Staff Training Best Practices: Targeting Attitude

by Randall Grayson, Ph.D.

We all want to train staff so that they have the ability to be instrumental in the lives of campers — so that they can enact the mission and help realize the vision. We want to have an exceptional staff training that meets or exceeds current “best practice.”

The truth is all camps have elements of training best practices. “Best” is always a moving target, but for present purposes, “best practice” simply means that it is a consensus held by numerous experts in diverse fields verified by rigorous evaluative efforts. The goal of this article is to provide a description of a few best practices, which you can use as a checklist against what you already do.

One for All and All for One

Knowledge. Attitude. Behavior. These are the three keys to best-practice training. Knowledge is the information that makes it into the student's head in a way that he or she can really use it. It's the book learning. It's being able to pass an excellent paper and pencil test. Attitude means that your heart and will — the firm desire to do something — are in place. Behavior refers to the student's actual ability to do the skill. It is practicing something to the point where you own it. For example, a surgeon has the knowledge gained from years of study in medical school and, hopefully, the attitude to practice and do her best, but without sufficient practice (behavior-residency), I wouldn't want to go under her knife.

Orientation and ongoing training need to proportionately focus on the knowledge, attitude, and behavioral components of any given skill, because when any component is lacking, it is unlikely that the skill will be performed, or performed well. When that happens, it means you aren't achieving your goals for the campers. One of the key components of staff training is attitude.

What is it?
When ideas are internalized, there is a constant striving towards a goal through specific behaviors. People care and it shows. However, attitude isn't a “you have it or you don't” kind of thing — attitude strength varies. For example, people have different degrees of attitude strength regarding appropriate TV use, organic foods, and abortion. For an attitude to translate into behavior (especially consistently), it must be very strong!

It's important, but is it that important?
Having sufficient attitude strength is as important as it is difficult to obtain. For example, America is the most overweight, workaholic, industrialized country in the world, despite knowing what a healthy lifestyle is. Other examples include speeding, recycling, and high-risk HIV candidates who know how the disease is transmitted, yet still contract it. Religious people can understand the Ten Commandments and frequently fail to live up to them. Parents who love their children can receive parenting education and fail to use that knowledge. Most children (and adults) know they should use television and media in moderation, and yet the national average for children is forty hours per week! Seat belt use is around 68 percent in the country.

Closer to home, in the 2001 American Camping Association (ACA) elections, only 27 percent of the members voted. For President of the United States, the average is around 50 percent. The membership of the ACA, people who espouse community values and civic duty to their campers and staff, should be even more likely to vote. They aren't. Knowing something isn't enough. There must be sufficient attitude behind that knowledge for it to transfer into behavior.

Clearly, what should pass for sufficient attitude for change or action often falls short of the mark. Attitude comes at a price more precious than gold or saffron. Following is a brief checklist you can use to try and boost the likelihood that what your staff knows will result in behavior.

Enhancing Attitude

Preach to the choir
Of course, the best strategy is to hire staff who already have their hearts, souls, values, and goals invested in giving kids a world of good — staff who truly want to change lives and enrich the world. If you're not preaching to the choir, or the uncommitted (those without any strong belief/attitude on the topic), shaping or changing attitudes is a Herculean task not likely to be accomplished during orientation. You could have the best, most effective orientation of any camp in the country, but if it falls on staff who don't really, truly care, it's unlikely they will remember or use the information/knowledge well. By using good interviewing skills and questions, the attitudes of potential counselors can often be successfully tapped. Finding truly committed staff is a challenge, but the advice and help are there in current and past articles of this magazine and in scores of books. Also, Bob Ditter (see his regular column in Camping Magazine for contact information) has been doing excellent work in this area.

Attitude subversion
It is possible for attitude to subvert knowledge. Because staff often have to learn how to interact with children in a different way from their default style learned through experience, it is helpful to try and hire staff who are open and flexible enough to change. Beware of counselors who claim they already know everything because they have been babysitting for years, are a sophomore in the education program, a senior in the psychology program, or were at camp last year.

Opening the minds of staff can be done in many ways, which are detailed in books, such as Training Terrific Staff by Michael Brandwein and the full version of this chapter (see footnote). One powerful method is to have staff learn material in small groups who need to be taught to everyone, and then have them teach that knowledge to everyone. In this manner, each small group knows something different and must teach it to everyone. This cooperative education method works on several levels:

  • we truly know something when we have to teach it to others,
  • staff are more likely to listen when it comes from peers,
  • the small groups usually come up with very entertaining ways to get the knowledge across, and
  • returning staff is involved.

This works especially well when people, who will eventually make up a cabin group, are placed in different learning groups. Also, make sure you have a member of the administration as part of every group.

Using the power of story
People are almost never fundamentally changed for the long-term through passive lectures and large group activities, no matter how inspirational and powerful. Large group discussions and sales pitches (heartfelt, enthusiastic, or both) are rarely successful. If these approaches worked, church services, television evangelism, large self-help seminars, and some movies would have more of an impact. When they work, they tend to influence those who were already “there” (or largely there) attitudinally. They are useful for fostering and building momentum for those already moving in something close to the right direction.

Recognizing the limitations in changing attitudes, it is still important to build attitude strength. Try using the power of stories. Read the staff letters you have from parents who told you how meaningful the experience was for their child. Better yet, have a parent come in and tell the staff in person. Tell them stories about how you've seen children changed by the camp experience. Have past staff get up and tell their peers about their experiences (or read past letters to that effect). If you have staff who were campers, have them talk about their experiences. And, very importantly, make sure the director explains why she/he is willing to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for three months and endure all the hardships! Sprinkle stories generously throughout the summer, and not just during orientation.

Remove structural barriers
Make it easy to practice what one believes by removing structural barriers. When people are under any significant stress (long hours, sleep deprivation, personal needs not met, time crunch, bad mood, crisis or overwhelming situations, situation overload and loss of perspective, etc.), they tend to resort to experience as opposed to knowledge. They lose their perspective, abilities, and become flustered. Technically, it's called Cognitive Resource Theory, and the military and large organizations are very familiar with it. When the pressure is on, people are more likely to resort to their gut reactions. Usually, the gut reaction isn't one's learned knowledge, unless it has been practiced so many times in real situations that it becomes one's second nature. That's why the military has learned to train people in as real a situation as is possible, as much as possible.

Another structural issue is staff motivation (perks, fun, praise, paid enough, etc.). When morale and motivation slump, it's that much harder to muster the effort to care. All of these structural barriers are easy to say and hard to do, but removing them to the greatest extent possible is perhaps the most powerful means camps have to improve the relationship between what one knows and what one does.

Cog in the machine
Fortune 500 companies often hire people to play board games with their employees. Why? Because the object of these board games and the goal for the trainer is to help people understand how their actions influence the outcomes the organization cares about.

Counselors (and even the administration) often don't have a full, concrete idea of what the outcomes (goals, benefits) of the camp experience are. Furthermore, a clear, conscious understanding of how those outcomes are achieved is exceedingly rare. You don't have to take my word for it though, ask your staff. At the end of orientation, ask them to take out a blank piece of paper and write down a list of all the outcomes that they think the children receive. Which ones were missing? Were there some that seemed unlikely or ill suited to your camp? Even more interesting and useful, ask your staff to describe how each of those outcomes is achieved. Much will likely be missing.

Once upon a time (really), a cabin was walking down to the bathhouse to clean it. Every cabin had a community job to do in the morning. The campers were complaining, because this was their least favorite job to do. One vocal camper was complaining bitterly, “Oh man! This sucks! This camp is so bootleg; we paid a lot of money! They should just hire someone to do this! How come they don't?” The counselor's response was “I don't know. Look, this is just how it is. We have to do it. Everyone has to do it eventually, and today it's our turn. If you complain, it's going to take that much longer. Let's just get it over with so we can get on to the fun stuff.”

The counselor didn't get it. Counselors are often not aware of all the outcomes of a camp experience and their role in achieving each one of them. Process models can be very effective here, especially if they are hung in the staff lounge so that they can serve as a reminder on a continual basis.

The above counselor's response isn't what you would have hoped for. Instead, ideally, the counselor should have replied, “We all live in a community here at camp, and we all need to contribute. This is our job today and everyone has one. By doing this, we make the camp a nicer place to live. The camp could pay someone to do it, but that would make the camp more expensive for everyone to attend.” If your counselor were really awesome, she or he might relate it to the broader community: “When people do their part to recycle or vote, they are all working together to accomplish more than anyone could do by himself or herself.” Better still would be for the counselor to ask pointed questions so that the camper could answer his own question.

Termites are those lovely little insects that weaken the framework. They do so in such a way as to not be conspicuous until it is probably too late. A building (camp) may look okay from the outside, but a closer inspection will reveal the problems. Camps and large organizations alike have the same problem — they all have termites.

A person termite is someone who doesn't really quite buy in to the program. Termites are people who are not “sold” and quietly go around denigrating and subverting the knowledge — usually in an effort to get people to agree with them even a little. These are the people who whisper walking down the wood paths or in the cabins late at night. “That's what they say, but here's what you can really get away with.” or “Let me tell you the real story behind (her, this, the place).” or “This place sucks so bad, man, can you believe the crap they keep pulling?” When the termites are returning counselors, they are especially deadly, because they often set norms and culture more than you do.

Despite doing everything possible to engender a positive attitude that will translate to behavior, a few termites will eat small holes in your work and may even weaken the attitudes of many. Just like the real thing, if you've got termites, catch them quickly! Put “Termites” on your supervisors' agendas as a permanent item.

Majority rules
Usually, but not always, the psychological majority rules in small communities. You can use this principle on two levels. On the small group level, let's say you have cabins with three counselors. Place two strong counselors with one weak one. If a marginal counselor is in a group with two strong, committed counselors, attitude can rub off, or at least make it difficult to violate positive peer pressure.

On a whole camp level, a camp norm around caring for the children is extremely powerful. This is most easily achieved through critical mass (the majority of the staff are already sold heart and soul) and historical precedent. Call it what you will, critical mass, the one hundredth monkey, or synergy, an established organizational culture can have an enormous impact.

Who Needs an Attitude Adjustment?

My experience working at over a dozen different camps for full summers is that the attitude of at least some staff could use some help. As I described in the beginning, attitude strength has to be really high, and quite often, what we think should suffice for sufficient attitude isn't enough. With these seven attitude-boosting methods in place, you'll find that what your staff knows will actually happen in practice much more frequently.

Dr. Randall Grayson is a psychologist who specializes in applying social, developmental, and organizational psychology to help camps better serve campers and staff. He is also the author of Creating Exceptional Camps: Tools and Resources for Improving the Outcomes of a Camp Experience.

Keys to Best Practices
Knowledge, attitude, and behavior are the three keys to a best-practice training. To receive a free copy of the full chapter, “Staff Training Best Practices,” from Creating Exceptional Camps: Tools and Resources for Improving the Outcomes of a Camp Experience, that has more specifics, examples, and solutions on all three keys, please contact Dr. Grayson at Other resources, including the process map chapter, and information are available from his Web site:

Originally published in the 2001 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.



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