The Psychology of Learning and Behavior Management: What it Means For Camp and Staff Training

by Ethan Schafer, Ph.D.

One of the greatest contributions psychology has made to humanity is its explanation of how people learn — how we come to know what we know, and how we change our knowledge and behavior in response to experience. Decades of psychological research have established what good teachers already know about the most effective ways to reach students and help them master new material. Some of these principles are described below, and they will seem familiar to people with teaching experience. But here’s the catch — even though these methods work in theory, actually figuring out a practical way to use them in your staff training at camp can be very difficult. What follows is a series of learning strategies that have established scientific support — and some ideas about how you can integrate them into your staff training.

Active Learning Is Better Than Passive Learning

Did you have professors in college who would lecture for hours without slowing down enough for you to take notes, much less to ask questions? Did you ever get lectured to by your parents? Do you remember much about these lectures, other than that you knew you were in trouble and you couldn’t wait until they were over? We know from our own experience, as well as from psychological science, that simply "talking at" people is not as likely to lead to increased knowledge — compared to when students take an active role in the learning process. This is a simple concept to understand, but a difficult one to put into practice, particularly in preseason training when there is a tremendous amount of information your staff must learn.

Try these simple approaches to help you hold your staff’s attention and help them remember what you say:

  • Keep it interactive. This sounds simple, but sometimes managing staff are unaware of how much they "talk at" rather than "talk with." Calling on several people during meetings, especially experienced staff, to explain everything from camp rules to camp values, accomplishes several things. First, it keeps one person from droning on too long (anything longer than a fifteen-minute speech is probably too much) and makes it less likely the audience will tune out. Second, it promotes active learning by increasing participation.
  • Limit the use of movies. Few things are more passive than watching television. Of course, there are several excellent resources available in this medium, many of which will be very helpful to your staff. It is just important to make sure this is not the primary means of communication. Many presenters use brief movie clips to illustrate points, break up a lecture with humor, and so on.
  • Review. Spend the first five minutes of every new training session reviewing what occurred in the previous one. This technique is used in several effective forms of psychotherapy to help people tie important themes together and promote integration.
  • Never after lunch. As difficult as it is to plan time for speakers or consultants to work with your staff, try not to have anyone give a talk right after a meal, particularly lunch. It is very difficult to learn when your body is telling you it is time for a nap. Better to let your staff have a brief rest hour or have them do something active, such as participating in work crews to get camp physically ready for the summer.

Spacing It Out Is Better Than Cramming It In

Many of us crammed for exams in school, studying all night long before a test. You probably remember that cramming is a great way to forget everything you needed to learn as soon as the test is over. Again, what we have been told by our teachers is exactly what the science of learning has shown — interval training, where study time is spaced out (e.g., six two-hour sessions rather than one twelve-hour all-nighter) leads to enormous benefits in terms of retention and the ability to apply knowledge later on. The same concept applies to training sessions at staff training — three hours is an awfully long time to expect anyone to sit still and absorb information, particularly when you are not in school. Breaking up the knowledge that needs to be mastered into a series of five or six thirty- to forty-five-minute sessions makes it much more likely to be retained. It is always easier to focus attention when we know a break is coming.

  • Putting this into practice requires a little bit of planning. Determine how many hours of meetings you need and break them down by concept (e.g., camp rules, camp values, athletics, lesson planning, etc.), covering only one or two concepts in each brief meeting.
  • Again, to reinforce what has been learned already, spend the first five minutes of every session reviewing what happened in the previous one. Remember, repetition aids learning too. Repetition aids learning, too. See?

Create Personal Relevance

We remember things better when they matter to us, and we are more likely to pay attention to a speaker or a topic when we can apply it to our own lives. When conducting staff training sessions, taking active steps to make abstract concepts personally relevant is critical. Think of personally relevant, emotional content as another "media" for reaching long-term memory. Much in the same way you can both hear and see a television program, personal relevance helps you communicate on several channels at once, promoting deeper understanding.

Here is an example of an effective technique. Have your staff pair up or break up into groups of three and ask them to talk about their favorite teacher of all time. Ask them to discuss what it was about that teacher that they liked, why they still remember him or her, and what emotions they experience when thinking about this person. Then have them practice the same exercise, this time with their least favorite teacher. After taking five minutes for them to work in groups, have a few people talk about why these teachers had such a lasting (positive or negative) impact on their lives, writing down important themes on a marker board or overhead projector. Follow this by facilitating a discussion about how these qualities can be applied to themselves as camp counselors, with the following questions in mind:

  • How can I be more like the positive teachers I remember, and less like the negative ones here at camp?
  • What qualities that I appreciated/disliked are most important to me?
  • How will I know when I am accomplishing my goals?

When facilitating this discussion, make sure that your staff is actively participating in this exercise by writing down answers to the questions. Encourage answers that are measurable and concrete. For example, for the first question, ask for specific examples about positive qualities of past teachers or counselors and help them think of specific activities that allow these qualities to come out. For the last question, an answer such as "When my campers are happy" is too broad. A better answer would be "When a shy camper in my cabin has made three new friends."

Similar useful activities of personal relevance include having staff write down and discuss their personal strengths and weaknesses as a person who works with children (either in small groups or one large group) or having them write down three personal and professional goals for themselves over the summer. Again, make sure the goals are measurable and concrete. All of these topics can be included in a facilitated, interactive discussion.

These principles can be integrated into a staff training program that helps your staff internalize your camp’s core mission, while also giving them the specific tools to function effectively on a daily basis.

Training Your Staff in Behavior Management

Available from the Bookstore
Inspire! Ice Breakers and Openers CD-ROM
Learning Leadership: How to Develop Outstanding Teen Leadership Training Programs at Camp
Super Staff SuperVision
Training Terrific Staff
Coaching the Camp Coach

Perhaps the other area of psychological science most relevant to camps is behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychology is the study of how the environment impacts a person’s behavior, making it more or less likely to occur again. Behaviorists were among the first to isolate and predict how specific actions could lead to and change specific behaviors in all animals, including humans. In the 1950s and 60s, behavioral psychology got an undeserved, bad reputation (in some circles) as being too cold and simple-minded to work with real people in the real world. Starting in the 70s and continuing to the present, however, behaviorally-based therapies and principles have become some of the most reliable, effective ways of helping children achieve in all sorts of situations — ranging from eliminating the symptoms of mental illness to improving education. Scientifically-supported concepts from behavioral psychology can be easily applied to staff training.

Behavioral psychology provides us with guidelines about how we can create more effective training sessions. For those of you with comprehensive staff training programs, the following is intended as a supplement, where you may find a few meaningful things to add. Those of you who are starting a camp or looking to make major changes to your preseason training, however, may think of this as a broad set of guidelines.

Catch Them Being Good — Using Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is defined as the use of rewards following a behavior, in order to make that behavior more likely to occur again. It is probably the most effective way of encouraging prosocial, desired behaviors. Most adults are not very good at noticing good behavior. Instead, adults often get caught in a cycle of focusing on the things that children are doing wrong: "Put that back," "Stop it," "Quiet down," "Knock it off!" Of course, it is often necessary to correct children’s behavior in this manner, but it is much more effective to give praise and privileges to those children who are doing what you want them to do, rather than only penalizing those who are doing what you don’t want them to do. This concept is most simply conveyed with the phrase "Catch them being good." Good teachers and coaches point out the things we do well more often than the things we do wrong. Giving your staff this kind of mindset also helps their morale by getting them in the habit of looking for the good in children, rather than always looking for them to misbehave or "screw up" in some way. Here are some concrete tools that are effective for use between both management and staff, as well as staff and campers:

  • The "3 to 1 Rule": This approach is derived from research on what differentiates couples in a happy relationship from those that are struggling. Psychologists who analyzed the interactions between these two groups of couples noticed a striking difference in their communication: In the happy couples, for every "negative" comment (use your imagination here), there were between three and five "positive" comments. In unhappy couples, the ratio was about even. This is an easy finding to relate to camp. Teach your staff to point out three positive things for every negative or "corrective" statement they make to their campers. As managers, it is also critical to incorporate this concept in to feedback. Remember, because this is not something that comes naturally to most adults, your staff will need constant reminders over the summer to "catch campers being good."
     
  • Teach your staff that almost all behaviors can be divided into one of three categories:
    1. Behaviors you like and want to see more often. These are behaviors to pay attention to and reward as appropriate (i.e., the good behavior to catch campers doing). Have your staff generate examples during training.
    2. Behaviors you don’t like but can tolerate. These behaviors are unpleasant or irritating, but tolerable because they are not dangerous, destructive, or hurtful to others. These behaviors (whining, pouting, etc.) should therefore be ignored, as paying attention to them would be rewarding and make them more likely to occur. Have your staff generate examples during training.
    3. Behaviors you don’t like and can’t tolerate. These behaviors are dangerous, destructive or hurtful, and require consequences. Below is a brief outline of how to provide consequences in the most effective manner. Have your staff generate examples during training.

Providing Appropriate Consequences
Consequences for bad behavior are a form of punishment. The definition of punishment is an action that makes a behavior less likely to occur. It is important to explain to your staff that there is nothing inherently wrong with the term punishment — and that such steps are often necessary to provide the kind of limits and structure that campers need in order to succeed. For punishment to work (i.e., to be effective in reducing unwanted behavior) several things must be remembered:

  • The consequence should occur as soon after the unwanted behavior as possible.
  • It should also be in proportion to the "crime." Most punishments should not last longer that twenty-four to forty-eight hours or else there is no incentive for the child to improve his behavior. For example, if a child misbehaves at the waterfront and is banned for a week, there is no way to prove him or herself again or any incentive to improve.
  • The consequence must be applied consistently, meaning that whenever the bad behavior occurs, the consequence must be applied.
  • Only give consequences on which you will be able to follow through.
  • Eliminate "creative" punishments. These are any consequences that single a child out and force him or her to perform some kind of aversive, humiliating action. This is a terrible, ineffective idea, because it makes a "cult figure" out of the child, making him or her a legend among their peers. Humiliating a child in an inept attempt to force good behavior should be considered a form of abuse.
  • Train staff to do their best to avoid giving a punishment when they are angry with the camper for his or her infraction. This is a natural reaction, but no one makes their best decision when they are too emotional. In the beginning of the summer, have staff write down their own physical cues (e.g., a red face, clenched jaw, pointing finger, etc.) that tells them when they are angry, so they can train themselves to back away, take some deep breaths, perhaps count to ten, or do whatever they need to do to calm down and given an appropriate consequence.

The last word about punishment is that, while it can work, it is very hard to implement effectively, because of all the requirements listed above. It is much more effective to focus on the positive behaviors as much as possible, as this acts as a form of prevention.

Give Your Staff a Jumpstart

Preseason staff training is both an exciting and uneasy time for all camp professionals, particularly new or inexperienced staff. It is also a tremendous opportunity to equip an energetic, idealistic group of young people with the tools they need to get the most out of themselves and their campers. All counselors, especially inexperienced ones, need the best tools to have the best summer. Integrating a few simple, scientifically-supported concepts can help you develop a more effective, meaningful staff training program, one that will give your staff a jumpstart for their summer.

Ethan Schafer has a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology, working in private practice and teaching at the college level in the Cleveland area. He has over fifteen years of camp experience.

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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