ignore it when you can, and come back to it later when the camper isn’t as embarrassed about it.
  • Just choose one or two things to talk about or correct. When a camper makes a bad choice there is often a laundry list of things that probably should have been done better. The more you add to the list during the conversation the harder it will be to effectively change the camper’s behavior.
  • Always discuss what can or could be done instead.

These techniques come straight out of the playbook for adults working with kids with different needs. Most of them have to do with getting to know kids individually and then working to customize your approach to working with them. That seems like a winning strategy no matter who you are working with. Instead of always trying to get different kids to be more typical, let’s admit that typical kids are all very different.

Scott Arizala is a trainer and consultant in summer camp. He is the owner of Camp Tall Tree, for kids with autism, and the executive director of Dragonfly Forest, a camp for kids with serious illnesses. He is also the author of S’more Than Camp and the creator of The Insider, an online staff training resource. Contact the author at scott@thecampcounselor.com.