The Difficult Bunk Meeting

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

At some point each summer it seems we find ourselves faced with the "difficult bunk." This is the bunk in which the wrong combination of personalities creates bad chemistry. Sometimes the campers just don't get along. Sometimes, they do get along and have chosen to become famous for their prankster ways. Whatever the problem, the result is an excess demand on our time as we respond to their needs, and often this leads to the bunk meeting.

If we are fortunate, the meeting does its job. Counselors facilitate the meeting, ultimately lay down their expectations, and the campers comply. Often times though the meeting has a short- lived impact. A day or so later, the campers are back to their old ways! By this point, the unit leaders are called in - and if that doesn't work - the group gets passed on up the ladder.

The question at this point is how to get out of the "punitive lecture followed by the campers' apology" pattern. The goal becomes to facilitate the meeting in a way that has lasting impact and gets the campers to have ownership in implementing the solution. The challenge is running the meeting in a way that generates this different response - and this requires taking a different approach.

Decide Your Intention and Make It Positive

Often what starts as a meeting to persuade kids to work together as a team becomes a lecture on the downfalls of selfishness! In retrospect, the adult leading the meeting intended to make the kids aware of how selfish they were being. While it may be true, it is not positive. A more positive approach is to teach kids that their actions have consequences that can be either generative or inhibiting and that often the smallest choice can make the biggest difference. If delivered in the right way, campers who embrace this new way of thinking are substantially more likely to adopt new behaviors because they indeed are striving to be the type of person who does behave more carefully and respectfully.

Breaking the Pattern

Most children are already used to the common patterns with which adults respond to their poor behavior. They are used to being lectured. They are masters at knowing how to say the "right" things to appease adults. Thus, in order to get kids to respond differently, we have to say and do things differently. As logical as this sounds, many of us would be humored to hear tape recordings of things we have said to kids over the years and how little variation there tends to be!

The following model is one that has proven effective many times. Rather than leave the structure open for a lot of "he said - she said" blame talk, it is designed to challenge the campers to become the type of person who wouldn't commit those other types of behaviors. In addition, it is designed for the adults to lead the discussion the whole way through:

Meeting in an unexpected place at an unexpected time
Typically these serious meetings are held in the director's office or in some place where people walk by and know the kids sitting there are "in trouble." Go somewhere totally different such as a special place in the woods. Take the kids unexpectedly to some place they are not used to going. Right away you have begun to set the tone for something different to transpire.

Arrange to have as many adults in the circle as there are campers
This changes the environment completely and totally catches campers off guard. The adults are there because they are committed and also as witnesses to help hold the group members accountable. It is also becomes useful to reference the other adults as living examples of how hard it can be to do the right thing in the face of peer pressure or other adversity. To really amplify the experience, have all the adults already be waiting for the campers at the meeting spot when they arrive.

Begin the meeting with a story or significant discussion topic
Tell a story that details the alternative path the campers might choose. Although it can be a camp related story, often times it is more powerful to share a story that represents a larger cultural mythology - such as the life of a celebrity or a theme from a popular movie. One of my favorite examples of this is to tell the life story of my childhood hero, Walter Payton, a professional football star, who always placed team first and self second and how he was respected by most as the greatest player ever because of this. After he retired, he continued to do honorable and generous things for others-even up to the last few days before his death when he made a commercial using his celebrity status to encourage people to be organ donors knowing full well it was already too late to save his own life (the viewing audience did not know this until after he died). It is a dramatic story and undeniable in the path it suggests is possible.

A significant discussion topic would be one that addresses deeper and broader influential issues then the campers are used to considering. It would be one that encompasses the behaviors they are either doing (or not yet doing), yet makes it only a part of something much bigger. It would also be one in which they all agree on the point. (See case study below.)

Have each camper share a positive story
Now, sitting in an unusual space surrounded by adults, the campers listen to what is being said and consider it from a very different place. If I've started with the Walter Payton story, I'll usually have them talk about their heroes and describe why they look up to that person. Each person speaks one at a time and sarcasm and comments are addressed immediately and directly. After the first or second interruption, the comments usually stop, and they sit and listen attentively. Sometimes, I'll have the kids each share a story of a time when someone did something very kind for them and what that felt like - or of a time when they did that for others. Depending on the theme of the meeting, it is also very powerful to have the campers tell a story about a peer of theirs who always is kind and generous with others (and who would never partake in whatever kind of behavior this group has been exhibiting!).

Discuss positive possibilities
Allow them each a few moments to answer a question like, "How would this summer be different for this group if each of you were truly living this way?" Do not spend too much time on this - just get a consensus that is positive.

Ask them for honest assessment and accountability
Begin by asking the group, "Is this the way this group has been behaving?" Then follow up immediately by asking each camper individually, "So, what have you been doing in the group that has NOT been this way?" Generally, at this point they will confess that they know they have lied or been selfish or whatever. Let them keep going individually until they have spoken aloud their role in the problem. This is NOT a time to condemn others, only to speak about themselves and their own behaviors. In the example of the hero-mythological paradigm, it is also powerful to ask them what their hero would say about their behavior, and what their hero's advice to them would most likely be.

Frame the solution realistically
This is a pivotal point in the meeting, and it is vital to handle this next step carefully and thoroughly. Include the recognition that living this different way is hard and demands a willingness to give something up. Ask the other adults in the group if indeed this has been their experience as well. This sets up a camaraderie and premise of understanding from the adults. No longer are we sitting on high - judging them - but instead become fellow seekers on the path to living a better life. We are also role models and living evidence of what is possible. It might be pertinent if several other adults want to briefly share a personal example of how they have done this in their own lives. This should NOT be a sermon or commentary, but instead should be a specific example.

Get agreement to change
Ask each camper individually what he/she would be willing to commit to changing about his/her behavior. As they speak, ask them if what they are committing to is something that is reasonable to expect of themselves. Help them to decide on answers that are reasonable and doable.

Clarify your role
Ask the campers how the adults in the group can help and support each of them as they face the challenge of behaving in this new way. Make sure that what they ask for is reasonable and realistic for you to provide. If not, work with them to find what is. It is also okay for them to ask for help from their peers, so long as their peers all agree to it as well.

Plan for mismatchers and rebels
There might still be kids who will say the right answer but do not intend on following through. At this point, it can be effective to directly make a statement recognizing that some people might still just be saying the right answer without meaning it. You might say something like: "I realize that some of you in the group might just be saying things because you think it is what we want to hear. You may not intend on actually doing it. This is lying. If so, realize that you do so knowing full well that you will damage your credibility with all of us. Realize as well, that there is still time to speak up now and be heard. You will have all of our respect if you do so . . . ."

Close with affirmation and a plan
Give them a lot of praise and affirmation for their willingness to be honest and treat this meeting and the people in it with respect. Make a plan to meet again with them at a specific time (ideally a few days later) to follow up and hear their success stories.

Follow Through

Don't be surprised to find that after the meeting there will be a significant releasing of tension. The campers will likely feel upbeat and excited. Be prepared to give them a lot of attention and to continually compliment and recognize the things they are doing well. Ask that each of the adults who were present at the meeting do the same. The follow-through is extremely vital to reinforce what was learned during the bunk meeting.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor and camp consultant, specializing in training, supporting, and counseling camp counselors and camp leaders. For questions about this article or to inquire about Leiken's staff training and camp support services, e-mail JLeiken@MentorCounselor.com or phone 415-441-8218.

Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.