Summer camp targets youths’ social skills

Making friends and playing well with others are intuitive skills for many kids. But for children with developmental disorders such as autism, sensory, social and emotional deficits can make these everyday behaviors extraordinarily challenging.

“Children with these disorders have trouble fitting in because they have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors and they don’t understand when and how to talk or interact with other children,” says Jennifer Selke, director of youth camps for UC Berkeley’s Department of Recreational Sports. “Their deficits make it extremely hard for these kids to function out in the world.”

A Berkeley-trained educational psychologist, Selke has overseen summer day camps since 1991. In 2003, she established the Social Skills Program at Blue Camp to integrate children with nonverbal learning disabilities into the large day camp that runs weekdays at UC Berkeley’s Golden Bear Recreational Center.

Jennifer Selke

Jennifer Selke, whose summer camp helps children with nonverbal learning disorders practice social skills. (NewsCenter photos by Roibín Ó hÉochaidh)

“Other kids reject them, so they act out or withdraw, and that only increases their sense of frustration and isolation,” Selke says. “Our goals center around helping these kids develop their social skills so they can fit in and be more comfortable and confident with other children.”

The social-emotional learning program is designed for 9- to 13-year-olds who have completed elementary school grades three through seven, and is offered in a four-week session during June and July.

The campers are organized into small groups and assigned a group leader who works with them throughout the day. Children in the social-skills track receive specialized support, including coaching, encouragement and practical problem-solving strategies, as they participate alongside “typically developing” children in a variety of activities from archery, soccer and swimming to art, drama and dance.

Selke notes that parents of campers who have participated in the social-skills program frequently report that their children show increased levels of participation at school and more interest in trying outdoor activities.

“Other camps might accommodate special-needs kids or run separate programs where they’re in their own little group,” Selke says. “Our camp is structured so that nontypical and typical kids are integrated.”

Victoria Casciato

Now 18, counselor-in-training Victoria Casciato (right) first experienced Blue Camp as an 8-year-old in the social-skills program.

“A lot of people think you’re lazy or stupid, or they treat you differently, because they think you’re odd or weird,” says Victoria Casciato, who first experienced Blue Camp as an 8-year-old in the social-skills track. “Looking back, it was hard being in a really strange place with lots of other kids I’d never seen before, but I got a lot of help and encouragement, and I started to see that things could be OK.”

Now 18, Casciato is back at Blue Camp this summer and enjoying her first week of work alongside high-school-age students who are gaining valuable work experience as part of the camp’s counselor-in-training program.

“I love working with kids. It’s really what I want to do in the future, maybe as a social worker or something like that,” she says.

For additional information about the social-skills program, summer camps at Berkeley and the availability of financial aid, visit Cal Camps and Youth Programs, email or call (510) 643-2267.