HOW TO CHOOSE A SUMMER PROGRAM
In order to match the interests, abilities, and developmental needs of your child to the opportunities offered by traditional recreational camps, athletic camps, and academic programs, you need to spend some time thinking about what you want for your child. Be sure to give your child the opportunity to talk about the kinds of activities that he or she finds fun, engaging, and rewarding. If you and your child decide that an academic summer program would be a good experience, here are several factors to consider as you choose the program.
RESIDENTIAL OR NON-RESIDENTIAL?
Is your child mature enough to go to a residential summer program? While age is a factor, it is certainly not the only factor. If a child has never spent time away from home without parents, a trip away to a strange environment for two weeks may be too difficult. If you would like to give a less mature child an experience at a residential camp, be sure you plan for the child to take brief excursions away from home alone before the summer program begins.
Residential and non-residential programs provide different kinds of opportunities. Children at residential programs will often meet a more diverse group of students representing a wide range of geographic and experiential backgrounds. They are also more likely to engage in a wider range of activities that offer opportunities for social development and lasting friendships. Non-residential programs are usually less expensive and may provide activities in local community institutions, such as museums or public schools, which cannot support residential programs.
PROGRAM CONTENT AND ORGANIZATION
A well-conceived academic summer program - residential or non-residential - will provide a balance between the academic program, athletic or sporting events, and social activities. A summer program focused only on academics neglects what we know about the importance of full development of the individual. A well-balanced program will have an academic program that is engaging, challenging, and interesting, but it will also give children a chance to participate in physical activities, structured and unstructured social activities, and opportunities for play and rest.
All of the activities - academic, social, and physical - should be oriented toward a set of goals for the program. Are these goals clearly stated and do they match the goals you and your child have for this experience? The academic program should match your child's interests, and the classes should offer more than the child can experience in a regular school setting. Asking questions about the content of the instructional program will give you information on the degree to which the content has been differentiated to meet the needs of highly able learners. Content-related questions will also tell you whether the instruction will lead to the outcomes you expect.
Look for evidence that the pace of instruction is challenging but not overwhelming, that there is a focus on learning about important and enduring concepts (the "big ideas" of a discipline), that there is an opportunity for dealing with abstract and complex ideas, and that the content does not duplicate traditional school mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts. Also ask how instruction is delivered. Children do not want to spend summer days being talked at by teachers. Do the classrooms actively engage children in their learning through experiments, projects, or inquiry into new areas of interest? Are activities designed to stimulate interest and involvement? Do students learn to use new resources - like computer technology - for finding information? Is there a balance between large-group, small-group, and individual instruction?
Summer programs should also provide a setting in which exploration and risk-taking are encouraged. Look for ways in which risk-taking is encouraged and ways in which the teachers and counselors support the child in trying new things. What provision is made for positive discussion with the child when a failure occurs?
If you are choosing a program because it boasts special instruction in an area in which your child has a special interest and expertise, inquire about how children are selected and placed in the program. Determine whether your child will be with children of similar interests and expertise and whether accommodations are made for children who are more advanced than others in a given group.
Some summer programs are structured around classes and predetermined activities for children; other programs are largely independent study or mentorships requiring a high level of independence, self-motivation, and responsibility. Knowing your child's ability and level of comfort with independence is critical in making an appropriate choice of program.
The ways in which social and physical activities are structured and handled are also important for most children. In an exemplary program, counseling staff will sit with children at meals; they will know that their attention to a lonely child will inspire other children to attend to a lonely child; they will know how to structure activities and choose leaders so that no child is left out of a group. They will also be sensitive to and have strategies for dealing with homesickness, group conflicts, and jealousies.
STAFF CHARACTERISTICS AND PREPARATION
The skills of the instructional and counseling staff are the most important consideration. Are the "teachers" who will be instructing your child knowledgeable about the content area in which they are teaching and skilled in working with children who are your child's age? In looking at the literature of the program and in asking questions of the staff, determine whether the teachers have been selected on the basis of demonstrated competencies as teachers. Do they know how to respond to the special instructional needs of children with special abilities and talents in the areas in which they will be teaching? Do they know about the learning characteristics of the children they will be teaching? Have they had experience and training in working with gifted children?
Ask what training the staff has had, what supervision is provided, and who provides it. Do teachers receive feedback on their instruction? Is this feedback offered by individuals with strong backgrounds in teaching and supervision? If counselors without formal training in educational methods and child development also have roles as teachers, does the director or another supervisor train them in the skills they need to engage children? The counseling staff also should have knowledge of appropriate strategies for discipline.
Any program, whether it is a recreational program, an athletic program, or an academic program, should have adequate resources to engage the children it serves. A computer camp where children must wait long stretches of time for their turn at the computer is no more engaging than a recreational camp where they stand at the end of the lake and wait for their turn in the canoe. The activities schedule in any program must offer children access to the equipment, materials, and resources necessary for a positive experience.
Children who have invested their time in learning and practice - whether it be academic or athletic - deserve accurate and informative feedback about their learning. A quality program will communicate changes in student learning and skills to parents and children. Ask to see examples of evaluation forms. Another positive indicator of a good program is evidence that the program employs a self-evaluation process.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
Does the program have clear guidelines for student behavior? Do you agree with the rules that have been established and the consequences of breaking those rules? The program setting and children's ages will determine some of these rules. Each program also must have rules for student behavior that prevent the mistreatment of students and establish an environment where everyone can feel comfortable and protected. Whether these rules are explicit or implicit, the staff should be able to clearly articulate the parameters of acceptable behavior.
FREEDOM FROM GENDER, RACE, OR OTHER BIAS
There are many ways in which summer programs can instill feelings of inferiority or generate feelings of inadequacy. Has the staff been selected to represent diverse populations? Will young women and girls see adult females engaging in and enjoying mathematics, computers, and science? Will there be African-American staff who can serve as role models for the students? Are there opportunities within the curriculum to explore the contributions of people of all ages, genders, and cultures? Most importantly, are all children treated with equal respect by the staff?
There are several sources of information that will help you find out about the quality of the programs offered. First, there are printed materials. Many programs offer schedules, course descriptions, etc. Program directors and the teaching staff should be willing to share the curriculum and the instructional strategies used. While they may revise instructional offerings from year to year, examples from past years will be helpful. Talking to students who have attended in the past is very useful. And one great testimony is how many children return regularly and even return to be counselors and teachers.
A FINAL WORD
In those cases where you may not be able to find an ideal match for your child, weigh most heavily your child's flexibility (not yours!), the quality and potential level of engagement, and the likely value of the experience for your child.
Carolyn M. Callahan, Ph.D.
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