Many kids with one of the various diagnoses that fall under the umbrella of neurodivergency exhibit behaviors that, to the untrained or unsympathetic eye, look like bad behavior. When my son is anxious, for example, he doesn’t hide behind my skirts—that’s a “flight” response, and my child’s stress response looks more like “fight.” Other children may have sensory issues that make compliance with rules like wearing masks or uniforms, standing in line, or paying attention difficult.
In school, there are systems in place to allow for accommodations for neurodivergent children, and often teachers and coaches have a heads up when a student in their class needs a different approach. However, when it comes to summer camp or extracurricular activities, that same understanding can be hard to find. Not all teachers, coaches, counselors, and other activity directors are equipped, experienced, or prepared for kids with learning or behavior differences.
In these situations, children need parents to act as their advocates even more so than usual—so I spoke with Paulette Selman, a school psychologist and special education advocate in Oregon, about how to best help your child succeed in these programs.
Before the start of an activity
When my kids were younger, I hesitated to set them up to be judged by teachers by giving teachers a “heads up” about behavior that might be seen as “bad,” from hyperactivity to possible violence. However, Selman says, a different approach will serve them better. “Don’t hesitate to tell a teacher your child’s diagnosis,” she advises. “More importantly share the strategies that you know typically work for your child, as well as things that are likely to be triggers for them.” Since triggers can’t always be avoided, especially if your child can get overstimulated or experience dysregulation during a new activity, she says to share what works to “re-regulate” them at home.
When kids are old enough to have more agency with their self-regulation, which for my kids began at age two, it’s a good idea to do a lot of prep before new or potentially stimulating activities. Before sending my own to superhero gymnastics camp, I told them, “You know that just because you’re superheroes doesn’t mean you can ever hit another kid, even if you’re pretending they’re the villain.” We established that the same rules about violence that hold at school and home were in effect at camp. I asked what they could do if they felt overwhelmed, and they came up with solutions, which included taking a breath and asking an adult to help find them a place where they could go to take a break. I then communicated to the counselor that my kids had those strategies in place.
After an issue has come up
Let’s say something “goes wrong.” Someone has a meltdown, your kid hits another kid, or refuses to follow the rules. “Give staff the space to handle it when something goes wrong,” Selman says. Many of these professionals have years of experience with kids who do all kinds of wacky things, and, “you might be surprised with their creativity, use of humor, or high level engagement strategies to help your kiddo.” As a teacher who got her start in summer camps, I’ve certainly done some interesting problem solving over the years, and I can attest that there are more innovative and experienced educators than myself out there.
If, however, you feel like the situation was mishandled or your kid is being misunderstood, talk to the teacher about it. “Hopefully the teacher will be flexible enough to go with the ups and downs, and try again the next day,” Selman says. But that communication is key.
In some instances where teachers or organizers feel a program is not a good fit and a child, they may be asked to leave. If you feel this is a case of discrimination, you have some options, depending on the type of program. Any public program though a city, state, or school is required to accommodate learners with disabilities. Advocacy programs are usually available at the state level if you need support.
In private-run activities, Selman says, “you have less say in demanding equity and inclusion for your child,” and so you should, “give as much information in advance as you can to prepare the teacher, and keep communicating if things go sideways.”
In all cases, if something isn’t going well with the teacher, don’t hesitate to escalate your concerns to the program director.
If there’s been an issue regarding your child’s behavior, it’s not a bad idea to debrief with all involved parties after the fact, which you can do in a few different ways. I like to touch base on the phone or, to keep a written record, via email, going over what was discussed and the plan of action, should the teacher or coach need to react to similar behavior again. If I talk to the teacher in person, I prefer to do it when my kids aren’t around.
I also like to debrief with my kids after they’ve had an incident in order to talk about their experience of the situation and how they’d like to move forward. “Listen to your child if they are able to express how the camp/program is feeling to them—what they enjoy and what is bothering them,” Selman says.
You may get a different perspective from your child than what you observed or what was reported by staff. Remember, behavior associated with neurodivergency isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t make them bad kids. If someone got hurt, emotionally or physically, there’s room for repair, but my kid needs to know, from me, that they are not “bad” because of the different ways they experience the world.
In the end, these efforts will hopefully mean your kids have a great experience in their camp, sport, or program, and help you and the staff work through any potential triggers before and after they arise. Most programs strive to be inclusive and enjoyable for all kids, and that includes yours.