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The first two articles in this series about bullying in summer camp have provided a background for what constitutes bullying, as well as the strategies you need to help reduce this behavior in camp all year long. Staff training is one of the most important pieces of successful bully prevention, and this article provides the key aspects and tools to successful camp staff training.
The increasing challenge to camps and staff comes from the changing society we live in and the growing incivility we see across the world. We are living during a period when the media portrays and lauds rudeness, disrespect, and aggressive behavior. When adults we admire role model this behavior — and our "heroes" in politics, on television, and in the movies reflect this inappropriate, negative behavior — what can we expect? These realities force us to look more closely at our bullying issues in camp — looking at ourselves and our staff — to determine if we are modeling appropriate or inappropriate behavior.
A survey I conducted during the 2005 summer season of fourteen hundred staff measured the bullying behaviors they witness in summer camp among their campers, and more importantly, among themselves.
Here's the Data!
The following chart reflects the percentage of staff who responded "yes" to the question: Have you observed any of these types of bullying behavior between campers last summer?
Staff consistently reported experiencing a high degree of bullying behavior among campers. Most male and female staff experienced verbal teasing and name-calling between campers. More male staff saw verbal threatening behavior among their boys. However, almost all female staff observed gossiping, rumors, exclusion, and clique behavior in their female campers, as well as a high degree of embarrassment in front of others. Most male staff reported a high degree of embarrassment by their boys in front of other boys, but male staff reported a higher percentage of physical aggression among their boy campers as compared to female staff. One obvious conclusion is that both female and male staff observe and acknowledge a high degree of bullying behavior in their campers.
The reality: The majority of staff have to deal with all types of bullying because they experience it and therefore need to know how to handle it and what to do.
Returning staff were surveyed about bullying behaviors among staff. They were questioned about personally observing any of the following types of bullying between counselors last summer:
This data reveals a significant amount of bullying behavior seen in our camp staff. Most female staff experience gossiping, rumors, exclusion, and clique behavior. Two-thirds of male staff experienced the behaviors generally assumed to be female behaviors. Teasing, name-calling, and embarrassment in front of others is experienced by approximately half of all staff surveyed. Physical bullying is limited to one out of six females, and one out of four males. Stealing of personal things was observed by approximately 25 percent of both male and female staff. What conclusion can be reached? The bullying behaviors we witness among our campers are occurring with a high prevalence rate in our own camp staff.
The next table reflects behaviors experienced during orientation. Staff were asked if they had seen or experienced any of the following behaviors:
This data reveals that within a few days of first meeting each other camp staff show a significant amount of bullying behavior among themselves. Staff may accept this behavior as part of interacting with each other to fit in, but behind the scenes, these behaviors may create unhappiness and distress. The prevalence of exclusion and embarrassment in front of others can be quite daunting to some. The lines of behavior and what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate are difficult to manage when staff experience these behaviors so quickly within the first few days of interaction before campers arrive for the summer. Obviously, these behaviors increase over the summer as seen by Chart 2 among camp staff, but one can observe how quickly these behaviors take root.
In summary, if you compare camper behavior with staff behavior, a high percentage of bullying behavior is occurring among campers and staff in the summer. What conclusions can be drawn from this data? Bullying behavior as perceived by those surveyed is extensive and begins early in the season. We would like to believe our staff can handle and manage these behaviors and the feelings that arise. However, we cannot assume that young staff are aware of this behavior in themselves or the impact it has on others. If our staff members are not aware of their own behavior, how can they change it in their campers? The issues of bullying — among campers and staff — need to be addressed during orientation! Staff should be trained to deal with bullying behavior that may cause distress for other staff and/or their campers.
Role Modeling of Bullying Behavior
Bullying behavior is a learned behavior. Role modeling is a method of teaching campers and staff appropriate or inappropriate behavior. To begin successful staff training, we must create awareness that bullying behavior among staff exists. Without awareness of their own behavior, staff cannot change it. Once staff understands that their behavior sets the stage for camper behavior, we can offer more pro-social training so that all staff are clear in their messages to campers. Staff training should also address the acceptable and unacceptable aspects of these behaviors. When staff feel safe discussing their behavior without fear of "being fired" and realize that they need to learn new skills for successful role modeling, change can take place.
Counselors like campers need to have continual reinforcement and training about what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. In order to reduce bullying among campers, we must reduce bullying among staff — role modeling of appropriate behavior by staff is essential. Role modeling of appropriate behavior starts at the top — from the director down. When staff see how the camp leadership behave to each other and that anything less is unacceptable, they will begin to model the same appropriate behavior. And, as they model the appropriate behavior and refuse to allow anything less, campers will see that bullying is not acceptable behavior.
Begin a conversation with staff about the occurrence and prevalence of bullying behavior and brainstorm and problem solve solutions with them that work best for your camp values and goals. Being successful about reducing bullying behavior can only occur with persistence and insistence on discussing this at regular intervals throughout the summer.
What Can Be Done to Improve Your Chances with Staff?
Staff constantly need tools to help them keep bullying behaviors among their campers in check. Although counselors do not have ten sets of eyes to view all kinds of bullying, we can teach them how to be alert and vigilant. First, train them to be aware of kids who are alone and have the least social skills. Watch for campers who walk alone to activities or the dining hall. These children on the lower social rung of the ladder most frequently become victims because they possess fewer social skills. We need to devote a good portion of our staff training resources to give staff the skills needed to encourage these children to connect with other campers — to help them make friends and/or find other activities that raise their self-esteem.
Staff training also needs to focus on teaching counselors how to be comfortable spending time (ten to fifteen minutes per day) with kids who may be annoying and challenging. Staff may need help developing their own patience and handling their own disappointment when they have children in their bunk who may be difficult to manage and who are picked on frequently. Staff can find these interactions incredibly challenging. However, staff can experience their own self-esteem building when they experience success in helping a difficult child.
Setting boundaries with staff and campers around bullying behavior is no different than setting guidelines against other inappropriate behavior. Campers and staff look for the "structure" that determines what behavior your camp allows, and what behavior it does not tolerate. Ongoing discussions with campers and staff about bullying behavior will reinforce your commitment and show your staff and campers how serious you are about the bullying problem.
Create Clear Boundaries on Discipline and Guidelines for Consequences
For example, when staff observe a bullying incident or suspect trouble between campers, they must be trained to use their "instinct" and walk into the situation. This goes for situations in which verbal bullying or exclusion may be taking place, as well as physical bullying. When staff see distress on a camper's face, it is imperative that they move into the situation to observe. Staff who stay back or do not respond consistently set the tone that the negative behavior will be tolerated. If aggressive behavior is observed, counselors should separate the campers and provide "de-escalation" time.
During this time-out or de-escalation, campers may be given some time to reflect on their behavior. You can ask them to reflect upon their behavior using "I" statements and not get into the "blame game." It is not important who started a situation, but to focus on the personal responsibility of the camper who crossed the line either to bully another or even to retaliate. Have campers describe what they did wrong in their own words, and what they can do to make reparations. Campers may return to an activity when the emotional reaction has dissipated and there is some ownership of what they did to cause their loss of "fun."
When staff are taught to alert camp leadership when issues may be occurring between campers and encourage campers to report these issues to counselors, there is a better chance that the "hidden" bullying will be more public and provide staff opportunities to reduce it. Remember, counselors should never utilize aggressive behavior (with a mean intent) because this models the very behavior that we are trying to prevent.
Discipline that is consistently applied by leadership/administrative staff helps younger staff learn and understand the parameters of the expectations. When leadership staff is inconsistent to staff or the campers, there is a breakdown of clarity. When staff rely on themselves to make choices, discipline can become ineffective. Staff look to camp leadership for consistency in managing difficult situations.
Model Prosocial Behavior
Bullying Prevention Is Bigger Than "Orientation Training" Alone
Staff may feel bombarded with orientation information. They take in so much information that they may become overloaded with material and expectations. Ideally, bullying prevention begins with leadership training during the year, continues through counselor training during orientation week, and is reinforced through a variety of ongoing discussions with staff during the summer. During the summer, leadership need to include questions in their daily meetings with staff about those campers who are teased, excluded, or have difficulty with friendships. Counselors take bully prevention seriously when leadership staff make it a priority in their meetings with counselors.
Similarly, camp staff have to be observant and talk to their campers about these issues. Encourage staff to take a walk with their campers to the next activity and have them ask their campers positive questions to begin a conversation: "What do you like most about your day?" and "What activities do you really enjoy?" Encourage staff to ask the harder questions: "Do you ever notice anyone being teased, picked on, or excluded? Does that ever happen to you?" When staff do this and assure confidentiality with their campers, they build trust, which is at the core of a trusting relationship and successful bully prevention. Campers see these discussions with their counselors as natural and normal when done consistently.
Alert Staff to Bullying Kids
Teach Conflict Resolution Skills
Help Staff Enlist Bystanders Who Can Be Good Reporters
Encourage your leadership staff to welcome this information from campers independent of counselors. This openness and encouragement allows those campers who might otherwise fear some retaliation to report any bullying or aggressive behavior by counselors directly to camp leadership. Campers are more likely to report problematic behavior to leadership when they trust that the information will be kept confidential. This information can be gathered informally through camper discussions or through camper evaluation.
Use Role Plays During Staff Training
Encourage your staff to role-play these scenarios with their bunk — or do a camper set of role plays in a larger group the first few nights of camp to set the guidelines and culture on how your camp identifies and manages bullying behavior. This sends a strong message to both campers and staff and begins the season with a clear definition of what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is.
Consistency Is Key
The salient aspect of excellent staff training for successful bullying prevention is consistency. Think about bullying prevention training with staff as an ongoing program for excellence. Their consistency in role modeling appropriate behavior with each other and their campers is what separates great leaders from others. Reward those staff members who are exemplary in their modeling.
Bullying prevention occurs when we remove ourselves from denial, face it head on, and take steps to ensure that our staff, parents, and campers are all in agreement. You start with a policy; you train your staff to enforce it; you create opportunities for prosocial behavior for staff and campers; and you have a clear structure for discipline and consequences. You reward those who follow your camp values with intention and enthusiasm. You walk the walk and talk the talk. Success comes from steps toward these goals.
Joel D. Haber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Respect U program. He has held positions at University of Alabama, Birmingham Medical School, White Plains Hospital Center, and New York Medical College and has authored numerous articles and led conference sessions on topics including bullying, building resilience in children, and positive parenting. For more information about the Respect U program, visit