Train Away Risk

by Chris Rollins

The summer season is over and you've probably taken a deep breath and let out a long sigh. As you reflect over the summer and its problems, you realize that most of them, though challenging, were manageable because you were prepared. There may have been a few that you never saw coming or those that took on a life of their own because they weren't managed properly. So, like most years, you say to yourself, "I'll cover that in training next year."

Preparing staff training in this reactive way, however, does not work as well as a systematic approach to identifying and planning for areas of risk. The best way to manage risk is through staff education and training and by a pro-active crisis plan to manage unforeseen problems as they arise. Staff members play an important role in risk management and each member of the staff should see him or herself as a risk manager. Your staff must feel responsible for themselves, the campers, and the environment in which they work.

Identifying Risks

When identifying areas of risk that need to be covered in precamp training, a helpful question to ask yourself is, "How can campers be hurt doing. . . ?" and then list your programs and the activities you offer. For example, many camps offer swimming, boating, horseback riding, arts and crafts, nature, sports, trips, archery, or riflery. In each of these activities campers can hurt themselves or be hurt by objects or other people handling equipment. Other areas of risk that might not be so easily seen or taken into account are native animals, plants and insects, or the danger that one child poses to another.

Listing specific things that may cause risk is the first, necessary step. However, looking at the broader picture of categories of risk allows you to manage risk in an orderly fashion and will keep you from planning for a specific event instead of planning for the risk itself. Two of the largest categories of risk for camps are relationships and program activities.

Relationships as a Risk

The category of relationships may be the easiest area of risk to overlook, the hardest to plan for, and yet one of the most damaging to the organization if problems occur. Three areas of concern in this category include child-to-child, staff-to-child, and staff-to-staff.

Children can cause verbal, physical, and emotional harm to themselves and others. Name calling and teasing can rise to the level of abuse both verbally and emotionally and often escalate to physical abuse. Another form of emotional abuse stems from a bully situation or when groups of campers may exclude one or more campers because of religion, gender, or race. These two categories are difficult to prevent because much of the interaction between campers goes on out of sight of staff members.

Staff members may also cause verbal, physical, and emotional abuse to campers, peers, and themselves. Combating these harms takes diligent recruiting efforts, adequate training methods, and proper monitoring.

Removing the risk
Taking risk out of relationships begins with the recruitment of qualified staff. The interview process must include questions and role-playing situations, which put potential staff members into conflict situations. From their responses, the interviewer can evaluate the candidate's ability to interact appropriately with campers and peers. Many states also provide free or low-cost child abuse screening processes for potential staff members and will notify the organization if the staff member has been involved in a child abuse case. Using these methods and similar ones will provide the best possible candidates for your summer staff.

Teaching appropriate behavior
After the best staff are chosen, they must be educated on what is and is not appropriate conduct. You must not assume that staff know what is and is not appropriate language, actions, and touching.

During staff training, define appropriate words, actions, behaviors, and language the staff may use in the camp setting. Just as your camper population comes from all different backgrounds and family situations, so to do your staff. Staff may be unable to recognize a potential serious conflict arising between campers because counselors' personal lives have given them a skewed set of definitions for appropriate behavior. For example, appropriate touching in a family setting may include kissing, hugging, even intimate contact, yet each of these actions may or may not be appropriate for the camp setting. Also, remember physical abuse is not limited to striking someone hard enough to cause a bruise.

Defining appropriate touching 
Appropriate and inappropriate touching, language, and actions must be defined for all staff on a larger scale. For example, a definition for appropriate touching may include physical contact for the express purpose of nurturing the person touched. The touch is given to convey approval, reassurance, and trust with no expectations of anything in return, and the toucher always takes into account the touchees level of comfort.

Conversely, a definition of inappropriate touching may include physical contact that violates the touchee's comfort level and is achieved through the use of power on the part of the toucher. It is given or forced for the primary satisfaction of the toucher and may also include intentional or unintentional injury.

For another example, let's analyze two forms of child abuse: corporal punishment and neglect. All camps disallow forms of corporal punishment, i.e., no physical harm can be done to a child. Most staff would understand this before camp begins. However, many staff may not be aware that neglect is a form of child abuse. Making a camper do jumping jacks because she was not quiet in line may do as much emotional damage as making her stand in the rain alone because she was late for a meal. Also, ignoring a child who seems to need more attention than all the other campers combined could be viewed as neglect. Many staff may not see these examples as forms of child abuse before precamp training.

Getting the most from precamp training
These definitions and others dealing with appropriate and inappropriate conduct need to be given to the staff during precamp training. Small and large group discussion on these topics and role-playing situations should be acted out. Only after staff have the time to absorb and practice using these new ways of interaction are they ready to meet and interact with campers.

Other prevention tips include training staff in observation techniques so they learn how to detect physical abuse. Likewise, staff members should be aware of general group dynamics so that they can observe the way in which their group of campers forms their social ties. They will then be able to head off the bully or loner camper.

Finally, to reinforce the seriousness of these matters, place questions in the staff job evaluations to indicate whether the staff member has appropriately conducted themselves in front of campers and staff and whether they have been able to minimize the risk of camper-to-camper situations.

Program Activities as a Risk

The second category of risk, program activities, is manageable as well, as long as staff are trained to approach each activity in a preventive manner.

First, examine the time of day different activities are scheduled. Staff need to be aware that on any given day there should be a balance of low-energy activities and moderate-to-high energy activities. Injuries are more likely to occur in high-energy activities when children are too warm, too tired, or hungry. For example, after breakfast moderate activities such as playing games in the meadow or going on a scavenger hunt would be a good way to start the day and get campers ready for a more high-energy activity.

After warming up, swimming, hiking, or other high-energy activities would be appropriate. Just before lunch, when the campers' blood sugar is low, have them do chores around the unit, go to arts and crafts, or participate in other low-risk, low-energy activities. After lunch, the cycle should be repeated so at the end of the day the day's activity levels reflect a roller-coaster pattern.

Fourth-day syndrome
Staff should also take into account fourth-day syndrome. As defined by Linda E. Erceg, R.N., president of the association of camp nurses, fourth-day syndrome reflects the fact that the fourth day of camp produces the most trips to the health center.

On the first day of camp, campers arrive having not slept very well the night before because of a mix of anxiety and excitement about camp. That first day is full of different emotions for campers. They've left the safety of their parents and their world has been turned upside down. As a result, campers usually sleep less the first night of camp than they did the night before.

During the second day of camp, campers want to experience everything, and they run on full steam. By the third day, campers are sleep deprived, and their immune system is low. They probably haven't eaten a well-balanced diet either, living off of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the last few meals. By the fourth day, campers wake up with sore throats, headaches, stomachaches, and are generally overtired.

Fourth-day syndrome is easily preventable, however. If you make adjustments to the second and third day schedules to provide for the physical needs of campers, you will have a happier and healthier camp. Plan more moderate activities and rest periods so campers' bodies can recover from the stress caused by the first three days of camp, and you will have fewer campers in the health center.

Staff as active risk managers
Beyond scheduling and regulating the activity level of the campers' programs, staff need to become active managers of risk in their specific program areas. Each staff member should be trained on the risks his specific program poses for campers and staff. Encourage staff to examine the activities and provide suggestions on how to reduce risk to their supervisors. After approval of their suggestions, staff should implement the changes.

The ability to recognize risky
activities and eliminate or minimize the risks for themselves, peers, and campers should be part of staff members' job descriptions and included in the review process. Questions to place on the performance review may take a form of:

  • Does this person manage the activity to eliminate or minimize risk?
  • Does this person manage the cabin group to maintain the health and safety of the group?
  • Does this person manage their health and safety to maintain job effectiveness?

All managers should be given the opportunity to brainstorm ways to reduce risk. They should constantly monitor their staff for behaviors that reduce and increase the opportunity for incidents to occur. Statistics of incidents need to be kept for each program area. If a suggestion is made and changes to the program occur, statistics from before and after the change need to be compared. The data should be used to determine the value of the suggestion.

Reducing risk in relationships and activities at camp requires recruiting qualified staff, educating them on appropriate behavior while at camp, and training them to become risk identifiers and managers. By spending time looking at the specific areas of your program, you should be able to reduce risks for campers and staff.

Chris Rollins is the camping services director of the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis.

Originally published in the 1998 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.