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."
Camp STAR is among a growing number of specialized summer camps designed for youngsters with a variety of neurologic and behavioral diagnoses. It adheres to an evidence-based summer treatment program developed in 1980 by clinical psychologist and ADHD specialist William E. Pelham Jr., then at Florida State University, and now at Florida International University in Miami. His program is offered at a number of sites, including the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, Center for Children and Families at the State University of New York at Buffalo, University of Alabama at Birmingham and NYU Summer Program for Kids. The American Psychological Association has named his a model program, as has the advocacy group Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).
Camp STAR also requires that parents attend weekly training sessions to reinforce skill-building at home.
"When you have a child like this, you're constantly asking them 10 times over to do something and they won't do it," Allen said. "This teaches you that you only should have to ask once, maybe twice. And if it doesn't happen, then there's a consequence."
The parent training, which fosters children's independence and self-esteem, uses a model created by child psychologist Russell A. Barkley. The camp's first take-home exercise this summer involved parents engaging with their sons or daughters for 20 minutes in an activity of the child's choosing.
"You're not allowed to criticize, interject, give directions," Allen said. "You can't do anything but sit there and enjoy your child's company."
That's particularly hard for parents who constantly react to their child being disruptive or inattentive. But Reed loved the uninterrupted time with his mother, and the special time together reminded her of all she loves about him.
"You just see a different side of your child," she said. "You really see their personality and how their mind works and how funny they can be and how smart they are."
Even more importantly for Allen, the parenting sessions made her realize she's not struggling alone.
"To just be with other parents and know they've gone through the same thing is just tremendous relief," she said.
Hayes and her husband heard about Camp STAR from the Northfield, Ill., public school system where Nicholas is enrolled.
"They had really positive experiences with Camp STAR and thought it would be a good environment," Hayes said.
She was particularly impressed by the camp's emphasis on behavioral modification, as well as the opportunity to participate in a sleep study, because Nicholas complains of poor sleep.
Although Nicholas was anxious about the first day of camp, "the counselors were incredibly patient," Hayes said. "They brought out a camper who had gone there before to talk to him and that helped him. It was so nice."
More than two weeks into the program, she said, "he's had a ton of success. He's been putting himself out there more than before. He's been asking about play dates. They have these field trips he looks forward to. He feels happy. He feels confident."
Hayes said she knew that the camp was helping her son when, one day, he proposed a solution to the chaos reigning at the dinner table as his two younger brothers acted up.
"He said, 'I hear all these people talking at the same time. Maybe we should have everybody raise hands if they want to speak,'" his mother recounted. "He was problem-solving!"
Several organizations provide online listings for a variety of specialty day camps and sleep-away camps, with tuition ranging from less than $100 a week to more than $1,000 a week. These include the American Camp Association, CHADD, VerySpecialCamps, and CampResource.com.