Anything Is Possible, By Todd Cohen

Anything is possible.

When you are working with young people with a difference (or even those without them), it is always important to have that idea in the back of your mind.  Obviously, you can not expect the average 4-year-old to dunk a basketball on a regulation basketball hoop or a 10-year-old to write an opera, but as a teacher or mentor, if you do not believe in your child and give him the tools needed to be successful, then that lack of spirit will be contagious.

As a group leader at Camp Harmony for over a decade, I have witnessed numerous instances where kids have achieved more than they ever imagined they could accomplish.  A few of the boys in my groups went from being fearful of water at the start of the summer to relishing the opportunity to participate in free swim.  Others have needed some encouragement in the form of verbal praise or tangible rewards like skill pins, which are highly coveted prizes that can be used to help guide kids toward a goal.

For some young people who may have differences, accommodations might need to be put in place to level the playing field.  Occasionally, there are some detractors who feel people with disabilities – particularly those with learning disabilities or other conditions who might not appear to have anything hindering them from being successful at a specific task – are receiving an unfair advantage.  I always point to someone who might have visual impairments needing glasses or a person with a broken leg requiring crutches to get around.  Are they getting an unfair advantage, too?

I can recall an activity where the children were completing a relay race and needed to run with a plastic egg in a spoon.  Realizing that one of my campers had difficulty with multitasking and balance might struggle with the activity, I allowed him to balance the egg with his hand to finish the task.  He was able to complete the task on a similar level as his peers and no one commented about an unfair advantage.  It helps to create a cohesive group around the camper to help them not only accept any differences but also cheer on the camper (and ALL campers).

It is vital that the counselor understand the student’s condition and give them the proper tools they need to be successful.  For example, I had the privilege of being a group leader for two of Meg Zucker’s children, Charlie and Ethan, at camp.  As someone who had limited interaction with individuals with ectrodactyly (the absence of several digits on the hand or foot), I wondered what changes might be needed to the regular camp program to accommodate Ethan in the group setting.  I was about to receive my own education.

As was the rest of the group.

Ethan is a former camper, and while at Harmony was one of the most athletic kids in the group.  He would dominate many of the athletic competitions, including a game called “Knockout”, a basketball shooting competition that rewarded speed and accuracy on a regulation basketball hoop.  There were times I wondered if the REST of the group might need accommodations to help them stay at Ethan’s high level.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with Charlie who is as autonomous and easy-going as his brother.  The only real difficulty the Zucker boys are going to have is waiting at the back of the line for their high school and college graduations.

At times, Ethan or Charlie might have needed some assistance in opening a bag or tying their shoes, but from an adult perspective, there was no need to intervene and assist in making the camp experience enjoyable for the two of them.  They never said it, but you could tell they were raised on the mindset of “I can” and not “I can’t” and the sky is the limit in all of their activities.  For others without that mindset, it is so pivotal to be supportive to help them build self-confidence to help them throughout their lives.

Here are some things I have learned to help campers who may have challenges:

Give students a chance to succeed on their own.  Let them try at least once to see what they can do.  It would have been counterproductive to give either of those two boys an unnecessary head-start or change an activity if they were fine on their own.  Observe and adjust – if needed.

Don’t hesitate to communicate with the camper.  Having a conversation about the activity might help prepare them for what is expected as well as any trepidation they might have going into it.  It’s always helpful to let them know you’re always going to be there for them (at least until camp ends; after that point, they might need to order a cardboard cutout of you or a Fathead to post in the house).

Set clear goals.  You can discuss expectations that you both have, heading into the activity but don’t be afraid of raising the bar if you notice the camper is meeting the goal with relative ease.  Don’t wait until the camper becomes too fearful, otherwise, you will ruin the bond that you have created.

Use positive reinforcement.  One can not diminish the importance of congratulating the camper even if the goal has not been accomplished.  Just making the attempt deserves words of encouragement.  That goal can be as simple as saying, “Thank you” after a completed task or doing something positive for someone else.  If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Nice job holding the door!” I’d probably be able to stop buying Powerball tickets.

Review and plan ahead.  If the goal is not accomplished, then determine what steps are needed to reach the target.  Even if the goal is met, figure out how to get even higher next time.

When I was a teacher, I used to post the expression “Reach for the moon.  If you miss, you’ll still be among the stars.”  If you are steering the ship high and in the right direction, you could be on the way to a life-changing experience and creating an amazing summer or educational experience for your child.

Todd Cohen is a Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant in a New Jersey public school.  He has been a group leader at Camp Harmony in Warren, NJ for 10 years and volunteers as the Media Representative for the Northern New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

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