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Helping All Children Feel Included at Camp

Posted by Rachael Speck, Division Director JCC Day Camps on March 6, 2023

What is it like to raise a child who has invisible needs (ADHD, Autism, emotional dysregulation, sensory needs etc.)?  “Exhausting,” says the parent of 5-year-old Janey, who struggles with emotional regulation.  “You yearn for the day when you can only be worried about them meeting normal goals – completing homework, making friends, or completing household chores.  These are things we work on, but we also have to work on so many things that come easier to other children.”

Janey is a silly, playful, fun-loving kindergartener.  She loves swimming, gymnastics, art and loves to be active.  She looks like your typical (and might I say ADORABLE) J&R camper.  One would have no idea by looking at her that emotional regulation is a challenge, particularly when she gets frustrated because she can’t do something or when she gets overwhelmed, which often presents itself both physically and emotionally.

While J&R is all things silly, playful and fun, it’s also an environment where an individual can easily get frustrated or overwhelmed – spending the day among more than 300 other children, being outdoors for the majority of the day, having to adapt to changing weather conditions, navigating new peer relationships with those who look and act different from one another, participating in activities that trigger a range of emotions from excited and happy to nervous or anxious.

And yet, despite all of these potential variables, Janey has been successful at J&R for the past 2 summers.  How?  “She feels included and not singled out.  She is just a part of the camp.  They somehow tailored support to her without making it seem like she was being singled out because she was a little different” says Evelyn.

Some of the positive behavior support strategies that the staff have used with Janey that work well are behavior charts, discussing cool down strategies for the counselors to implement and rewards at the end of the day for good days.  These rewards were tailored to what motivated Janey, for example, short 1:1 play time with an adult.   “I wish there were more settings (schools, extracurriculars, camps etc.) that have an inclusion team to implement these things consistently because I can see with the proper strategies and tools in place.  She CAN just be a normal kid and have fun like every other kid.  All I want is for her to have a normal childhood,” says Evelyn.

“Our work with the JCC in terms of inclusion is very intentional,” says April Artz, LPC, who serves as the JCC’s Inclusion Coach and is the President of Connection: Counseling & Consultation . “We want to set the children with invisible needs up for success. We want to be able to call their families and report successes. We want to implement strategies that are designed by the children themselves (this increases buy-in) and make a big fuss (if that’s what the child responds to) when they meet their goals. Sometimes it’s baby steps. But, we pay close attention to positive progress, and make sure to notice and comment on it when it happens. We are actively working with camp and staff across the agency to transfer this mentality and approach across the board. So, that all staff understand the importance of noticing the good things, and everyone is making sure that children who need just a little bit of extra support and/or structure  know that an adult sees them and cares about them.”

What does a camp experience look like for Janey and other children without the right support?  “A total 180.  Her previous camp was not able to tailor the experience to her needs, nor keep her engaged which resulted in her acting out a lot more,” says Evelyn.

During our due diligence in building our inclusion program at J&R Day Camp, we found that parents had been conditioned to only receive negative communication about their children with invisible disabilities. This is, as Evelyn said, “Exhausting.” It can isolate families from their community if their child is labeled or seen as “bad” or “disruptive” or “out of control” by others. “No one wants to live their life like that.  The last thing we ever want for a child is for them to internalize that they are ‘bad.’ This fuels the work that me and my team do with the JCC every day,” says April.

At J&R, we are committed to a journey in creating a unique, inclusive environment that allows children like Janey to be successful in a typical day camp environment.   Figuring out exactly what it means to be inclusive can be challenging because what is needed differs from person to person, and sometimes even from activity to activity.   What we are trying to create is a sense of belonging for every individual in our camp community, regardless of their abilities or challenges.  By doing so, our camp culture is shifting.  Our staff is bought in to our approach of positive behavior support.  They are showing and telling kids how to embrace each other’s differences and lean into each other’s strengths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 children in the U.S. aged 2-8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.  1 in 3 of those children with behavioral problems also have anxiety and 1 in 5 also have depression.  Additionally, roughly 20% of Americans identify with having an invisible disability.   At J&R, we are still learning. Our culture is still evolving and there is still a ton of work to be done.  We know that there is a tremendous need for programs like ours and we look forward to serving as many neurodiverse children as possible in future summers.

“I think what the JCC is doing connected to inclusion is important because it recognizes that children with behavioral problems are not ‘bad kids’ and provides a wonderful camp environment for all children, both the neurodiverse and neurotypical.  It is also a good lesson for every kid that differences should be celebrated and kindness is so very important in life,” says Evelyn.  May that lesson stay with us as we do our part to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their loved ones.


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