In the Trenches: A Counselor’s Good Judgment

Bob Ditter

Camp directors: Please share this column with your staff. During the camp season it's more important than ever for them to read this.

Taking care of other people's children, as you do at camp, is a formidable responsibility. Parents, who are more skeptical than ever about entrusting their children to the care of other adults, are counting on you to take that assignment seriously. One aspect of the job every counselor must master is learning to balance fun with safety. There are many times when you as a staff person must make judgment calls that are going to affect the well-being of your campers. The call you make can be the difference between someone getting hurt and everyone having a great time and staying healthy. Having good judgment is critical to maintaining the safety of your group, both physically and emotionally.

Acquiring a good sense of judgment takes time and experience. It is not something you can learn from a book or pick up from a lecture. Counselor judgment is also something over which many camp directors lose sleep, because their reputations and the reputation of camp rests on your ability to make sound judgment calls. Indeed, some of the situations you face at camp take place during off-camp trips or happen out of the range of your supervisors. What hangs in the balance is that every camper should be safe and feel safe! That is why it is important to have some guidelines to help you make sound judgment calls on your own. The checklist to the right is designed to help you do just that.

One of the more difficult aspects of judgment is the nature of our brains. When our excitement causes us to act impulsively, the front part of our brain — the part that thinks things through and considers the consequences of our actions — takes a little time to assert itself. Depending on the situation, this can either lead to a great spontaneous moment or a tragic incident that comes with years of regret. Having an easy-to-remember set of questions may help you make decisions that allow for fun while maintaining an environment with your campers that is physically and emotionally safe.

If you pause before making a decision that affects your campers and run through the Counselor Judgment Checklist, it can help you make a call that is healthiest for you and your group. If having five questions is too many, pick one or two from the list that resonate most with you. If you are someone who tends not to pause (meaning you are a little impulsive), make it a habit to work side by side with a trusted colleague who can help you keep your impulses from getting the best of you.

In addition to having some guidelines for making good judgment calls, there are some realities of working with children that all counselors should know because they can also affect camp safety. When it comes to camper behavior, the three most important things to know are as follows:

  1. The tendency for campers (and, sometimes, counselors!) to become overstimulated.
  2. The effect campers can have on us as adults, known as regressive pull.
  3. The situation some people call "player-umpire."

Becoming Overstimulated

Overstimulation occurs when children become so caught up in the excitement of the moment that they get swept away by their feelings and lose perspective or even self-control. Activities that are highly stimulating, like mud sliding, water fights, splashing in the pool, wrestling, going on an organized "raid," and so on, while fun, can cause children to do things that can lead to chaos. Once children become overstimulated, it is very difficult to calm them down. For one thing, children may think your pleas for order are just another part of the game. Furthermore, when campers are too excited, they have a hard time seeing what harm might come as a consequence of their behavior. Because highly stimulating activities are also attractive to counselors and campers alike, and because children often beg counselors to let them engage in such activities, counselors can end up making a judgment call based on doing what is popular and not necessarily on what is safe. Remember, you are the adult! The only person keeping an eye on safety — physical or otherwise — is you, the counselor!

This does not mean that camp should be devoid of things like snowball fights in July or mud sliding on rainy days. It does mean, however, that engaging in activities like these must be done with careful planning and supervision. As a counselor overseeing an activity that is particularly stimulating, you must take special care to look for signs that the children are not becoming so agitated or excited that they are beginning to lose their own sense of judgment and fair play. If you do see indications that things are escalating or that the risk taking is becoming dangerous, the sooner you intercede to cool things off, the easier it will be to keep things within safe bounds. Indeed, knowing when to intercede is itself a judgment call, and too many counselors make the mistake of waiting too long to slow down the pace of a game or activity, only to have someone get hurt or injured.

Regressive Pull

The second concept, regressive pull, is when adults spend so much time with children that they begin to look and act just like the kids. That is, we become more impulsive, more easily excited, more sarcastic in our verbal interactions, and more easily ruled by our feelings. In other words, adults can become overstimulated, too! Once we regress we can lose our perspective and lose track of possible consequences, either of which can result in poor judgment calls.

Regressive pull is a natural phenomenon. However, there are several things that you as a counselor can do to minimize its effects. Being well rested, getting away from your campers from time to time, maintaining private outlets for your emotional and psychological needs, and developing working partnerships with fellow staff members are examples of the kinds of things you can do maintain your equilibrium.

Player-Umpire

Player-umpire refers to the conflict inherent in playing or taking part in a game while supervising it at the same time. When you, as a staff member, participate in the game yourself, your ability to keep a watchful eye on your campers is compromised. As a result, you may miss important safety considerations, or you may forget to take steps to avoid accidents or mishaps that you normally would take were you watching from the sidelines. Obviously, campers often love it when counselors play with them; but as Department of Public Health officials in both New York and California have pointed out to me, most accidents at camp happen when counselors get so involved in a game that they drop their duties as good supervisors of children. Playing a game can never be at the expense of good supervision, keen observation, and sound judgment. When a lifeguard is in the water splashing and swimming, he or she does not have the vantage point or perspective he or she would have were he or she in his or her lifeguard chair or standing on a float or pool deck keeping an eye on the children. If you get so absorbed while playing a game that you let go of your responsibility to monitor the group and maintain emotional and physical safety, you are risking the safety or yourself and the campers.

This does not mean that counselors cannot have fun and join in with children. As I have mentioned before, campers love it when adults play with them. However, whenever you play with campers you must remember that you are not playing at the same level you would be with peers. You must learn to participate with a reserve and restraint that allows you to keep an eye on how the children are doing and not so much on how the game is going. You may also want to establish a kind of "tag team" with other staff members where you each take a turn playing while others supervise.

As staff, you want to have as fun and trouble-free a summer as possible. There is no fun in the guilt or anxiety you will ultimately experience if you make a judgment call that results in anyone getting hurt. Using the checklist provided on page 6 and following the advice about balancing your work will help you have a healthy, happy summer and will provide your campers with the envelop of safety they need to thrive.

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. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

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