The Impact of Counselor Training on New and Returning Camp Counselors

by Jamie Baldwin, Mat D. Duerden, and Peter A. Witt, Texas A&M University

Introduction

To be successful, camps must provide counselors training designed to help them fulfill their responsibilities in a manner aligned with stated camp goals. Camp directors must ensure that staff are properly trained to supervise campers, offer camp activities, and adhere to camp policies and practices. Cronin (2006) reminds camp directors that "the effectiveness of [their] program hinges on [the] staff 's ability to interpret [their] directions" (p. 2). Cronin goes on to say that the world we live in is constantly changing and what worked in terms of methods and procedures last year may not be effective this year. These yearly changes in attitudes, knowledge, or skills mean that veteran counselors need training just as much as new staff members. "With a very short time to prepare counselors, specialists, and unit leaders, the camp industry will collectively entrust young adults with the unbelievable responsibility of nurturing campers through challenging experiences" (Cronin, p. 1). With these concerns in mind, we conducted a study to determine the impact of camp training on new and experienced counselors' abilities to develop the attitudes, skills, and behaviors necessary for them to effectively undertake their assigned duties at camp. While veteran counselors may have considerable knowledge about how to undertake their jobs, new counselors should be expected to "catch up" with the veterans as a result of pre-service training.

Methods

The study was conducted at a Christian sports camp in the Midwest. The camp serves thirteen- to fourteen-year-old campers and employs approximately sixty-five counselors. The camp holds a mandatory, two-week pre-training session for counselors called "workweek," where counselors learn what is expected of them at camp, as well as the different rules and expected camper outcomes (e.g., building trust and leadership qualities). During workweek, counselors also prepare the camp for the campers' arrival.

Survey Instruments
The survey instrument was developed after consulting with one of the assistant camp directors. In addition, the camp's mission statement was reviewed to determine camp goals and related training needs. The mission statement read: "To build leaders by encouraging, equipping, and empowering urban youth and their mentors through Christian sports camping." At the end of workweek, counselors received a retrospective pre-test survey to determine the impact of the workweek training. Survey questions primarily focused on building leaders, encouraging campers, and empowering youth. For each of the sixteen survey items, counselors were asked to assess their abilities before and after workweek. Items were rated on a ten-point Likert-type scale (1 = disagree a lot to 10 = agree a lot). In addition, counselors were asked to provide information about prior work experience at this or other camps, as well as suggestions for improving workweek.

The retrospective pre-and post-test method was chosen because it helps counselors have a frame of reference when indicating their knowledge at the end of the workweek sessions (Pratt, McGuigan, & Katzev, 2000; Sibthorp, Paisley, Gookin, & Ward, 2007). In other words, if a regular survey has been given before workweek, a staff member might assume she had a lot of knowledge in a given area (e.g., 9), but learn over the course of Jamie Baldwin, Mat D. Duerden, and Peter A. Witt, Texas A&M University workweek that her initial knowledge was, in fact, poor (e.g., 5). In addition, on a traditional post-workweek survey, the counselor might have indicated that they now had considerable knowledge in a given area (e.g., 9). The traditional comparison between surveys administered before and after workweek would have been between a pre-test score of 9 and a post-workweek score of 9. With the retrospective approach, when both a pre-workweek score and a post-workweek score are gathered simultaneously, the comparison would be between a preworkweek score of 5 and a post-workweek score of 9: a considerable improvement.

Results

A total of forty camp staff completed the survey. Table 1 includes results of the means for the before and after workweek scores for each survey item, along with the average change in scores from before to after workweek. Items are listed from those showing the greatest to least amount of change. Mean changes ranged from 2.87 for "I understand the camp standards as addressed in the playbook" to 1.15 for "I understand the importance of praising campers when they do well." The three items showing the least change had the highest pre-test scores. All sixteen items experienced significant pre to post changes.

Of the forty respondents, twenty-two (55 percent) reported previous camp experience and eighteen (45 percent) reported no previous experience. To determine if there were differences in before and after workweek responses between veteran counselors and first time counselors, a repeated measure ANOVA was conducted for each item. For all items, veteran counselors began workweek with a higher level of understanding of camp concepts and expectancies than newcomers. However, by the end of workweek, counselors without prior experience reported approximately the same level of understanding as those with prior experience on a number of the items. In other words, while the veteran and new counselor started from a different point of knowledge, the knowledge levels were at similar planes by the time the workweek was over. This was particularly true for three of the items (p ≤ .05; Figures 1, 2, and 3):

  • I understand how to build camper self-esteem
  • I have confidence in my ability to handle conflict between campers
  • I understand what is expected of counselors at camp

In addition, the interaction effect for four other items approached significance (p ≤ .10):

  • I have the skills necessary to provide a safe camp environment (p = .06)
  • I understand how to help campers develop their leadership skills (p = .07)
  • I understand the importance of my being a role model for the campers that I work with (p = .09)
  • I understand camp standards as addressed in the playbook (p = .06)

Conclusions, Discussion, and Implications

The pre- and post-workweek training scores were significantly different for each of the sixteen survey items. In addition, while veteran counselors and newcomers started out at different levels of understanding of camp expectations, in general, they ended their training with similar levels of competence. Thus, the workweek training appears to be intentional and adequate for the purposes of preparing counselors for camp regardless of previous levels of experience. The general success of the workweek training program examined by this study may provide useful ideas for other camps. Additionally, the results suggest the potential value of using veteran staff to help train those who are new to a camp by having them act as senior counselors during the training week. At this particular workweek, it appeared that this arrangement gave other staff a chance to catch up with veteran staffs' understanding of camp expectations.

References
Cronin, G. (2006). Mission impossible: Staff orientation at warp speed. Camping Magazine, 79(3), 1-5. Pratt, C. C., McGuigan, W. M., & Katzev, A. R. (2000). Measuring program outcomes: Using retrospective pretest methodology. American Journal of Evaluation, 21(3), 341-350. Sibthorp, J., Paisley, K., Gookin, J., & Ward, P. (2007). Addressing response-shift bias: Retrospective pretests in recreation research and evaluation. Journal of Leisure Research, 39(2), 295-315.

Jamie Baldwin received her master's degree in the Recreation, Park and Sciences program at Texas A&M University; Mat Duerden is an assistant professor — extension specialist; and Peter A. Witt is a professor and the Bradberry Recreation and Youth Development chair in the same department. All correspondence should be addressed to: Dr. Mat Duerden, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences, Texas A&M University, 2261 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-2261. E-mail: duerden@tamu.edu.

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