Bringing Professionalism to Camp Counseling

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

With everything that can be regulated and measured for American Camp Association accreditation, it seems the one evasive thing continues to be how to measure the actual quality of camp counseling that is done at any individual camp—and to what extent it is truly promoting growth and development—making a difference—rather than simply keeping kids safe. The fact is that most camp counselors have little more than a common sense background in counseling and guiding youth and often the few role plays they do during orientation rarely match up with what the real thing is going to be like.

I recall when my friends and I were sixteen-year-old "junior counselors" at summer camp in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, we would joke that we were professional counselors. After all, we were counselors, and we were being paid (if you call $350 for nine weeks of work pay!). It didn't take long for the campers to arrive and teach us that the week of orientation we'd spent raking leaves and painting cabins had little to do with the reality of resolving disputes between ten-year-olds or calming the homesick eight-year-old. Left to our own devices, we would settle a group by threatening to take things away, resolve conflicts by trying to reason with them, and sooth homesickness by doing the common sense thing that came to mind—talk to them about home! Needless to say our efforts at intervention often proved futile.

When a new director took over the following year we were introduced to a whole new concept of learning real counseling skills. The rakes and paint brushes were replaced with sessions around the flip chart and hours of role play. Many of the "old school" staff took it as a joke. A few of us though really got it. We understood that doing this work well demanded much more than bribery, threats, and consequences. So we learned listening skills and self-esteem-building skills. We put them to use in our over-simplified ways that worked in many cases only because of how uncomplicated the kids were and how little of this they really needed.

For me personally the leap into professional counseling came a few years later when instead of working with upper-middle class, white, Jewish boys from the Midwest in a summer camp, I found myself in the heart of San Francisco in a year-round job working as a counselor with emotionally disturbed youth in a residential treatment center. The racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity of the kids and staff made me a minority for the first time in my life. I couldn't get by on simple listening skills and self-esteem-building activities—and charm and humor only went so far. In fact, for most of the first few months just about anything I said to the kids wasn't taken seriously by them and most anything they said to me was taken personally by me!

To this day, I look back on those four years and the three later years working with at-risk kids in the public school system and recognize that the training I received there in the front lines with some of America's toughest youth was worth more than what I learned in all the rest of my formal education combined—including graduate school.

The fact is that most camps do not hire counselors who bring that kind of training and background experience into camp—nor are camp directors going to have time to commit years to working in such intense settings to learn and train. Camp orientation may be much more than just raking and painting now, but most summer camp orientations I have seen—well over 100 camps now—offer little more than entry-level counseling skills and role play that rarely scratch beneath the surface. It seems as well that while many camps may not be working with the most down-and-out, at-risk youth, even suburban kids who attend summer camps these days are more challenging, more sophisticated, and more complex than the traditional orientation addresses.

How then do we raise the bar of skill and professionalism in our staff, especially when training time is still so brief and regulations require we cover so much else?

Training Ourselves

Think of the saying, "You can't teach what you don't know." There is no counseling degree required to run a summer camp, nor any requirement that anyone on the staff have one. Of course, those of us inside the camp industry know that because we don't do what the traditional clinicians are doing, we sometimes have success where other programs don't. I am reminded of one camp in North Carolina that had a bumper sticker that read: "Camp Carolina—Cheaper than Psychotherapy!"

Nonetheless there is great value to be gleaned from studying what others in the field of counseling are successfully doing. Many of the pop-psychology books that do seem to get attention in the camp industry are more descriptions of trends and raising awareness of issues in society (the emotional life of boys, the relationship trauma girls suffer through, etc.), than they are descriptions of strategies of what to do about it. Camps and other youth organizations are frustrated by general statements of what to be doing—without the specifics of how to actually do it. The challenge for trainers is to ensure people are getting the most practical application of skills possible.

While the list of recommended books and courses is too long to publish here (see a brief list of books under the Recommended Reading sidebar), camp leaders are encouraged to invest the time and effort in several counseling psychology courses—and to read books and case studies. My own model of work is a conglomeration of many influences, as will yours be. The more of them you have though, the more you'll have to teach others and the more effective you will be.

Training Through Experience

Recommended Reading
My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. by Sidney Rosen
Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom by William Glasser
Magical Parent Magical Child: The Art of Joyful Parenting by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce

When one camp wanted to overhaul and upgrade their orientation a few years ago, they decided to go all out—nothing was untouchable. Gone were the initial ice breakers and name games, replaced by creative activities and surprise lessons, beginning with the initial introduction when the director showed up twenty minutes late, dressed all disheveled, and modeling everything their counselors are not supposed to do. When he left and returned a few minutes later clean shaven, wearing the proper attire, etc., the staff new that they were in for an interesting week.

Near food-fights happened during meals; counselors came in late at night and made lots of noise in the bunks keeping others awake; players argued and shouted at referees during games; cell phones rang during meetings; some new counselors were overtly homesick—and by the time the counselors realized that each of these incidents had actually been planned to simulate real-life scenarios, they were already drawn in and responding. By the end of the week, their level of alertness and the speed of their responses to situations that unfolded were at a level that professionals would expect. Staff was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the challenges they would face in the summer were nothing compared to what they dealt with in orientation. Because they were prepared for the worst, their quick intervention and attentiveness with the campers prevented incidences from escalating.

Try turning things around so that training and role playing don't proceed just as expected. Stop in the middle and pull someone in from the audience to take over as counselor or create more problems as a camper. When people share ideas on how things could be handled differently, invite them up to show the group, not just tell the group. Make the experience real, and the learning becomes more engaging. Encourage your counselors to challenge your thinking and to offer other ideas and perspectives. We have to practice what we teach as our staff will always learn more from how we live and how we do what we do, than they ever will from what we tell them.

Training Beyond the Training

Most camps end their training when the campers arrive and spend what little meeting time they have after that going over programs and handling details. Any further counselor education tends to be in the form of being involved as problem situations are dealt with at the administrative level. This is reactionary training—often crisis management—and not proactive counselor skill training. Camp is an industry that gives 90 percent of its employees the title of counselor, yet unlike most professions that work with youth—education, psychotherapy, and in many states after-school care—there is often no requirement for ongoing training.

Though it demands innovation with scheduling and coverage, there is such value to be found in offering ongoing counseling skill training throughout the summer. Many times the skills we talk about during orientation become much more pertinent when our counselors have real kids and real challenging behaviors. As with any training, just talking to counselors about "how-to" is not nearly as effective as having them practice it. Indeed, role-plays when they are playing the same camper who has been driving them crazy the past week, captures interest and a desire to learn like little else!

It is also useful in these "in-service counselor enhancement" trainings to assign specific tasks to counselors and hold them accountable to follow through. This can be as simple as having them come back and report the next week on how they applied what you taught or as immediate as having them go out and do something while you are meeting and have them come back and tell the group how it went. There is also great value in meeting with the intention of modeling counseling skills like how to facilitate a group discussion with campers. Rather than just go in as the leader and do it, meet with your counselors ahead of time and discuss with them what you are going to do. Then meet with them afterwards and have them discuss what they observed and what they can take from having watched you do it.

It is this kind of extra attention to training that ensures our counselors raise the bar of professionalism and care that kids receive in our camps each summer. Let's go beyond just keeping campers safe; let's send them home brighter, more confident young people.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a camp consultant and professional mentor who has helped hundreds of camps improve the quality of experience they provide youth. For more information, contact him at, 415-441-8218 or visit his Web site

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.