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Camp Ophelia: A Relationship Camp for Middle School Girls
Since middle schoolers are beginning to grasp abstraction and "thinking about thinking," art can provide an excellent opportunity for bridging thoughts and feelings with reality.
Although many public and private schools have implemented excellent anti-bullying programs, aggression continues to be a leading concern among children and those who care for them. In particular, girls fear Relational Aggression (RA), sometimes dubbed "female bullying" (GSUSA 2003). RA encompasses a range of behaviors that use relationships instead of physical violence to hurt another (Dellasega & Nixon 2003). Involvement in RA, whether as the aggressor, victim, or bystander can lead to many adverse outcomes for young women. Two especially tragic stories include a girl who committed suicide after being verbally bullied (Glazier 2004) and a school shooting that erupted after a year of ongoing RA (CNN 2001).
The notion of "mean girls" who use words and behavior as weapons against each other has spawned at least two bestselling books (Wiseman 2003; Simmons 2003) and a blockbuster movie. A summary of common forms of RA reported by girls and adults and portrayed in the media is contained in the sidebar.
Any adult involved in the social interactions of young women has seen RA because it can occur whenever and wherever girls are together. Sports teams, religious organizations, neighborhood gatherings, and summer camps have all been settings for aggressive girl-to-girl behavior. School nurses, athletic coaches, guidance counselors, camp counselors, and administrators are often frustrated by covert RA behaviors used by girls to hurt their peers in and out of school, online and off, at home and away. These damaging RA interactions often fall "under the radar screen" of traditional anti-bullying programs and can be difficult to address. In a recent workshop one guidance counselor asked: "What is the penalty for eye rolling?"
Any effective prevention/intervention strategy for RA needs to be based on an understanding of why girls might use relationships to hurt each other. During the middle school years, when RA seems to peak, girls are engaged in the developmental process of identity formation, which makes them intensely aware of their ability to impact the lives of others (Muus 1996). They may even seem to reject their families in favor of friends as they seek to develop an adult identity (McCarthy 2000). (Boys follow a somewhat different course.)
The desire for peer approval and acceptance can motivate young women to act in healthy or hurtful ways, either as individually or in groups. Harmful RA-type relationships can be a consequence of low self-esteem, jockeying for position on the social ladder, lack of understanding, or the pursuit of drama and excitement (Dellasega & Nixon 2003).
Summer camps offer an excellent opportunity to immerse girls in a learning environment focused exclusively on peer relationships. Two studies confirm that the camp environment can effectively address issues of self-concept and moral growth (Chenery 1981; Bredemeier, Weiss, Shields, et al. 1986). Hairston and Garst (2004) have concluded that camps are the ideal context for addressing bullying, which is a group dynamic and social problem best suited for comprehensive rather than one-time interventions.
Emotion Expression and the Arts
At Camp Ophelia™, an innovative program to address RA, art is an integral part of the curriculum. The American Art Therapy Association (1985) suggests that the arts can be used to both help children engage in healthy social behavior and increase receptivity to learning. Another expert believes that art offers an alternative "language" for adolescents to express their emotions (Malchiodi 2003). Since middle schoolers are beginning to grasp abstraction and "thinking about thinking," art can provide an excellent opportunity for bridging thoughts and feelings with reality (Stepney 2001).
Throughout their time in camp, the arts-based curriculum uses a variety of mediums (writing, photography, drama, visual art, music, and pottery) to help girls identify, cope with, and overcome RA. Several informed observers at camp have noted that using art in this way is a very effective strategy for facilitating emotion expression in girls.
As part of identity formation, adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to the influence of other women in the environment. An unfortunate case of negative role modeling occurred in summer 2004, when a twelve-year-old girl was beaten into a coma by her peers after the mother in charge of a birthday party urged them to do so (Hall 2004).
Mentoring is an alternative that provides positive role models for youth. Usually such programs focus on academics, careers, or personal development (Floyd 1993) and often, college students or even young adults are the ones to act as mentors and role models (NMP 1991).
A key feature of Camp Ophelia is the use of young women who are juniors and seniors in high school on a 1:5 ratio, mentoring all-girl groups of campers. Adult camp directors who have a counseling background are present for backup support and to facilitate large and small group activities. The mentors are trained through a program specific to relationship skills, provided with ongoing supervision during the face-to-face time with campers, and led through an intensive "debriefing" with the directors at the end of each day.
The one-week Camp Ophelia program, started in 2001, has been attended by approximately three-hundred girls. Campers are in grades sixth through eighth, come from a broad geographic area, and play a mix of RA roles. They may self refer to camp (the majority) or be recommended by a counselor, teacher, or the juvenile justice system. The camp curriculum is structured on a model of Educate, Relate, Integrate (ERI).
During the beginning of camp, the goal is to educate girls about RA: what it is, who is involved, and why it might happen. Campers watch and participate in "RA role plays" from the real lives of adolescent girls and discuss the actions of bullies, victims, and bystanders. Another educational component involves examining the "friendship face" each camper presents to others by creating and sharing various pieces of intentional art.
During the next phase of camp, campers are encouraged to relate new information on RA to their own lives by exploring what roles they have played and how their behavior or the behavior of others has been hurtful. Realistic alternatives to RA are synthesized by campers and use of "powerful" behaviors instantly rewarded. One favorite activity is a game that gets campers to quickly brainstorm a list of realistic non-RA choices available in various RA situations.
In the final part of camp, campers develop a plan to integrate their new knowledge into their lives and to create an action plan for the future. As a celebratory event to close the week, campers present their art projects and role plays to family, friends, and other concerned adults.
To evaluate the impact of camp, a demographic sheet and The Girls Relationship Scale (GRS) were used. The GRS (Dellasega 2001) is a 25-item scale synthesized from a review of scholarly literature on relational aggression and designed to evaluate whether the program was effective in changing girls' relationship skills. Reliability of the GRS has been established as 88 on repeated occasions.
In summer 2004, complete data were available for forty-five campers, which represented approximately 50 percent of those attending. Girls who did not complete both evaluations were either not in attendance at the final reception or chose not to participate in both the pre and post tests.
The average age of campers was 11.9 (range of 10-15) and grade level was eight (range of 5-8). Ethnicity was 41 percent Caucasian, 19 percent African American, 2 percent Latina, 2 percent Asian American, and 27 percent Biracial or Multiracial.
Another item asked girls to identify their RA role (victim, aggressor, bystander, or none) at both the beginning and end of camp. Table One contains the results of their responses, which changed in a predictable direction.
Total scores on the GRS improved from 54.8 (pre-camp) to 65.4 (post camp), which was statistically significant (p=.002). Particular items on the GRS that showed gains included girls believing they would have less trouble concentrating in school due to relationship issues (p=.10); not wanting to leave their school because of relationship issues (p=.004); understanding what relational aggression is (p=.000); and knowing where to get help with relationship issues (p=.05). A summary of other behavior changes is presented in Table Two.
In post-program interviews with mentors, their responses were enthusiastic. They described many social benefits of the experience for both campers and themselves and indicated a desire to continue mentoring. Being placed in a role-modeling context encouraged them to critically evaluate their own behavior: many said they became more aware of their clothing, hairstyles, and interactions with peers and boys because of the possibility of being observed by an impressionable younger girl.
Clearly this evaluation is a measure of program effectiveness and not sustained, individual behavior change. The only feedback received beyond the immediate analysis was anecdotal reports from parents on the continued positive impact of camp during the school year.
Summertime can be challenging for young women in middle school who are too old for babysitters, too young for full-time employment, but the right age to suffer from RA. Camp Ophelia offers the opportunity to learn helpful skills that will equip girls for both the upcoming school year and a lifetime of healthy relationships.
An arts-based curriculum gives adolescents the opportunity to learn about and internalize information on RA that might otherwise be threatening or difficult. Even girls who claimed they were not creative cited "crafts" as one of the best parts of camp. Creation of durable art helps remind girls of the principles of Camp Ophelia during the year after attendance. Many campers who were repeat attenders brought projects from previous years to share with those who were new.
Selecting high school students as mentors can present unique challenges for program directors. More intensive training and supervision is needed to prevent mentors from inadvertently role modeling RA behaviors, since they are still of an age where this dynamic can be an issue. The life experience and maturity level of some mentors may be a challenge, as can pre-existing relationships between the mentors themselves, or mentors and campers. However, junior and senior girls bring significant strengths to the mentoring relationship. First, they are still engaged in the same kind of social environment as campers and therefore have a credibility other young adults do not. Second, having gone through middle school in the not-too-distant past, they have insights that seem to resonate more strongly with campers than those of college-aged young women or adults. Third, the mentoring experience can help junior and senior girls learn more positive ways to connect with their own peers.
Although the measurements pertained to the brief period of one week, evaluation of the camp experience showed sensitization to RA concepts and improved relationship skills, especially in relation to school life. Many (98 percent) adult friends and family reported camp was a favorable experience for their child and wished for future programs to teach/reinforce similar concepts.
In comments appended to the evaluation, campers said they enjoyed all the activities and appreciated the opportunity to be with "girls only." Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of camp was expressed by a mentor who shared: "These are really big skills we're talking about, and how awesome is that — knowing you were the one to make a younger girl's life better, even in some small way?"
Cheryl Dellasega is a Ph.D. prepared nurse practitioner with a minor in counseling. She is the author of four books on female health issues and four commercial books related to women's issues, including Girl Wars (2003) and Surviving Ophelia (2001). This article was written by Dr. Dellasega in her capacity as the founder of Camp and Club Ophelia, two trademarked programs to help adolescent girls overcome relational aggression.
Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.