Behavior Management 101: Ideas and tips for managing challenging behavior

Campers bring many things with them to camp: sleeping bags, clothing, sunscreen, and bug spray. They also bring with them their enthusiasm and their past in the form of their learned behavior. Understand that a week at camp is not expected to cure all behavior problems. However, if you can determine why a camper is behaving in a certain way, you will have clues on how to deal with the behavior and help the camper behave in a more appropriate way.

When working with campers, keep in mind two things:

  • Your campers are not mini-adults.  Expect them to want to have fun and be active.
  • Expect your campers to test their limits; they still, however, want and need limits.

The "Why" Behind the Behavior

Behavior problems surface for many reasons. A camper may be seeking attention or acting out due to being lonely or frustrated. If you can identify the reason for the behavior, you will know better how to handle it. Here are some common roots for behavior problems:

  • A desire for recognition/attention: it may be better to be infamous
    than unknown.
  • Frustration: unsatisfied needs or desires often cause children
    to "lash out."
  • Homesickness: being scared and nervous often causes frustration.
  • Illness/exhaustion: no one is at their best when they are sick or tired.
  • Conflict with another camper/staff member: this often causes
    people to become defensive.
  • Outside conflicts: problems with family, friends, etc., can follow campers 
    to camp.
  • Established behavior patterns: lessons learned at home won't be
    forgotten at camp.

What to Do When Campers Violate the Rules

Inevitably a camper will break a rule or refuse to cooperate. When this happens, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Give the camper one warning; make it clear that the behavior or
    action was inappropriate and undesirable.
  • Give the camper a chance to explain; he may have a good reason
    for the behavior.
  • Be consistent and impartial.
  • Stay cool and calm; keep strong emotions in check.
  • Avoid lecturing or embarrassing the camper; discipline in private
    if possible.
  • Stress that the camper's behavior is the problem, not the camper's
    personality. Help the camper identify acceptable alternatives to the
    problem behavior.
  • Once the disciplinary time is over, accept the camper as a part of 
    the group again.
  • Follow the camp behavior management policies for continuing
    discipline problems.

Sometimes it is best to simply ignore behaviors, rather than reward or punish, which may actually provide attention to encourage the behavior. Ignoring behaviors usually works best for campers who seek attention by clowning around.

Other times, giving the camper attention or affection, which has been lacking, may solve the problem. Giving the child some form of responsibility or encouraging a special interest or talent may result in improved behavior. Often the activity, if it is at his/her own physical, emotional, and intellectual level, is enough to correct the situation.

Discipline and dealing with challenging behavior are never easy. Keep an open mind and try to have patience with your campers. If one strategy doesn't work, try another one. Rest assured, though, that if you can work with campers to find the root of a behavior problem, you will have ideas for how to deal with it, which may help bring a smooth road for the remaining camp session. Good luck!

Related Topic
Time-Tested Strategies for Dealing with Challenging Behavior

Reprinted from The Complete Resource Pack , published by the American Camp Association. To order, call 800-428-2267.

Originally published in the 2000 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.