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Letters From My Campers: A Counselor's Guide to Mentoring Youth
At the close of every season at a ceremony inside a large celebratory white tent, each counselor makes his or her way to the microphone to address an enthusiastic, if somewhat sad, throng of boys and girls holding tight to the waning hours of their summer at camp. What many of these staff members have only recently recognized, perhaps while voting on the award they are about to present or hastily jotting down some things to say about its recipient, are the special relationships they have forged with the youth they served.
But the kids knew it all along.
Indeed, research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) points out that young people themselves rank counselors as some of the most influential people in their lives — though the many letters from my campers that I have, over time, stuffed in an already overflowing file drawer tell a much more compelling story than do data points and pie charts.
The Camp Counselor
While accepting this job as a camp counselor may have conjured up all types of images, from sailing and swimming by day to roasting marshmallows around a campfire at night (or, for some of you, perhaps scarier scenes involving short-sheeted beds or food fights in the mess hall), rarely do they include the ones that will ultimately prevail months from now when you think back on the time spent living with, teaching, and inspiring your campers. Those images will careen around your brain like flashes in a kaleidoscope, leaving behind indelible marks of caring camaraderie and life lessons learned in the most casual of ways — a pickup game, a walk on the beach, or a bedtime talk.
Perhaps it's time for us to front load the download of feel good stories so that you, too, can appreciate the enormity of the role you are about to play and the young lives you are about to reach and likely alter for good. After all, there's no time like the present.
No doubt, your orientation schedule makes exam week look like a cakewalk. You'll likely be barraged with information about bedtimes, health checks, activity choices, safety concerns, homesickness, and communication with parents — important topics one and all, with many more to follow on Day Two. But imbued within all of these discussions should be an intractable link to the relationships — and responsibilities — that come part and parcel with the job of camp counselor.
Who You Become
Ready or not, your role this summer will transform you — making you more othercentered than you may have believed possible — and transport you to a new plane of connectedness with youthful experiences you may have only recently left behind. How you establish and maintain relationships with your campers will determine your success. And that success will be measured by your capacity to be a good leader, role model, and mentor for youth. Failure is not an option. The stakes are too high and the outcomes too important.
Indeed, research makes clear that you can play a critical role in fostering positive youth development, promoting personal resiliency, and building protective factors that make poor choices less likely.
The Counselor as Mentor
So, what do you look like in your new role as a mentor? According to more than 3,000 youth sampled for the SADD study, you are trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate, and responsible. (They also say you are a good listener and someone who offers good advice!)
Are you? Find out for yourself by checking yes or no next to those attributes listed in the chart below.
Three Steps to Becoming a Successful Mentor
While there are many paths to becoming a leader and mentor of youth, most reflect the extent to which you proactively seek to establish meaningful relationships with your campers. Here are three steps to help you succeed!
The best place to start is to know what you're getting yourself into. Ask a lot of questions. Understand the expectations the camp has for your work with the children, the protocols for communication with parents, and the parameters for acceptable personal conduct (on and off campus).
The expectations of the campers are important, too! And fortunately for us, they are generally easier (and quicker) to identify. Kids want camp to be a place at which they can:
They also want to form meaningful relationships with you!
Finally, be prepared to actually meet (or, better yet, greet) your campers. Learn a little bit about them ahead of time so when Johnny introduces himself you can say, "Oh, Johnny, you're from New York City, one of my favorite places!" Or, when Susie tells you she wants to sign up for swimming, you can offer, "I hear you did really well in the swim meet here last summer!" Demonstrating that you know something about a child sends a very clear message that you are interested and that you care.
Remember that relationship building begins when the child first arrives at camp —and so does the chance to help that child grow. Michael Pastore, author of Dynamite Counselors Don't Explode, suggests that the first moment you meet a camper is one of the most important moments of the summer. Why? Because the child will begin to immediately answer some important, unspoken questions: Do you care about me? Are you on my side? Are we going to work and play together as equal partners and best friends?
From day one, moment one — you are on duty! Construct your relationships with great care, for they will determine your success as a camp counselor.
Of course, communicating as a counselor also means giving feedback, both positive and constructively critical.
When offering feedback to your campers, always remember to focus on things that he or she can actually change (a behavior of his, for example, or the way she responds to requests from you); be direct (because of cognitive differences between kids and adults, it is often difficult for children and teens to pick up on nuances we may assume they'll understand); speak in specifics, not generalities ("It makes some of your cabin mates uncomfortable when you use bad language," instead of "The other kids are mad at you."); avoid being judgmental (focus on the behavior, not the person); and be sure to pick a time when your camper is likely to be receptive to what you have to say (when both you and she are calm, for example, or during a quiet time as opposed to pulling him away from a favorite game or activity).
According to Wikipedia, the term role model was introduced by sociologist Robert K. Merton. Merton said that individuals compare themselves to "reference groups" full of people who occupy the social role to which they themselves aspire. The term then passed into general use to mean any "person who serves as an example of a positive behavior." In short, it is quite likely that your campers will aspire to be like you – especially if you display the types of positive behavior that will bring reinforcement from other important figures in their lives, such as parents, teachers, coaches, and friends.
When I talk to our junior counselors about being a role model for younger children, I often invoke the following advice from author H. Jackson Brown:
Steven Olson, president of Generative Consulting, a leadership development organization, says that a good leader is someone who displays the qualities that make any person "good," only they do so while exhibiting the skills of leading. So, what makes a good person? He goes on to describe good people.
So … are you?? Let's hope so, because you will need to be all of those things to be a truly effective leader at camp. Find out for yourself by checking yes or no next to those attributes.
And while you're at it … try rating yourself on these other characteristics of successful leaders. 1(high) - 3(low)
You can personalize your relationships with your campers by learning and communicating about their interests, strengths, goals, concerns, and plans for the future. Moreover, you can walk with them down the path of healthy human development by helping them to achieve a positive Sense of Self, encouraging them to take positive risks, and by recognizing their important rites of passage.
Sense of Self
Taking Positive Risks
Creating opportunities for positive risk-taking can have the added benefit of decreasing the likelihood of negative risktaking. We all need to keep an eye out for kids with a propensity to take negative risks and to work hard to promote positive ones instead. More research from SADD reveals that young people who take positive risks are 20 percent more likely to avoid destructive behaviors than are those who do not. They are also more likely to describe themselves in positive terms and to say they often feel happy.
Some of the most important positive risks that young people can take are the physical, social, and emotional risks that come hand-in-hand with camp. For example, young people who challenge themselves by engaging in physical or athletic events (e.g., rock climbing, swim meets); joining in social activities with other teens (e.g., dances, skits); or opening up and sharing their feelings about their own life experiences (e.g., being away from home, conflicts with a friend) may get more out of the camp experience than those who don't.
Here are some other examples of positive risk-taking:
Recognizing Rites of Passage
While young people need, and desperately want, their parents to pay adequate attention to the "important" things (some say their parents pay too much attention to the "wrong" things), they also look to other important adults as barometers of their progress in an uncertain world. That is precisely why you as a camp counselor are uniquely empowered to satisfy at least some of the attention needs of children as they climb the ladder toward adulthood.
The data suggest that young people who receive adequate recognition at key intersections of development are more likely to have a positive Sense of Self and to take positive risks. In turn, they are then more likely to avoid drinking and other drug use.
There are three important ways in which you can help young people enjoy safe, healthy rites of passage.
Who They Become
Studies have demonstrated the powerful role of mentors (both formal ones, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and informal ones, such as camp counselors), documenting evidence of improved school work, better relationships with parents and other children, reduced acts of violence, and lower rates of alcohol and drug use.
According to the SADD study, young people who identify at least one influential, "natural" mentor in their life report that they have a higher Sense of Self and are more likely to take risks that affect their lives positively. The study also points out that the breadth and depth of mentoring —the number of mentors teens have or the range of topics they can discuss with a mentor—significantly influences decisions young people make around drinking, drug use, and sex.
What about camp kids? The data here is encouraging as well.
For example, young people who participated in camp are significantly more likely than those who have not to report being highly mentored (37 percent vs. 23 percent); taking positive risks (48 percent vs. 30 percent); and having a high Sense of Self (53 percent vs. 40 percent).
In addition, these young people are significantly less likely to say they:
In the aggregate, young people who have not spent time at a summer camp are twice as likely as those who have to report that they are Repeaters, as opposed to Avoiders, of destructive behaviors (8 percent vs. 16 percent).
Trading Heroes for Ghosts?
Many bemoan what they see today as a lack of true heroes to seed healthy physical, social, and emotional growth of children. Yet, the anecdotal and statistical evidence say otherwise. Heroes do exist—and you are, or can be, among them. Young people very much want the active involvement of caring adults and young adults in their lives and reap many significant benefits from those relationships they would be hard to quantify. Yet, some of them will no doubt find their way into the letters, e-mails, or text messages you may receive long after the last campfire, the last sunset, the last walk on the beach.
Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about SADD or the Teens Today research, visit www.sadd.org. For more information about Stephen's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com.
© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2008 All Rights Reserved
Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.