In the Trenches: Reflecting and Learning

Bob Ditter

People in medical professions call it a “post mortem” — an unfortunate term that literally means “after death.” People in human services and professional development call it “debriefing,” while the rest of us call it “learning from our past.” Whatever you call it, there can be great value in reflecting on the summer and thinking about how what you have just experienced might inform your work with parents, staff, and campers in the coming year. While many camps and most conference centers have engagements well into the fall “shoulder season,” the most intense work occurs for most camps during the high season of summer. Taking time to reflect on summer experiences while they are still fresh in your mind can provide some rich material for next summer’s training and steer you toward better ways of training and operating.

SCDC: Save, Change, Delete, Create

When you look back on orientation, your program, some of the behavioral challenges that emerged, conversations you had with parents, or even the way you went about your hiring, what do you want to save and do again next year? What might you keep, but change, and what do you want to delete altogether? Finally, what do you want to create to address a problem or detail that was not covered as well as you would have liked? Make a grid with five rows, one each for staff issues, camper situations, parent issues, program, and operations. Make four columns across the top, one each for save, change, delete, and create. You now have a systematic way of reviewing the summer and getting the most out of your immediate past experience. For example, perhaps your camp just learned about a game played extensively at camps in the Northeast called “ga ga,” or the game of noodle hockey or garbage ball. If it was a success with certain kids, make a note to “save” it, or even expand (“change”) it, in your program for next year. By creating this grid, you can send it to your senior staff or even other trusted staff members and widen your review of this last summer.

I myself visited a number of camps from May to late August. I am going to share with you some notes of my own experiences at camp that may be helpful to you in your work with staff, parents, and campers.

Staff

I have three notes about staff. The first is something I have known for years but had reinforced this summer. When staff find out about an activity or details of a program change at the same time the campers are finding out, it can have a serious negative impact on the morale of the staff. The reason is simple: when staff cannot answer campers’ questions because they didn’t get prior notice, the staff feels ignorant and embarrassed in front of the kids. This is true for all camps, but I had an especially powerful experience at America’s Camp in mid-August that reinforced this basic truth. As many camp professionals know, America’s Camp was formed by several directors of camps that are part of CampGroup to serve children who lost a parent in the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. This summer was its final year of operation, and as a way of preserving the camp’s experience, a Memory Hall was designed and built at the site of the camp. Lovingly designed and built, the hall contained many artifacts from the ten-year history of the camp, including a piece of an iron I-beam from one of the towers. It was a powerful collection of images, and the staff was scheduled to go through the hall with their campers one cabin at a time. As soon as I saw this powerful array of images and artifacts I knew the staff had to see the hall before they went through with their campers. Otherwise, the staff would have had no time to assess their own reactions to the images and therefore be better able to be “present” for the campers when they did go through together.

Another point with staff has to do with hiring and firing. Whenever there is a change in staffing, the entire staff should be notified about those changes. This is especially true when a staff member is let go for some reason. Many directors sneak fired counselors out of camp as a way of minimizing the impact of their departure without ever mentioning it to the general staff. This is a morale killer. My experience says that it is far better to have a brief meeting with staff and make the announcement in simple, direct terms. This can easily happen all at once or in groups, whichever is more manageable for your particular operation. If a staff member has been let go for a sensitive reason, the director can simply say that the counselor broke a specific camp rule or protocol and that you are not at liberty to discuss the details (as a way of protecting innocent people’s privacy). More often than not, staff appreciate being taken into your confidence. Waking up or arriving at camp to find one of your peers missing with no explanation is simply unprofessional and plain not smart!

Another note about staff involves referrals for new staff. A high perform¬ing staff member with a proven track record at your camp is probably the single best source for new counselors. Loyal, high performing staff members develop a sense of caring and attachment to your camp. They know who will “fit in” to the culture and values of camp and who won’t. I have consistently witnessed referred staff to be among the best performers of the summer. If you are not “farming” your current staff for referrals in this way, you should begin doing so.

Behavior Management

This summer, I once again had the chance to see the fundamentals of managing behavior at work. One of the most common mistakes counselors continue to make with campers is they threaten to take away privileges as a desperate attempt to gain some control over their campers. In most cases, taking things away from campers causes them to resent their counselors. Doing so may even harden a camper’s feelings toward a counselor, poisoning the relationship for the remainder of the session. It is better to reward campers for good behavior than threaten your way to control. When counselors threaten to take things away from campers, they are also showing you that they need more practical help with discipline.

One example has to do with bedtime at sleepaway camp. A group of counselors approached me this summer wondering how they could get their campers to cooperate around bedtime. I suggested that most campers love flashlight time, since it allows them to stay up a bit longer after “lights out.” I told the counselors that they should make sure every camper has his or her name on their flashlight, and then to collect them each morning. That way you “earn” your flashlight “rights” when you are totally ready for and in bed. The counselors reported a significant improvement in bedtime routines when this simple procedure was put in place!

Another maxim of behavior management is to plan ahead. Trying to deal with known problematic behavior at the “scene of the crime” is too late. An example is with picky eaters. Trying to negotiate what a child will eat while in the dining hall is often counter-productive because once you are there, the child freezes and you encounter more resistance. Make a plan about food choices before you head off to a meal and make sure you know what some of the fundamental choices will be ahead of time.

A third principle of behavior management has to do with behavior substitution. To help a camper change an unwanted or unacceptable behavior, you need to give him or her something else to do in its place. Otherwise, even with all the best intentions, the child will eventually revert back to her old ways. For example, take the boy at a camp in California who was having severe, sudden temper outbursts. When the staff finally would calm him down, they would tell him how “not okay” his behavior was and how he needed to change if he wanted to stay at camp. At times, the boy would be remorseful and would promise not to do it again, but sometimes within minutes, he would be having another outburst. What the counselors did not do was give the boy an alternative to having an outburst. Once we came up with a substitution, he began to change. In the case of this particular boy, I suggested that the counselors tell him that it was okay to feel angry but not do angry things. Instead of getting into trouble by swearing, yelling, kicking, or even hitting, the boy was instructed to go to his “safe” counselor (which was determined well before the game or activity) and complain to that hand-picked counselor. Then, if he could either cool off by interacting with his “safe” counselor or take a brief “time-out,” he not only was allowed to stay in the game or activity, but he earned a “star” or point. When he was able to control his behavior this way five times, he “earned” a chance to do a favorite activity. (For this boy, it was tubing).

In another case a camper’s behavior was “redirected.” A girl who had the annoying habit of making noises at night that kept her bunk mates up was told many times to stop. Only after giving her a “job” at night of either choosing a few songs the girls could all sing quietly together in their bunks or picking a story that could be read to them all did she begin to comply.

A boy who wandered away from his group at day camp (or who was always far behind) was given the “job” of carrying the counselor’s clipboard if he could keep up or be first. (He also got to be the leader of the line). When, after a few successes, the other boys began to complain that they wanted to carry the clipboard or be first in line, the boy was given the “job” of choosing (with the help of the counselor) the next “clipboard carrier.” In order to have this coveted job, he once again had to stay with the group.

One last idea is the “quiet time” activity area for campers who often need a respite from the bustle of the day in order to maintain good self-control. I find that many campers, especially campers identified as having ADHD, need an occasional period where they sit and draw and listen to music or play “smart games,” such as Rush Hour, Hoppers, or LEGOS. Having this time to lower their level of stimulation and regain a sense of self-control can help a camper manage the day more successfully. The key is helping staff identify when a camper might need quiet time (it should be offered as a choice) before getting to the point where the camper is over-stimulated and out of control.

In a camp setting, given the limitations of time and resources, our best approach is to manage behavior rather than try to change it. The advantage of the methods I have just outlined is they return control of behavior to the child while giving counselors something to do besides getting frustrated.

Another such example had to do with campers’ language. At a camp in New York where inappropriate language was an issue with a particular group, the counselor set up a kind of chart where each day the boys started with fifty points. For every “swear” anyone made, they lost five points. If they made it through the day without one incident of swearing, they earned a bonus of ten points. Their goal was to reach 300 points, whereupon they would get to have a special pool party for their group.

These are but a few examples of lessons from summer. Please share yours with me (bobditter@gmail.com) as we can all learn from one another. Together we make camp not only fun, but a formidable force in each camper’s growth and development.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.

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