Summer Camp Teaches Social Skills That Remote Learning Could Never Offer

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ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) – Like so many students around the world, Owen Penniston had a tough school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt really isolated,” the 12-year-old said.

Remote instruction just wasn’t a good fit for Owen, who is on the autism spectrum.

“I don’t have my teachers here and it sometimes gets really hard to learn,” he said. “Especially with the computer often giving you the answers.”

And by its nature, remote learning leaves out a key aspect of education: social emotional learning. Owen’s dad, Gordon, hopes that a summer program will help his son.

At Camp Puzzle Peace in Penfield, staff members work with children with cognitive social delays to build social skills and coping strategies. However, no diagnosis is required to participate.

“What we do is we work on those, you know ‘don’t forget to use your strategies, take a deep breath, ask to take a break, you need to go for a walk’ and helping to coach the kids through those situations,” said Jen Hackett, the camp’s executive director.

A camper pours water into a bucket on top of a counselor’s head in a camp activity in the summer of 2019. CREDIT EMMA BENZ

CPP runs a summer day camp called Community Connections. Beyond the usual summer recreational activities, there are also one-on-one and group workshops to enhance kids’ abilities to navigate social interactions.

“One of the things that happens to our kids is they get frustrated,” Hackett said. “They might not be able to do something, they can’t read something and they don’t know how to deal with those feelings and they might act out.”

The format goes: Teach the social skill, practice the social skill, then use the social skill. For example, Hackett said, a day’s theme might be introducing yourself.

“So they talk about introducing yourself, then they learn the steps to it, then they practice it,” she said.

Golisano Autism Center director Beth Ciardi said her 14-year-old son, Chris, also will be attending the camp. Like Owen, Chris wasn’t fond of remote learning, either.

“Some people with autism struggle with making eye contact,” Ciardi said. “And if you think about it, when you’re on a Zoom conference call, you’re looking right into someone’s face, right?

Hackett said the ongoing isolation saw some students withdrawing into their inner worlds and doing something called “scripting.” She said that’s when a student could, for instance, replay an entire episode of a favorite show in their mind word for word.

“It’s a way to block out things,” she said. “It’s comforting.”

But it’s what she calls a competing behavior. If you’re scripting, you may be missing out on a lesson, or a chance to interact with other kids.

So at the camp, Hackett plans to help students come out of those safe spaces and learn ways of coping with the world around them.

“I do think that kids have had a lot more time on technology — good, bad, ugly,” she said. “Some kids have spent more time in their own world, and especially for kids with autism, we do a lot of work to get them out of thinking about their own-world thoughts.”