CITs are Campers in Transition

by Virginia Thompson

In the youth camping field, CIT refers to counselor in training, usually young people fourteen to seventeen years of age. Another way to think of CITs is as campers in transition. They are in transition from being campers to becoming camp leaders. As they move through this transition process, they need systems and coaching from adult camp leaders who support their growth and development.

As youth development professionals, camp directors and administrators know about the characteristics of adolescents. In the four short years between the age of fourteen and eighteen, teens must complete the evolution from being children to being independent, productive adult members of society. Among their development tasks teens:

  • are becoming independent and wish to control their own activities.
  • are learning about themselves, integrating body image and personality.
  • are acquiring and practicing skills, attitudes, and understanding of the opposite sex.
  • wish to belong to a group and be recognized as an individual within the group.
  • have increased capacity for abstract thought, reason, and logic, but they lack the experience required to make mature adult decisions consistently.
  • are becoming capable of understanding what other people are feeling.
  • are open to supervision and reasonable parameters from adults.
  • have rigid concepts of right and wrong, with difficulty understanding compromise.
  • are developing skills, knowledge, and competencies to earn a living.

Successful CIT programs don't just happen. In fact this can be the most challenging program a camp delivers. CIT programs must deliberately focus on supporting teens through their developmental changes and provide opportunities for them to practice activity skills and life skills in a safe, controlled environment. CITs will help to achieve positive outcomes for young campers when they are provided with a strong framework that includes the following elements:

  • An understanding of the philosophy and objectives of the camp program.
  • A job description.
  • Training in specific skills required to do their job.
  • Opportunities to practice skills.
  • Systems that support and assist them to do their job successfully.
  • Supervision: feedback and reinforcement.
  • Evaluation: both an after-camp evaluation of their contribution to the program
    and an opportunity to evaluate their own experience in the program.

Elements of a Successful Program

Each of these elements works together to provide a strong support system for a successful CIT leadership program. Let's look at each piece of the framework in more detail.

An understanding of the philosophy and objectives of the camp program
Some camps have had the same philosophy, and objectives since the current camp director was a camper. Other camps review these every year. Its important for staff (adults and youth) to support the camp's philosophy in their work. People give greater support to philosophies and objectives they help to create. This may not mean rewriting year after year. It may mean only a little tweaking. The important task is to ask staff for input and to put that input to use.

A job description
A written job description is the most important tool the camp director has for communicating performance and behavioral expectations to CITs. The job description should tell CITs what qualifications they need to be successful and describe their duties, their responsibilities (including supporting the camp philosophy!), and working conditions of the job. Minimize the number of "other duties as assigned by the director" that teens are expected to perform. Its better to list tasks they are never asked to do. There should be no surprises! Remember, teens have rigid concepts of right and wrong. They can proceed quickly from exclaiming, "No fair!" to using those leadership skills you've been teaching them to sabotage the camp program.

Training in specific skills required to do their job
Directors can provide training most easily by surveying the CIT group to determine what skills are lacking and then use the adult staff to provide training in these areas. Don't forget parenting skills. Often because teens have younger siblings or do volunteer work with other young people we assume they have these skills. This is no longer a safe assumption. One societal trend recently identified in a statewide survey of adult Oregonians was that changes in family structure are being accompanied by a decreasing willingness or ability to parent children. As a result, many teens coming to camp programs are not learning parenting skills at home. Parenting skills are important both in the camp setting and, for most people, in later life as well.

Opportunities to practice skills
This requires a willingness on the part of the adult leaders to allow a CIT the possibility of failing. The 4-H Experiential Learning Model - Do, Reflect, Apply - is useful here. For teen leaders at camp, this might look like:

  • Do: Lead the activity.
  • Reflect: Think about the results. What went right and what could be improved.
  • Apply: Lead the activity again applying what was learned the first time.
    In addition camp systems, and supervisor feedback and reinforcement, come into play to help assure success.

Systems that support and assist CITs to do their job successfully
Directors who provide CITs with a supportive set of procedures minimize the possibility of the teens making the "wrong" decisions. Some of these systems should be designed by all the camp staff in staff training. For instance, a system for maintaining healthy campers and staff could be for all counselors and campers to go with their cabin group to wash hands before meals. Since everyone does this it is accepted without resistance. A system to reduce camper injury from horse play in non-program or waiting times could be for each counselor to know six games that can be used to keep the camper group occupied.

Notice these ideas are called systems, not rules or policies. A systems approach requires all the parts - the staff, CITs and campers - to work together to achieve the goal. Each CIT must know he is a valued part of the system.

Supervision: feedback and reinforcement
Directors of successful programs remember that CITs are teens, not adults; they are still practicing many skills. Providing a safe environment for teens to practice and receive feedback supports their growth. Catch CITs and adult staff doing things right. It's important that they hear from the director when things are going well, not just when something is wrong. Hold staff meetings where everyone is asked to share one thing that is going well and one thing that is not going so well. Use the wisdom of the whole group to provide ideas and support for solving problems. A misbehaving camper is a problem for the whole camp, not just the individual's cabin counselor.

Two types of evaluation are noted here. One is a final performance review that should be given to each CIT after the camp season. Remember, this teen will probably be applying to work for your camp for the next year or two. This is the time to speak with them about any expectations you have of them in the next camp season.

The other evaluation should be from the CITs to the program leadership about their training and camp experience. Directors and program leaders should use this feedback in planning the next year's program.

A CIT program's ability to provide young people with both activity skills and life skills is unsurpassed. In this difficult transition between adolescence and young adulthood, the camp community can be a grounding focus in a young person's life, providing both the structure and freedom needed to take on leadership roles. A deliberately planned CIT program based on quality adult leadership and a strong support system is a key element for success.

Teen Trends

  • Teens currently make up about 11.5 percent of the U.S. population.
    There are 31.4 million youth in the U.S. aged twelve to nineteen.
    That number is expected to remain steady over the next ten years.
  • Teens have expendable incomes. In 1998, teens spent an estimated
    $141 billion on snacks, clothes, and other items.
  • The number of Hispanic teens in the U.S. is expected to increase over
    the next twenty years. By 2020, experts estimate that Hispanic teens
    will comprise 20.6 percent of the total teen population.

Virginia Thompson, CCD, is on the faculty of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. As a 4-H extension specialist, she is responsible for camping and natural science programs at the Oregon 4-H Conference and Education Center and in all thirty-six Oregon counties.

Originally published in the 2000 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.