In the Trenches: Lessons from Summer

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

While many camps and most conference centers have engagements well into
the fall, if not for the entire year, much of the most intense work occurs
during the high season of summer. Taking time to reflect on these experiences
while they are still fresh in our minds can provide some rich material
for next summer’s training and steer us toward some “best
practices.” It also helps to think about what I call “SCDC” — Save,
Change, Delete, and Create. When you look back on orientation, your summer
program, or even the way you went about your hiring, what do you want
to save and do again next year? What will you keep, but change, and what
do you want to delete altogether? Finally, what do you want to create
to address a problem or detail that was not covered as well as you would
have liked? Having visited a score of camps from May to July, I am going
to share with you some notes of my own about best practices.


Many camps in the northeast have been hiring counselors from nearby
Canada with generally great results. Aside from the obvious language
benefit, many camp operators report having excellent experiences with
Canadian staff. First, their work ethic overall seems very strong. Second,
the exchange rate currently favors them, which means that whatever you
pay your Canadian workers in U.S. dollars is magnified when converted
back to Canadian dollars. (It is great to be able to pay people more
while not having it cost you more!) In most cases the travel and visa
requirements are less complicated than those for other international
staff. (Many camp directors had the forethought to make sure their Canadian
hires did not travel through Toronto last June, given the SARS scare
that was still in effect at the time.)

Another note about staff involves new hires who have been referred
to camp by former staff members. It seems that once you have a high performing
staff member and she develops a sense of caring and attachment to your
camp, she takes care to refer only people who she knows will “fit
in” to the culture and values of camp. I have consistently witnessed
staff who have been referred by other staff to be among the best performers
of the summer. If you are not “farming” your current staff
for referrals in this way, you should begin doing so.

Behavior Management

This summer, I once again had the chance to see the fundamentals of
managing behavior at work.


One of the most basic notions of behavior management has to do with behavior
substitution. To help a camper change an unwanted or unacceptable behavior,
we need to give him or her something else to do in its place. Otherwise,
even with all the best intentions, children eventually revert back to their
old ways. For example, take the boy at a camp in California who was having
severe, sudden temper outbursts. When the staff would finally calm him down,
they would tell him how “not okay” his behavior was and how he
needed to change if he wanted to stay at camp. At times, the boy would be
remorseful and would promise not to do it again, but sometimes within minutes,
he would be having another outburst. What the counselors did not do was give
the boy an alternative to having an outburst. Once we came up with a substitution,
he began to change. In the case of this particular boy, I suggested that
the counselors tell him that it was okay to feel angry but not do angry things.
When he retorted that no one was the boss of him, I added, “Yeah, not
even you are the boss of you!”

“What do you mean?” he demanded.

“Well, you certainly aren’t running you. Your feelings
are running you! Your feelings are the boss of you.” I told him
I sincerely doubted that he was the “boss of him.” This irritated
him, but also challenged him. Now that I had set the stage (talking is
never enough with children at camp; they then need a new strategy or
behavior), we created a plan where he could “prove” he was
the boss of him. The plan was that, if he got really angry, he was to
run to a certain place that we all agreed on (at his camp, it was a particular
tree) where he could “cool off” before coming back. It was
also okay for a counselor (a condition we insisted on) to approach him
under the tree after a few minutes just to see if he was okay. The first
time he lost his temper again (on the tennis court), the tennis specialist
had to prompt him by saying, “Tree! Tree!” Once he went to
the tree, a counselor came over and simply told him how impressed he
was that he could actually follow through. “Maybe you are the boss
of you after all!” the counselor wondered out loud. The boy did
not stop having a temper, but he was able to manage it better, with the
added benefit of being able to earn praise from the staff for better
controlling himself.


In another case a camper’s behavior was “redirected.” A girl
who had the annoying habit of making noises at night that kept her bunk mates
up was told many times to stop. Only after giving her a “job” at
night of either choosing a few songs the girls could all sing quietly together
in their bunks or picking a story that could be read to all of them did she
begin to comply.

A boy who wandered away from his group at day camp (or who was always
far behind) was given the “job” of carrying the counselor’s
clipboard if he could keep up or be first. (He also got to be the leader
of the line.) When, after a few successes, the other boys began to complain
that they wanted to carry the clipboard or be first in line, the boy
was given the “job” of choosing, along with the counselor,
who would get to do his former jobs. Again, in order to have this coveted
job, he had to stay with the group.

As adults, we need to make our peace with the fact that, in a camp
setting, given the limitations of time and resources, our best approach
is to manage behavior rather than try to change it. The advantages to
all these methods are they return control of behavior to the child while
giving counselors something to do besides get frustrated.

Staff Behavior

In another display of behavior management principals, it turns out
that what works with campers also works with staff. Let’s take
the counselor whose camp background taught him to “manage” inappropriate
camper behavior by demanding, for example, that the offending child “give
me twenty push-ups!” It is not enough to explain to such a counselor
that, even though you know he means well, push-ups and running laps and
hugging trees are “not okay” methods of responding to camper
behavior at your camp. Again, you must give that counselor some other
way to respond to camper behavior, or he will simply go back to what
he has always done.

When a camper swears, for example, that camper needs to apologize to
the group. He or she may also need some suggestions about what else to
do besides swear when they become angry or frustrated. If the group is
challenged by too much inappropriate language, maybe the counselor needs
to create a challenge for the entire group, like a “star chart,” where
for every day that the group goes without using certain words, they earn
or keep a certain number of points. Star charts are easy to set up, and
they promote positive behavior and self-awareness.

In the case of one camp in Ohio where inappropriate language was an
issue with a particular group, the counselor set up a point system; each
day the boys would start with fifty points. For every “swear,” they
lost five points. If they made it through the day without one incident
of swearing, they earned a bonus of ten points. Their goal was to reach
300 points, whereupon they would get to have a special pool party for
their group.

These are only a few examples of lessons learned from the busy summer
months at camp. We can all learn from one another; consider sharing your
summer lessons with us. Use the contact information below. Together,
we make camp not only fun, but a formidable force in each camper’s
growth and development.

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 2003 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.