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Building Executive Function Skills at Camp

Executive Function skills are mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and figure out how to complete multiple tasks. For individuals with ADHD, these skills are weak, or non-existent, and, as a result, impact the way they manage their daily activities. As may be the case with your child, many of our campers have difficulty with these skills.  We believe that summer camp can help campers learn new ways of getting things done and feeling more successful, too.

The camp environment and staff provides a framework for modeling, mentoring, and teaching strategies for honing the campers’ Executive Functioning skills while they are participating in exciting, adventure-based activities. Many studies show that the best approaches to improving Executive Function skills are those that:

  1. involve children and teenagers keen interests, those that bring pride and happiness
  2. consider stresses in their lives and explore ways to resolve
  3. encourage to be active and in challenging exercise
  4. set up an environment of social acceptance and
  5. give chances to practice Executive Function skills

(Diamond and Lee, 2011).

Planning and Organizing for CAMP or “Figuring out What to Do and How”

At SOAR, campers are taught and shown ways for planning, organizing, getting things done, improving social interactions, and self-monitoring as they maneuver the various phases of the day. They are also given opportunities to practice these skills each day. A lot of planning and organizing is required to successfully complete each day’s activities.

  • Setting goals to work on while at camp at the beginning of session
  • Getting support from Instructors for working toward set goals
  • Going over each day’s plans with the Instructors
  • Learning and understanding the steps necessary to make the day’s activities happen
  • Preparing gear for trips, including backpacks, duffle bags, mess kits, and more
  • Keeping up with mess kits and keeping them washed and clean
  • Coming up with a system for keeping clothes sorted and dry
  • Learning steps for setting up tents and taking down tents

Responsibilities at CAMP or “Getting Things Done and Having Fun”

One of the hurdles for those lacking strong Executive Function skills is getting started with tasks and also in completing them. Some of the things that come into play for campers are just how interested they are in the activity, do they know how to go about getting it done, and overcoming feeling overwhelmed with not knowing where to start. A structured plan means each person has daily roles & responsibilities with meals, trip preparation, clean up, and more.

  • Encouraging each other to get tasks completed
  • Knowing when you need to ask for help and knowing when you need to offer help
  • Working to be cooperative with the team schedule and plans
  • Learning the value of taking the first step, or getting started
  • Aiming for an attitude of “keep trying”
  • Honing ways to make and be a friend

Self-Monitoring at CAMP or “How am I Doing”

Self-monitoring is a very effective practice for campers to use as they work toward improving daily habits, behaviors, and attitudes. Learning the practice of checking themselves for improvement is empowering as they begin to take ownership of their own set goals. End of the day discussions allow for campers to review their day and to reflect on successes and opportunities. Also, at the end of the camper’s session at SOAR, they take part in a review of their progress with their instructors and parents:

  • Reviewing how things went for you and your group, revisiting positive things and reflecting on opportunities
  • Thinking about activities and interactions that happened and how they may have been done well or may have been done differently
  • Remembering and using tips from Instructors on good ways to get things done and then practicing those skills
  • Using the support of Instructors on how to build friendships
  • Reviewing with parents and Instructors the progress made on goals at camp

Helping campers learn and adopt changes in their daily behaviors and habits result in better outcomes with planning, completing tasks, keeping track of their belongings, and self-monitoring. They end their camp session feeling proud of all they have been able to accomplish while having a great time. Summer camp provides a structured, safe, and happy place for campers to hone their Executive Function skills in a light-hearted and fun-filled way.


Diamond, A, & Lee, K. (2011. Interventions shown to aid executive function development. Science, 333, 959-964.

A New Chapter in the History of SOAR

Gap Year at SOARThe rich history of, SOAR, is reaching new heights this year with the beginning of our new GAP Year at SOAR program. Like many of our offerings, the idea for a GAP Year came from parents who often reported to us that their young adult had not decided what to do after high school. We knew of the idea of taking a year away from school and that the origin of taking a break, or Gap Year, came from the British in the 1970’s. SOAR, Summer Camp and Academy at SOAR, are special programs for campers and students who often mature a little later in life, and are sometimes referred to as “late-bloomers.” This new chapter for SOAR will provide an opportunity for young adults to step back and consider just what they want to do next while becoming more mature and, yes, “blooming.”

GAP Year at SOAR will take place in beautiful Dubois, Wyoming, at SOAR’s own Eagle View Ranch at the foot of the Wind River Mountain Range. The Lodge at Eagle View Ranch will be home-base for the gappers, a term the Brits coined for “a person on a gap year.” Part of the programming will take place at that site, but there will also be expeditionary trips throughout both terms.

The emphasis will not be on academics, but on developing adult life skills, with learning to budget, organize and plan, prioritize, and manage the requirements of daily living. Even the expeditions will include using these skills, as trips are planned, budgets determined, decisions about routes and places made, working through problems as they arise, and understanding that everyone pitches in to make it happen. There will be responsibilities as well as choices and decisions to make, individually and as a group, but always with the guidance of our experienced SOAR instructors. Becoming independent is often a goal of a gapper, and the skills and habits to do so will be honed during their time in the GAP Year.

Each gapper will have a choice of an internship to do while in the program with a wide variety from which to choose: culinary, child enrichment, geriatric support, animal care, building, landscaping, and more. There will also be chances to volunteer if there’s a special area of interest for an individual. Figuring out what type of work suits each person for the future, and what skills, training, or education will be needed, is also a goal for most gappers.

The gappers will attend a class at the local community college both terms taking courses applicable to one who is moving toward independence. These courses will allow them to see what community colleges can provide in preparing for the future and the courses will yield college credits. Additionally, the expeditionary trips will include a visit to a college or university Admissions Office to see what those meetings involve. Deciding which postsecondary option, whether college or university, community college, trade or vocational interest suits one best takes self-examining and a gap year allows time and structure for that focus.

As we begin this new chapter of the history of SOAR, we have the same high ideals as those in the first chapter when SOAR began as a summer outdoor-adventure camp program in 1977. We will continue to honor our strong philosophy of being a strength-based program as we serve our special participants across their developmental years and steps toward success. The GAP Year at SOAR will encourage and better prepare young adults for taking the “next step” to their future aspirations.

Summer SOAR and Making My Day

Without a doubt there will be many more “Making My Day Moments” for all the staff to embrace as we go about our important “work” days at SOAR.

My first summer at SOAR as Admissions Director is an exciting time and brings vibrant life to this mountainside location and all of us there. Every day when I arrive at SOAR, I hear laughter and happy chattering, sometimes singing, and always good smells of camp breakfast wafting through the air. When I approach our base building and dining shelter, a few campers approach me with reports of activities, scratches, bits about “what happened” the day before and tales of Indy (short for Independence, our cat who arrived 2 years ago on July 4). The pleasant arrival makes my day.

For those of us who call our time in offices on site “work,” the campers are part of our daily lives. Our “work” is a different kind of work, as it involves planning and implementing an often life-changing program for campers who deal with AD/HD and/or LD. It is fulfilling and intrinsically rewarding. While it can be consuming, the energy we glean from them help us to remain passionate and dedicated to providing positive experiences for their short stay as our guests. Being part of a team that shows such involvement and commitment to a worthwhile mission makes my day.

One group of our enrollees included a couple of brothers who were suffering from early homesickness as it was their first time away. They were city people, so our site seemed rugged and strange to them. The pain they felt was significant and we all strategized about ways to help them adjust. Transitioning was fairly slow but once it began to build, we saw them less around the office, and certainly fewer pleas for escape. Within a few days it seemed they had forgotten to let us know how miserable they were, and when sighted around camp, they were laughing and engaged in conversation with their camp buddies. One of the boys toward the end of his stay told me, “I only have 5 more days and then I have to leave.” I just had to ask, “What do you think about being at SOAR now?” and he thought a second, smiled broadly, and responded with a heartfelt and loud shout, “WOW!” He was off and out of my office like a bird. That camper and his message made my day.

Making my day

I get most of my “make my days” moments from campers and staff friends, but I also hear voices of appreciation and encouragement from parents and grandparents. I had a call this week from a parent who told me “My son is acting so much more mature after his being there 18 days, and we are hoping he can keep his new level of respect and responsibility going!” She was asking to go over some of the strategies we had shared with her at his debrief session.

Most recently I had a conversation with a grandfather who was gifting his grandson’s stay at SOAR. We discussed the logistics of payment, but toward the end of the conversation, he asked “Please tell me how my boy is doing there.” Earlier, this grandfather had shared with me that he had just celebrated his 98th birthday and was doing really well except for being blind. Knowing of this generous man’s effort to assure his grandson’s SOAR wonderful experience, and hearing his earnest interest in how his grandson was doing made my day.

Without a doubt there will be many more “Making My Day Moments” for all the staff to embrace as we go about our important “work” days at SOAR.

Making my day