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Building a behavioral system for the summer!

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Children and teens, especially, may act like they want to be in charge, but the truth is they feel safer knowing exactly what you expect of them and the rewards that result from good behavior. This is never truer than


during the seemingly boundless—and boundary-free—summer break. You should choose the two or three most desired positive behaviors to nurture with consistent and positive reinforcement, and try to ignore as many of the negative ones as possible. This teaches kids the definite rewards of desired behavior, and that acting out gets them nothing—not even negative attention. A chart with stickers for tasks accomplished can work wonders as positive reinforcement for preschool children. And remember: if you have limits, such as 30 minutes a day of earned computer time, you should stick to them.

Find Support

Parents of kids with developmental, emotional, or behavioral problems often feel isolated and lonely. It can be difficult watching all the other neighborhood children set off for a camp yours can’t attend; not only are those kids cementing friendships they may have already formed during the school year, so are their parents. Don’t feel bad booking a sitter and spending time with friends; it’ll help you keep from feeling marooned, and your well-being is critical to caring for your child.

If you can’t afford a sitter, close friends with or without kids can also provide good company and support for parents, even if mom or dad is still doing the supervising and discipline. It’s always nice to have an extra adult or even an older child around to help keep an eye on yours.

Mimic home routines, even when traveling

Sally, whose 8-year-old son, Charlie, has Asperger’s, has some very practical tips for planning a family getaway. Staying in a hotel and eating in restaurants “is usually a disaster,” she says, given all the change and extra stimulation. Instead, she’s found that renting an apartment online, w


here she can mimic home routines, works best; many other families do the same. Sally brings familiar nonperishables and several cooked meals, and makes sure there’s a store nearby for things like milk, juice and fruit. “Having to cook and shop is not exactly a vacation,” she says, “but it’s a lot more peaceful” than trying to eat out.

Work with your child’s strengths and interests

When Steve’s son Michael—the child with ODD—was 5, he started out at the day camp that many of his classmates at the neighborhood school attended. It shared a densely wooded site with other such camps, so it was very important from a safety standpoint that Michael stayed with his group. When the boy began to wander off, Steve recalls, “he got reprimanded by the counselors in such a way that it really set him off with a lot of oppositional/defiant behavior.”

“The camp told us that they couldn’t afford to h


ave a staff member shadow him to make sure he stayed on task and with the group,” Steve continues. In short, “they couldn’t take the responsibility of having him there.”

But Steve found that camp can be great for Michael if it is more structured and geared toward his strengths and interests. Today, Michael is busy throughout the summer at a series of camps for typically developing kids that keep him engaged with things like Lego Robotics and skateboarding. While Michael usually does well, Steve makes sure to keep a line of communication open with camp personnel so that any potential problem involving his son can be “straightened out before he gets kicked out.”

Pinpoint your child’s anxieties

Summer can bring camp, new activities, and different authority figures like new sitters, all which can be stressful. First, says psychologist Clark Goldstein, you need to figure out your child’s fears, whether it’s separating from you or striking out at baseball. If you’re having trouble doing this, try asking open-ended questions. Rather than pose a yes-or-no question like “Are you worried about camp?” ask “How are you feeling about going to camp?” Once you know, you can encourage her to face her fear.


The goal is to teach her that feeling anxious is uncomfortable but anxiety will ebb if you push through it.

Give the child time to adjust

A technique called gradual exposure is a good way of relieving a child’s anxiety about a new experience. For instance, says Dr. Goldstein, if he has separation anxiety or social anxiety—he’s worried that others won’t like him or he’ll embarrass himself in baseball—you might watch the entire first game. The next time, you could stand further back or leave at an appointed time. Eventually, you’ll be able to drop off your now-comfortable child. It can also be helpful to give those working with him a head’s up, without overstepping your bounds. Your goal is to set your child up for success; that includes making sure all the adults are on the same page.

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