Reed Tucker is a bright 8-year-old who lights up a room and delights others with his wicked sense of humor. But when he entered the second grade last fall, the impulsivity and defiance from his ADHD escalated. Medications helped somewhat, but his mother credits his ability to complete tasks to a special summer day camp north of Chicago where arts and crafts, sports and field trips provide as much therapy as recreation.
At Camp STAR in Highland Park, Ill., Reed and fellow campers with ADHD, anxiety and socially disruptive disorders earn points and rewards for participation and following rules. They lose points and receive timeouts for angry outbursts, rule-breaking or other inappropriate behavior.
"The first day of camp, he came home with a sticker on his T-shirt for something he did well," said Reed's mother, Kimmi Allen, a nurse in Chicago. "He was like 'Look, I got this today.' He was extremely proud of himself. He was acknowledged. That doesn't happen to him often."
"It's been night and day," said Meg Hayes, whose 8-year-old son, Nicholas, also is a first-timer this summer at Camp STAR. "He was the first kid in his group to make honor roll."
This summer, the closely supervised program at Camp STAR, which stands for Summer Treatment for ADHD and Related Issues, has 39 campers -- 35 boys and four girls -- with one child on the waiting list. Their parents want nothing more than to see their boys and girls happily splashing in a pool, shooting hoops and enjoying the simple pleasures of summer recess. But little has come easily to these families.
By the time their 6- to 12-year-olds arrive at Camp STAR, many of them have failed in traditional camp settings. The default option of spending a summer vacation at home without the structure and predictable routines of the school year can be a recipe for out-of-control behavior, driving parents to distraction.
"At regular day camp last summer, Reed was a train wreck," Allen said. "If I had known there was a Camp STAR years ago, Reed would have been in it every summer no matter how much it cost."
Parents pay $6,300 for the six-week session, which began on June 13 and ends July 29, with 30 percent of the families receiving some financial assistance, said clinical psychologist Mark A. Stein, the camp director. Counselors are students or graduate students going into pediatrics, psychology or social work. Their detailed observations contribute to research into the program's effectiveness, Stein said.
With one counselor for every two campers, Camp STAR uses rewards, daily report cards and constant accountability to help kids pay better attention, control their impulsivity and make -- as well as keep -- friends.
"These are kids that really struggle socially. This camp really allows these kids to succeed," said Stein, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Juvenile Research, which has operated the camp for four years with the Jewish Council for Youth Services. "There's the Camper of the Day, the High-Point Person, and those that earn a certain [point] threshold through Thursday and keep it together during the week earn a field trip.
"We use sports skills -- teaching a child to kick a ball or play four square, to learn not only the rules of the game, but also the social rules and how to talk about who's pitching for the Cubs now," Stein said. "We call their attention to questions: What's the score? Who was the last call on? Children are rewarded for paying attention as well as participating. For many kids, it's the first time they're able to follow through."