Successful Counseling: Find the Right Approach for Working with Campers

by Randall Grayson, Ph.D.
  • Mike and Diaz are arguing about who is going to play goalie on the soccer team.
  • Cody takes Logan’s ball glove without asking.
  • Elizabeth continues to use inappropriate language although you’ve repeatedly asked her to stop.

How would you handle these situations? Your response tells a lot about your approach to counseling and getting the desired behavior from your campers. Behavior management is more than getting campers to comply with your requests and camp rules, however. Behavior management includes helping campers develop social skills and emotional intelligence. It is about helping them understand their emotions and behavior and learning better ways to get their needs met.

Let’s take a look at five styles of counseling and then focus on the method recommended by psychologists and other experts in child development, success counseling. As you read, keep in mind these important points.

  • People often have a preference for a particular style, but they sometimes use other approaches depending on the situation.
  • All of the methods are effective at controlling behavior, but only success counseling is effective in developing pro-social children.
  • The predominant approaches utilized by new counselors are punishment, guilt, and the buddy method.

Punishment

Anger, criticism, humiliation, and corporal punishment are all forms of punishment. Doing pushups, running laps, yelling, and the arbitrary removal of privileges and rewards are common examples. Exasperated staff and those under a time crunch are particularly prone to using this approach. In the short term, it is very effective and fairly easy; however, there are problems that make this approach inadvisable.

  • Campers usually learn only that the behavior resulted in punishment; they do not learn how to change the behavior in order to still get their needs and objectives met.
  • Compliance will only happen when there is sufficient strength enforcing it.
  • Compliance because of anything external is ultimately ineffective. The individual’s psychological reaction is usually resistance, secret defiance, or surface compliance so that he can retain some sense of control and dignity. Children’s focus is often on anger instead of reflecting on what they did. Sometimes they just think about how to avoid getting caught the next time.
  • Campers may internalize that they are bad people, which degrades self-esteem. While high self-esteem isn’t everything, a low to moderate self-esteem is certainly unhealthy.
  • Punishment closes the communication door and makes it difficult for people to take responsibility and be honest.

Guilt

Inducing guilt can take many forms. Silence with a look of disapproval, a sigh, and a slow shaking of the head are nonverbal methods. Common phrases may include "You know better" and "I’m really disappointed in you."

Guilt can be more effective than punishment, because the authority preventing the action rests in the camper instead of some external power. Guilt is instilled, internalized punishment. Guilt is the reference to the rule or norm and the implied or stated fact that the child is bad for not adhering to it. While a child may feel guilty, the choices are to accept that he is really bad, to reject the norm and try not to get caught the next time, or ideally, to make some restitution and learn how to behave differently in the future. As with punishment, guilt does not teach the camper how to replace the behavior that resulted in guilt, while still having his needs and objectives met.

The Buddy Approach

Like S’mores, this is a camp staple. The counselor attempts to control campers with friendship and humor. "Come on, guys!" and "I’m nice to you, you be nice to me!" are common refrains. This method is popular because it works well on several levels.

  • Campers will like their counselors and will often comply because they like them and don’t want to disappoint them.
  • Campers know that their counselor must comply with the camp’s rules. Therefore, when those rules force their counselor buddies to be the bad guys, campers don’t blame them since "it’s just the system."

As with sugar, there are down sides.

  • When authority is blamed, campers don’t learn to behave because it is the right thing to do. They behave because they must or be punished. Their compliance is gained, and their conversion lost.
  • The buddy approach can lead to dependency. Behavior should not depend on liking a person in authority. The ability to develop an internal focus of control is hampered and responsibility is often not taken.
  • When a counselor must eventually correct or punish a camper, the camper will be confused and wonder, "But aren’t you my buddy?"
  • Campers may also take advantage of the friendship by essentially blackmailing the counselor into allowing them (implicitly or explicitly) to do what they want. Buddy adults occasionally bend or break rules in favor of the kids, teaching campers that they can get away with their behavior without the ultimate authority figures finding out.

Adults can be nice and chummy with campers, but they need to remain adults. When campers need a gentle reminder of lessons they’ve already learned, this approach is often quick and effective when coming from a liked and respected counselor. Even when problems arise that don’t have to be addressed, counselors should utilize them as teaching tools that can help children solve their problems and deal with their emotions in better ways.

The Monitor Approach

In essence, this approach uses natural and logical consequences. There are three important distinctions to make when speaking of consequences.

  • A natural consequence is one that arises as a result of the behavior without any outside intervention. For example, if a child is rough with a toy and it breaks, one hopes that the child learns not to be so rough with his or her toys.
  • A logical consequence is related to the behavior, but it is imposed by someone with power. For example, if campers write graffiti on a wall, they must restore the surface to its original condition.
  • Artificial consequences are unrelated to the behavior problem. For example, because a child did not make his bed, he can’t have dessert. This is not the monitor approach; it is punishment.

Although the monitor approach is effective and offers restitution, there are several problems and pitfalls.

  • Campers may accept logical consequences, but the consequences may not inspire them to make permanent changes in behavior.
  • Consequences can be taken too far and turn into punishment.
  • Campers are often left alone and do not receive guidance to process their behavior and emotions. A camper may not be willing to work with the counselor; nevertheless, a gentle lecture from the standpoint of genuine concern and care is far better than just letting the consequences do the teaching.
  • Behavior is adjusted because of rules and limits, which are imposed and monitored by an authoritative power.

When campers are unwilling to work on their behavior, the monitor approach is the preferable fallback method, but staff should always use the success counselor method (see below) first. Of course, if the counselor starts the monitor approach and campers decide that they would prefer the success counselor method of accepting responsibility and working on self-control, that door should be left open.

The Success Counselor

Okay, so what is the preferred method? Specialists in child and human development understand that self-control through internalized values and morality is both preferable and ultimately more effective than methods that involve external control. All the other methods described focus on changing behavior and hoping that a change in mind will ensue. The aim of a success counselor is just the opposite: to change campers’ minds, which will change their behavior.

The central premise is that people use behaviors to help them get what they want and need. At their core, those needs are power or control; affection, love, and attention; self-respect, self-worth, and self-esteem; fun; belonging and connection to others; and safety and survival.

Success counseling attempts to help campers meet their needs while keeping in mind the needs of others (including the community). In essence, the counselor tries to help the camper understand the need behind the behavior and figure out a more pro-social way to meet that need. Campers are walked through the problem-solving process so that they understand how their emotions, needs, and behavior are all linked to the present outcome, as well as a more desirable one. The counselor’s goal is not to solve campers’ problems, but rather to give them information and support to create their own solutions.

This is done by asking pointed, guiding questions. For example: What happened? How did that make you feel? What did you want? What did you do to get it? How did that work? What were/are some other choices you could have made? What is the best choice? That sounds like a good plan, so let’s check back with each other to see how it works, okay? When the camper has accepted their responsibility, a conversation about appropriate restitution usually follows easily.

As Diane C. Gossen aptly states in Restitution, "When [campers] understand that the goal of discipline is to strengthen them and to teach them, they will no longer be afraid to face their mistakes." When campers take responsibility, they decide when freedom is withdrawn and when privileges will be restored.

No discipline system will work well if it is geared toward getting campers to do what you want without also helping them get their needs met. Campers want the same things we all do; sometimes they just need help in learning the best way to go about getting those needs met.

Randall Grayson, Ph.D., specializes in applying psychology to help camps better serve their clientele.

Resources
"Success Counseling" by D. Barnes Boffey and David M. Boffey, Camping Magazine, November/December 1993

Punishment by Rewards by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1999)

Restitution by Diane C. Gossen (New View Publications, 1996)

 

Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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