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The Development of Leadership Among Counselors-in-Training
Our society is in need of leaders for the future. The demands we have yet to face will require leaders who are flexible problemsolvers and have the ability to communicate with diverse people. Camps can assist in the development of leaders because of what is learned in camp —responsibility, independence, getting along with others, cooperation and teamwork, the willingness to try new things, awareness of the environment, and positive values — all attributes future leaders will need.
Intentional Internal Leadership Development
"Intentionality is the conscious process of designing, organizing, and using the camp's resources, as well as time and space, to promote specific aspects of positive development (Lishner and Myers 1997)." Intentionality is an important aspect of creating camp programs that enhance youth development outcomes.
Having an intentional internal leadership development program means developing a program where older campers can engage in leadership and decision-making in their camp groups and for the camp as a whole. If internal leadership development is a staffing priority, camps will hire the best because camp directors will have first-hand and longterm knowledge of the people whom they are hiring, and young staff will have intimate knowledge of the camp's physical layout, traditions, and philosophies before their first day of work (Thurber 2001). Counselor training in this conceptual model is multi-seasonal; it encompasses the years as senior camper, counselor-in-training (CIT), junior leader, and the beginning years of group leadership. Among other benefits to a program designed in this way is the strength of leadership training experiences. If new hires are already familiar with the camp, training can focus on different leadership styles or how to handle camper issues rather than on mundane matters as the layout of the camp, the schedule, and the location of the bathrooms.
Unfortunately, the research of the American Camp Association (ACA) (Youth Development Strategies, 2006a) showed that many camps do not seem to have intentional leadership development processes in place and are not successful in providing campers with opportunities for involvement, especially in leadership and decision-making. The report recommended that camps work to create new ways to involve youth. Youth involvement poses a challenge for camps and other youth organizations (Youth Development Strategies, 2006b). The most efficient way to meet the expectations of parents and campers regarding camp experiences is to tightly schedule; however, the most effective way to build leadership skills — help youth learn to make decisions, and be meaningfully involved — is to have a more flexible schedule. One recommendation of the ACA's (2006a) study was that camp professionals study the experiences of older campers and of junior leaders.
During the summer of 2007, Blue Rill Day Camp conducted a study of thirty CITs to determine the extent to which their leadership skills and affinities were enhanced as a result of their participation in the CIT program.
Each fifteen-year-old CIT at Blue Rill Day Camp is assigned to work with a single group for the summer. The CIT becomes, then, a part of the staff structure of the group, usually with a counselor and a junior counselor (who is sixteen to seventeen years old). Blue Rill's CIT program is designed such that each CIT is mentored by the counselor, and, in turn, mentors the children with whom he or she works. The group counselors at Blue Rill who are mentors to CITs range from eighteen-year-old recent high-school graduates to adults with children of their own and careers in education.
During pre-camp orientation and again during the last week of the eight-week summer program, the CITs completed the Leadership Skills Inventory (Karnes and Chauvin 2000), which is, to date, the only leadership questionnaire designed for youth and children. This allowed for a pre/ post measure of leadership skill.
Qualitative interviews were held with seventeen CITs during the summer and with thirteen CITs in January and February, 2008. These interviews and a review of the CITs' written evaluations provided an understanding of leadership development and the extent to which the leadership skills and affinities learned at camp transferred to other environments where teenagers are engaged.
The CITs enjoyed the summer. Noah (this and all other names are pseudonyms) said, "You still get to play, and you still get to be with the kids and then you have people look up to you, which is great . . . . You get the joy of seeing that you really were able to help out a kid . . . and have fun."
Leadership skills and affinities increased for the CITs as a result of their experiences. Eliot noted, "It is harder to be a leader than it is to follow" because "leaders have a lot more responsibilities than followers do. . . . A leader has to make decisions for the entire group," while followers only need to listen to their leaders.
One of the most important findings was the extent to which the CITs valued the "realness" of the CIT experience. They recognized that the learning they were doing in camp differed from the abstract learning of school. The CITs' actions and decisions had real impact for themselves and for the children in their groups. They took control of the group; they impacted the lives of individual children by teaching them new skills in the pool or on athletic fields; they provided a watchful eye concerning the safety and well-being of campers; they mediated disputes; and they helped children make friends.
For most of the CITs, the summer's experience was the first time they had a job. They learned to be responsible and to work with others. They learned to divide the labor fairly among the staff in the group.
The CITs learned strategies and skills for managing and controlling a group of children. They learned to establish routines and encourage participation and to change their tone of voice, word choice, and body language so that children would pay attention and follow directions. The CITs learned to manage transition times and movement from one activity to the next. For Molly, this newfound ability to control a group changed the way in which she viewed herself: "I'm a shy person, so, when I have the ability to actually speak up and have people listen to me . . . I like it a lot."
Russell found, "Just, like, telling people that they have to do this, they have to do that . . . because I'm in charge now . . . [has] a good feeling to it. . . . It was certainly different from what I'm used to." The CITs learned that successfully managing the children in the group allowed them to avoid the situations where conflicts might arise.
The CITs learned to communicate with children. "If you yell at them," Leah said, "they won't have any respect for you, and you'll have to talk to them in a calmer way and show them that you can be their friend, but still, you know who is in charge." The CITs discovered that the more effective they were at communicating with campers, the more likely they were to connect with children and build meaningful relationships with them. Because of these relationships, the CITs were trusted by the campers and were able to assist campers in learning skills, making friends, changing negative behaviors, and getting along with the group.
"Being a leader," Jared said, "means doing what should be done for the people that you're leading, even if it's not in your best interest, but in the best interest of the people that you're leading." Putting the needs of others before one's own was a significant skill for teenage counselorsin-training. They also learned the value of being physically and emotionally present for campers and of enthusiastically participating in campers' activities. They learned strategies for motivating and encouraging the children in their care to try new things and achieve their own goals (such as passing the deep-water test in the pool).
Rainy days at camp, days when the humidity was extremely high, and occasions where campers seemed to need the bathroom over and over again were times where CITs had to work harder to exude a positive attitude. However, the CITs understood that their positive attitude would be the catalyst that would help campers be positive. Lisa wrote about choosing her attitude on one such day, "It was a rainy, freezing cold day. For a while we were stuck in the bunk. Instead of being mad, I put a smile on, which made all my girls forget the rain, too." The CITs learned that their actions and attitudes were models for camper actions and attitudes. "Sometimes," Rebecca said, "if some of them don't want to do a sport, I'll play with them so they're looking up to me, then, they might want to play, too."
Transference of Leadership
CITs saw a direct relationship between the skills and attitudes they gained in camp and the skills and attitudes they were using during the school year. They were more self-confident and responsible, managed time and stress more effectively, and were more positive. They took initiative in areas where they otherwise would not have and became more empathic and more effective communicators. These teenagers were more likely to be role models for peers and children and were better able to resolve conflicts. Job skills and skills for teaching and working with children also transferred to the months after camp.
Working with young children can be very stressful. One outcome of the CIT experience was the increased ability to handle the pressure of having responsibilities and to stay organized so that situations did not become overwhelming. Emily said that, as a CIT, "so many new things came my way, and I knew how to deal with them." The experience "made me realize that I need to take things into my own hands."
Many of the CITs babysat in the months after camp, and others continued to teach and work with groups of children. Molly, for example, took a part-time job as a ski instructor. She said she would not have thought to do this if she hadn't been a CIT. Noah transferred his teaching skills from camp to his work as a karate instructor. He learned to motivate and encourage children and to have a positive attitude. Leah began to work with autistic children in a program offered at her high school. She transferred her learning about group management, enthusiasm, and positive attitude to this new environment.
After their experience as CITs, these teenagers were more likely, they said, to take initiative. This was true for the athletic teams on which they played, in their classrooms, in relationships with their friends, and in the extra-curricular activities in which they participated.
After their experience working with children and adults with diverse needs and interests, the CITs were more likely to be patient and understanding with children, with their peers, and with adults. Eliot became "able to understand more sides of the story than before." This developed in camp, Eliot said, "When I was trying to understand a kid's perspective — to get in the mind of a six-year-old — I would have more of an insight of another person now than I did before." After his summer's experience, Eliot handled conflicts with friends, parents, and siblings.
Adam's ability to relate to people changed because he was a CIT. He learned the value of knowing his followers as individuals:
I think I'm able to connect with the people I lead on a more personal level now, whereas before, I just basically viewed . . . everybody who I would lead as the same . . . . But, now, I think that my role goes beyond leading them. It's relating to them . . . . It changed the way I view the people I lead as individual people with a wealth of different personality traits and likes and dislikes and things like that.
Adam changed in the way that he related to his peers. For a class project, he was paired with a classmate who was not as serious about school and who had a much lower "academic status." Adam said, "It would have been easy for me to look down to that person, but instead, I really tried to just relate to him without looking down on him." Adam found ways to respect this individual and motivated him by delegating some of the responsibility for the project to him. Much like it would have been easy for Adam to look down on this classmate, it would have been easy, he said, to look down on the young children with whom he worked. But, Adam learned as a CIT, leaders "have to give respect to get it."
The CITs also learned to communicate more effectively and more assertively. Eliot and Noah said they expressed their point of view about drinking and drugs and convinced their friends to avoid parties where these activities would be occurring. Because Hayley had to approach the adults who worked, for example, in the camp office, she was able to assert herself in other situations where she might have been intimidated. She said, "I know that if . . . you're just polite, people will want to help you, and they're not going to turn you down."
The CITs spoke about themselves as leaders in the future and about their potential as leaders in business and as parents. Some also spoke of their increased belief that they can be leaders of children as coaches and teachers.
For camps, an intentional internal leadership development program is an outcomebased mindset that has camps planning for the development of leaders. A leadership program should begin in the camper years and continue through the CIT program and the beginning years of group leadership. Staff training should be conceived of as a multi-seasonal enterprise. The more buy-in to the camp's philosophy and culture that can be achieved among campers, the more former campers will want to become part of the staff. One strength, in this regard, of Blue Rill's program is that there is a place in camp for people at every stage of life. There never comes a time when a child is too old to be a camper and too young to be a staff member and, therefore, must choose a different summer activity. Camps where this situation occurs miss out on much of the opportunity to develop their own leaders.
However, simply having a place for people at every stage is not sufficient to get them to return. The entire camp program must be strong enough to encourage children to stay in camp summer after summer. The program should be graduated so that each summer campers are participating in new activities and experiencing new challenges.
Intentional leadership development should involve clear, public rites of passage that communicate to participants that becoming a CIT and becoming a member of the camp staff are significant life events. It is an honor to be part of the leadership training program and an honor to be permitted to work for camp. The separation between camper and staff must be clear and communicated by the camp.
A great deal of care must be taken in hiring staff who understand and value the role they play in developing future leaders. Supportive relationships between CITs and mentors contributed greatly to their success in developing leadership. The interview and selection process and the planning of orientation should have these as significant components. Every adult in camp can mentor a young person. With the understanding that they are role models and mentors to others, counselor staff will be aware of their own behaviors and watchful for the learning of others.
Hiring counselors committed to the philosophy of the camp and the vision of developing leadership makes the entire camp stronger. Strong counselor role models should be placed with the oldest campers. It is hoped that, throughout the camp experience, and especially in the senior camper years, that campers admire and respect their counselors to such an extent that they will want to one day be counselors themselves. Camp directors should take care to match CITs with staff who are committed to the development of young leaders.
Senior campers and CITs must have the opportunity to make real decisions with real impact on themselves, on the camp, and on other children. Enough flexibility and choice should be built into the schedule so that these campers can find ways to be creative, to take initiative, and to contribute to the camp. Mistakes made in the attempt to take initiative must be celebrated as learning experiences, rather than corrected by senior staff. It might also be appropriate for campers to have a hand in developing norms of behavior or codes of conduct for the group and for the camp.
Campers can also contribute in concrete and meaningful ways by painting murals, creating group plaques or banners that become a permanent part of camp, and having a voice in planning their own activities. They should teach songs, dances, and cheers to younger campers or address camp assemblies. Older campers should assist younger campers at certain times during the camp day, such as lunch time or the beginning or end of the day. Older campers interacting with younger campers allows them to pass on camp's traditions and values.
Leadership training in camp should be framed such that young leaders have the chance to practice leadership skill knowledge and talents in meaningful and authentic ways (MacNeil 2006). CITs, also, must be trained to recognize and understand their positions as role models and mentors to younger children. For many, this is the first time they will be in such a position. They need to learn skills for group management and control and camper discipline and for teaching children new skills and encouraging them to try new things. Because teenagers aren't always aware of their own learning (Fertman and van Linden 1999), training for CITs must include opportunities for reflection so that CITs will recognize their own growth.
Fertman, C. I. and van Linden, J. A. (1999). Character education for developing youth leadership. NAASP Bulletin, 83, 11-16.
Karnes, F. A. and Chauvin, J. C. (2000). Leadership Skills Inventory. Gifted Psychology Press, Inc.
Lishner, K. and Myers, J. (1997). Building selfesteem through the camp experience. Camping Magazine, 70(1), 35-38.
MacNeil, C. A. (2006). Bridging generations: Applying "adult" leadership theories to youth leadership development. New Directions for Youth Development, 109, 27-43.
Thurber, C. A. (2001). Internal leadership development. Camping Magazine, 74(6), 24-29.
Youth Development Strategies. (2006a). Inspirations: Developmental Supports and Opportunities of Youths' Experiences at Camp. American Camp Association.
Youth Development Strategies. (2006b). Innovations: Improving Youth Experiences in Summer Programs. American Camp Association.
David I. Katz, Ed.D., is the program director at Blue Rill Day Camp and, in the off-season, a middle school teacher in Bronxville, New York. Katz earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Fordham University in 2008. This article is a summary of the research he completed for his dissertation. Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.