In the Trenches: Smart Counselors

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Maybe you've seen her on TV. She's the no-nonsense, matronly
woman with that "don't-even-think­-about messing with
me" look on her face. She is the person desperate parents call
when their children become unmanageable. She's "Nanny 911" and
she knows a thing or two about working with children that any savvy camp
counselor can apply
to campers.

For starters, "Nanny" knows not to lose her cool. In fact,
she knows that children often do or say things just to throw adults off
balance so they react emotionally in ways that actually make them less
effective. As soon as you lose your temper, even when campers may give
you good cause to do so, you give away your power. At that point campers
focus on how upset you are and not on your message. I call this the "emotional
tug of war." Your job is not to pick up that emotional rope! Maintaining
your calm gives you the emotional advantage you need to be successful
with campers. More specifically, the less emotional and more focused
you are, the more effective you will be in getting your "message" across
to your campers!

Likewise, Nanny knows that most adults talk too much when disciplining
children. Campers today are like little lawyers. They have ten reasons
why, in their opinion, they should be able to raid another cabin, stay
up late, not go to an activity, wander away from their group, not get
up in the morning, and have someone else clean up their mess, and get
"even" with another camper and so on. Children today are articulate,
persuasive, and full of words. They have also been encouraged to question
authority! While you may feel like you are asserting your say-so by arguing
your point, you are simply inviting kids to argue back.

So what do you do in place of arguing your point? First, be clear about
what you expect. Use fewer words, chosen carefully to state what you
expect as matter-of-factly and clearly as you can. Focus on one or two
behaviors, not three, four, or more. Stay out of the arguments. They
are clever "traps" set by campers to derail you. When campers
come at you with something like, "Well, our counselor last year
let us do it," you will not respond! The following dialogue illustrates
how this might go:

You (As the counselor): "Johnny, I need you to help clean up now!"

Johnny "I can't! I'm not finished playing my video

You "I know, it's hard stopping when you're right in
the middle of a game! Right now, everyone is cleaning up and I need you
to help, too! You can play later."

Johnny ignores you.

You (After giving Johnny some time to comply by momentarily turning your
attention to someone else, you return to him. You lower yourself to Johnny's
eye level and state calmly, but seriously in an even voice): "Johnny,
everybody knows it's time to clean up, and I expect you to help
out, too." (You hold your gaze for a few seconds, not saying anything

The above example illustrates both a business-like even handedness,
calm voice, and a few well chosen words. You were even able to acknowledge
Johnny's feelings while asking him to help out with clean-up.

What's missing, of course, is that at camp you spend long hours
with campers. It does happen that your patience can wear thin! Knowing
when to take a breath, take a mini-time out, or get help is key to doing
your job well, too.

Stop, Start, Continue

When you think about camper behavior I think you will agree that most
all of it can be put into three categories. Campers are either doing
something we don't want them to do — things we want them
to stop; they are not doing things we want them to start doing; or they
are doing things we want them to continue doing. "Start, stop,
continue" is a phrase I first heard from a friend of mine, Jay
Frankel, who does a lot of corporate and camp training regarding adult
staff. As I thought about it, I realized the phrase applies equally well
to camper behavior.

What is useful about thinking this way? It turns out that we use very
different strategies with campers depending on whether we want them to
start, stop, or continue doing something. What you would use to have
a camper stop teasing another camper is very different, for example,
from what you use to get them to start cleaning up or go to an activity.

Start Strategies

There are several start strategies. Like anything you do with children,
strategies need to be adjusted to fit the age group you are working with
at the time. Getting campers to start doing what they are not is best
addressed by building momentum. In other words, get the least resistant,
most cooperative campers to start first, then, one by one, focus your
attention on the remaining campers who still need to brush their teeth,
get out of bed, go to an activity, etc. Another start strategy is to
make a challenge out of something, like campers racing against counselors,
as in who can get it done or get there first. Another is to play personal
best, where you keep a chart or simple log of the time it takes for everyone
to have their clothes picked up or get in line or get to the next activity.
Campers then try to "beat the clock" and come up with their
personal best time. Other strategies include doing "countdowns," where
you count down from, say, ten to one, by which time everyone needs to
be in compliance. Or, give special privileges or surprises as motivation,
or hand out "fuzzies" or similar tokens (stickers work well
with younger children).

The key to all start strategies is the energy level and participation
of counselors. If you are attempting to get campers to clean up their
cabin while directing them from your bed, they will listen to your "prone
body language" and not your words! If you are helping out in an upbeat,
fun way, your enthusiasm will be contagious.

Threatening campers is not an acceptable start strategy. It is simply
an act of desperation that shows you have lost the upper hand with
your campers. If you find yourself resorting to threats, get help either
from fellow staff or your unit director or head counselor.

Another "start" strategy involves a different kind of persuasion
or influence, which my friend, Jay Frankel, calls "getting on your
camper's train." I call it "putting money in the bank
with your campers." Take the previous example where Johnny is playing
his video game and refusing to clean up. If the counselor were to sit with
Johnny for 90 seconds and ask him about his game — in other words,
enter his world momentarily — the counselor can join Johnny in his
enthusiasm, giving him a better vantage point for then persuading the boy
to help out. It might go something like this:

You (As the counselor): "Johnny, I need you to help clean up now!"

Johnny "I can't! I'm not finished playing my video game!"

You "Oh, cool! What game are you playing?"

Johnny "Planet Defenders!"

You "Cool! I've never heard of that one. How does it go?"

Johnny "It's complicated. I can't explain it right now,
I'm in the middle of a game!"

You "Well it looks pretty cool. Maybe after clean-up, if we have
enough time, you can show me. I have an X-box at home, and it's pretty

Johnny "But I'm playing now!"

You "I know, and it is hard stopping in the middle of a game. And
there will be plenty of time for that. In fact, if you get started now,
I can help you and then if we get done fast enough, you can show it to
me. I'd love for you to show me how it works. And there's always
time at rest hour!"

Johnny (Reluctantly): "Oh, okay."

As Johnny's counselor, you were reasonable, you were "on message," you
were calm, but you also took a few moments to enter his reality, which
allowed him to give up his game and join you. Smart counselor!

Stop Strategies

Getting campers to stop an undesirable behavior requires qualitatively
different strategies. I have already described the first line of action,
which is to state clearly, calmly, and firmly what you expect, focus only
on one or two requests at a time, stay out of arguments, repeat your request
once if you need to, then let go. It is the "let go" part most
counselors have trouble with. Hovering over a child only makes them feel
you do not trust them and elicits resistance. It may help make you feel
like you are more in charge, but it is not what smart counselors do. State
what you expect and then detach. Turn your attention to someone or something
else for a moment or two. Give your camper a chance to comply.

"State what you expect, then detach" is one of the few stop
strategies that is also a start strategy. In other words you can use it
in both instances. From there, things diverge. If a child does not comply
and stop an unwanted behavior, the rule of thumb is to separate them from
their audience. That either means having the camper step aside with you
away from the group, or having your co-counselor or other adult move the
group onto their next activity, etc. Once a camper can no longer "play
to the audience," you get better listening and better compliance.
All smart counselors know to do this — they just forget, sometimes,
in the heat of the moment.

Another stop strategy is to give your camper a momentary time out. I
use time-outs not so much as punishment, but as a way of allowing a
camper to regain self-control when they have gotten too agitated or
need to calm down. There are two rules: Always prompt a camper first
by giving them the choice. It sounds like this:

You "So, Sally, are you telling me you need a time out?"

Sally "No!"

You "That's great! So then that means you can stop yelling
at your friends."

Sally "But they're being mean to me!"

You "There are other ways to get people to listen to you, and I can
help you with that, but not yelling. So are you telling me you can try
something else, and you don't need a time out?"

Sally (complaining, but complying): "YES!"

You "Great! So let's work this out. I'll help you."

Once a camper does need a time out, the rule of thumb is one minute
for each year old they are. At camp, ten minutes for a ten-year-old is
a long time. Simply make it long enough whether you feel a camper has
calmed down and is willing to try something else. By the way, smart counselors
know that for campers to stop doing one thing they need to have something
else that is acceptable to do in its place. A child who is hitting may
need to use his words. Sally may need to learn how to say something in
place of swears even though she feels other girls are being mean to her.

Having a lot of strategies is something that comes with experience.
One thing that is clear is that smart counselors know that it takes no
skill and no work to be rude, to be defensive, or to be emotional with
campers. To be thoughtful, have self-control, and make a difference takes
time, effort, and practice. Smart counselors make camp the powerful growing
experience that it can be for children. And that makes all the difference!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child,
adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and
can be reached via e-mail at or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In
the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2006 July/August
issue of Camping Magazine.