Yet, for many children and young adults faced with social anxieties and various learning challenges, there is comfort in a sense of anonymity. The state of “normalcy” for children that struggle in social settings comes with the blissful experience of fitting in and not being singled out for their unique differences that can create havoc in social settings.
As social beings, we all are constantly concerned with how and where we fit in on the social ladder of our various social communities. For the more socially gifted among us that are perched on the uppermost rungs of this social ladder, this concern is subconscious and rarely acknowledged. Their ease of employing social techniques endearing them to peers flow naturally. For those that struggle in social settings and experience near constant social isolation, the question of social survival can produce debilitating levels of anxiety- only exacerbating the very cycle of anxiety that limits social success. The majority of adolescents are neither social superstars nor social strugglers. Unfortunately, this group often employs a strategy of highlighting the weaknesses of the social strugglers in order to deflect attention from their own weaknesses as they climb the ladder of social acceptance. Many of us could never conceive the painful torture socially anxious adolescents must withstand when exposed to unstructured and unsupervised peer interactions.
Where and how can we create a sense of normalcy while at the same time reinforcing the value unique strengths and talents to a community? At Camp Northwood, we have been specializing in this very process for years and find the following criteria essential for creating successful experiences for our unique population of campers:
- COMMUNITY OF RESPECT– When children are in an environment that fosters positive feelings, reinforces individual strengths and provides a sense of safety; they no longer have to worry about being the object of ridicule. Every member of a community must feel that they play an important role within the community and those feelings must be continually reinforced by peers and mentors alike. This type of community does not happen naturally and must be managed with care and intention. The ladder of social success must be replaced with the understanding that we should not be concerned with how we measure up against each other, but rather how we all play an integral role in the social health of our community.
- DIRECT INSTRUCTION– For many children that struggle with social success, a more direct approach must be taken to foster the development of age appropriate social skills. The basic pragmatics of socialization can be taught, but the lessons must take place in a social environment. Interpreting non-verbal social cues, conversation starters, the act of shaking hands, identifying and appropriately responding to emotions as well as respecting personal space are just a few of the topics that are presented to Northwood campers during the course of their summer experience. These lessons are woven into the fabric of camp so that campers often consider the instruction more of a fun activity as opposed to a socially therapeutic session designed to foster age-appropriate social skills! There is no more gratifying experience than witnessing our campers employing the techniques and specific social language that we teach at camp during various events throughout the school year!
- TRAINED STAFF– The most important cog in the machinery of social skill instruction is without a doubt the people working directly with children. It is critical that this group of dedicated mentors fully understand their role. They are charged with creating a safety zone in which everyone is treated with respect. They must also understand that second to safety, social skill development is supreme. The actual activities of camp are not a priority when creating a healthy social environment. The activities of camp become the vehicle with which social skills are taught. Whether it is on the soccer field, in the dining hall or on a hike, what the staff is doing is creating opportunities for children to practice their social skills.
- SOCIAL DIALOGUE– Like most subjects that we study; the real learning takes place outside of the classroom. A lecture or lesson is designed to present material that students are expected to master. Yet, mastery only comes with practice and the successful application skills. Social skills are no different and we have found are perhaps far more difficult to learn in a vacuum than most other lessons! When working with a population of socially immature and anxious children, it is critical that their practice and application of social skills is well supervised by staff members that are able to conduct a constant social dialogue. This dialogue helps provide a constant source of feedback to children so that they can learn which social strategies and skills are being applied correctly and which may need some modification. All too often, the only reinforcement children receive when it comes to social skills is negative when in fact they may be employing an alternative strategy because no one told them that what they had tried the first time around was correct! The Social Dialogue also allows for continual reinforcement throughout the day during all aspects of a camper’s daily routine. Walking between activities, mornings, evenings and everything in between becomes fair game for staff to highlight social successes and redirect behaviors that are not age-appropriate.
Craving Normalcy is by no means an attempt to be unexceptional. For our population of campers, craving normalcy is an attempt to exist on a level playing field. When children are not overwhelmed with the anxiety of how they fit in to a social community, they can become active and contributing members of that community! An immersion in this type of healthy community environment over the course of a summer season can work wonders for a child and help provide the necessary social skills and self-esteem to become a more successful member of their communities at home and school!