By Elise Wulff, Program Manager, Child Services

Too late? Too soon? For participants in Aspire’s summer camp, this question has meaning year-round. At Aspire, we’re forward thinkers. Yes, of course, we want all of our summer campers to have a great summer filled with fun memories, but we also want them to have a great school year. I’m sure you’re wondering, how does that work? I can’t get my kid to think 30 seconds ahead, let alone try and ask her to think about back-to-school in the middle of summertime. Why would I do that to myself? Don’t worry- we’ll do it for you.

Aspire’s 3S’s curriculum (Social Competency, Stress Management, Self-Awareness) was born out of this forward-thinking mindset. These three competencies are what we theorize to be the foundation for long-term, meaningful, sustainable, positive quality of life in our participants. To teach these 3S’s at camp, we use a combination of direct instruction and in the moment feedback from familiar staff, both 1:1 and in the small group setting. Social competency, Stress management, and Self-awareness can be broken down into discrete skills and we can assess, teach, and monitor progress on those defined skills. But, it’s the synergy of Aspire’s 3S’s that leads to the year-long success our participants experience: Self-esteem.

“I cannot believe I am saying this, but the start of the school year has been fantastic .” –Aspire parent (September 2016)

Here’s what “fantastic” can mean: She’s confident. He’s advocating for himself. They’re trying new things. Among others.

Aspire’s summer camp is a strengths-based program that values neurodiversity.  In order to truly build self-esteem, we see the individual in 360 degrees, as a 24/7 child with exceptional strengths and also areas of frustrating deficit. In the principles of yin and yang, one cannot exist without the other. We learn each individual’s strengths and areas of challenge, and how well the individual recognizes both. We celebrate diversity of all measures and make an effort to reinforce the power of neurodiversity. Often, we hear parents and providers describe such tremendous discrepancies in a child’s performance across various environments, contexts, and subject matter. There are innumerable variables that can be at play to influence a child’s performance, and we’ll never be able to control them all. We can, however, think about and work to improve self-esteem by paying attention to both strengths and challenges, talking about them in the abstract, and labeling them when we see them in real time. Positive self-esteem can often be the key to a toolbox that lets your child experience more consistent success across contexts by reinforcing a positive self-fulfilling prophecy: “If I feel like I can be successful, I’m going to try and make that happen.” It’s no longer about external variables (the teacher, the test, the school, classmates), it’s about what I can do to maximize the benefits and minimize the barriers.

Everyone has strengths.

Special interests can be a double-edged sword, when left unattended. At Aspire, we see special interests as Spiderman would: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Special interests are a tool that requires thoughtful attention to fine-tune and maintain. When supported and not stifled, special interests become a social vehicle, a problem-solving ally, a motivating force, and a safe space. Special interests have a special place at camp, ever-present, but in training to be the best tool they can be.

Everyone has challenges.

At camp, we make mistakes and we embrace them. You will hear staff modeling out loud, “Oops! I forgot my lunch box today! Hm. That’s the second time this week. Seems like something that keeps falling out of my memory. My silly hippocampus! But, I know that I’m really great about checking my phone every morning for the weather. For tomorrow, I’ll try putting a reminder on my phone about my lunchbox. Can you help me see if that strategy works tomorrow?” Just in this one moment, we’ve normalized neurodiversity, modeled positive self-talk, and highlighted a strength (special interest) that can help with problem-solving.

In moments of challenge, I can call upon my strengths.

What else do you do when you feel good about yourself? Take risks. At camp, we use the ‘challenge by choice’ model. When one of our participants is reluctant, or refuses, to participate in an activity, we honor the choice. With careful assessment of the variables at play (Sensory challenge? Confusion? Novelty? Past experiences?), we come together to find the ‘next best thing.’ (No, the next best thing is not reading your fantasy novel by yourself.) We find the root of the challenge and we use strengths to make that less of an obstacle. Can we pull in a special interest? Can we call upon intellect? Motivation is in there somewhere and, at camp, we love the hunt to find it.

In the middle of winter, the thought of sweltering in summer’s heat seems nothing but a distant memory or a too-far-away dream. For our campers, self-esteem isn’t. Self-esteem matters yesterday, today, and tomorrow, regardless of season. Self-esteem leads to self-advocacy and self-determination. I’m worth it. My needs are worth me telling someone because my success matters to me and other people. I want things in life. I may need help to get those things, but I want them badly enough that I’m willing to accept the help.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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