In the Trenches: Using Sound Judgment

by Bob Ditter

One of the tasks of caring for campers is learning to balance fun with safety. This balancing act is a central, though often subtle, part of a counselor's job, and it can be a formidable task. There are many times when a staff person must make a judgment that will affect campers' well-being. This decision can be the difference between someone getting hurt and everyone having a great time and staying healthy. Having good judgment is the key to maintaining the safety of your group, both physically and emotionally.

Acquiring a good sense of judgment takes time and experience. It is not something you can learn from a book or a lecture. In addition, some of the situations you face take place during off-camp trips or happen out of the range of your supervisors. That is why it is important to have some guidelines to help you make sound judgment calls on your own.

Counselor Judgment Checklist

The following checklist is designed to help counselors cultivate sound, consistent judgment:

  • What are the physical risks involved in this activity/this decision?
  • Are there any risks (emotional or physical) I might not be able to see?
  • If something were to go wrong and someone got hurt (physically/emotionally), how would I feel?
  • Who is this activity/decision really for - me or the campers?
  • How much am I getting caught up in this - how activated are my emotions - and how might that be clouding my judgment?
  • What would I do if the campers' parents were watching?
  • What would I decide if the camp director were watching?
  • How will I think about or look back on this decision tomorrow?

If you pause before making a decision that affects your campers and think through the checklist, it can help you make a call that is healthiest for you and your group.

Truths about Campers

In addition to the checklist, counselors should know certain "truths" about working with campers. These concepts can affect the safety of your campers. The three concepts are as follows:

  • the tendency for campers (and sometimes, counselors!) to become overstimulated.
  • the effect campers can have on adults, known as regressive pull.
  • the situation some people call player-umpire.

Let's take a look at each of these concepts and see how they might affect your judgment.

Overstimulation affects judgment
Overstimulation occurs when children become so caught up in the excitement of the moment that they are swept away by their feelings and lose their sense of judgment. While activities that are highly stimulating, such as mud sliding, having water fights, splashing in the pool, wrestling, and going on an organized "raid," are fun, they can cause children to lose perspective or self-control.

When children become overstimulated, it is very difficult to calm them down. First, they aren't always sure whether to take your appeals to quiet down seriously (children may think your requests are just another part of the game). Second, they can't always see what harm might come as a consequence of their behavior. Because highly stimulating activities are also attractive to counselors and because children often beg counselors to let them engage in these activities, counselors can end up making a judgment call based on what is popular instead of what is necessarily safe.

This does not mean that camp should be devoid of things like snowball fights in July or mud sliding on rainy days. It does mean, however, that decisions to engage in such activities must be made carefully, followed by especially watchful supervision. As a counselor overseeing an activity that is particularly stimulating, you must take special care to look for signs that show campers are becoming so agitated or excited that they are beginning to lose their sense of judgment and fair play. If you see indications that things are escalating or that the risk-taking is becoming dangerous, the sooner you intercede to cool things off, the easier it will be to keep things within safe bounds. Indeed, knowing when to intercede is itself a judgment call. Often many counselors make the mistake of waiting too long to slow the pace of a game or activity only to have someone get injured.

Adults can become overstimulated, too
The second concept, regressive pull, is when adults, after spending a lot of time with children begin to look and act just like the kids. That is, they become more impulsive, more easily excited, more sarcastic in their verbal interactions, or more easily ruled by their feelings. In other words, adults can become overstimulated, too! Once a counselor has regressed, there is a loss of perspective and sense of consequences that may result in unsound judgment calls.

Regressive pull is a natural phenomenon, though there are several things that you can do to minimize its effects. Being well-rested, getting away from campers from time to time, maintaining outlets for personal emotional and psychological needs, and developing working partnerships with fellow staff members are examples of the kinds of things you can do maintain your equilibrium. Likewise, referring to the counselor judgment checklist may save you from making a decision that leads to trouble.

Participate in games with reserve
Player-umpire refers to the conflict inherent in both playing and supervising a game. When you participate in the game, you may observe the group less critically, you may miss important safety considerations, or you may forget to take steps to avoid accidents or mishaps that you normally would take if you were on the sidelines supervising. Obviously, campers love when counselors play games with them; but as officials at the Department of Public Health in both New York and California have pointed out, most camp accidents happen when counselors get so involved in a game that they drop their duties as good supervisors of children.

Playing a game can never be at the expense of good supervision, keen observation, and sound judgment. When lifeguards are in the water splashing and swimming, they do not have the vantage point or perspective they would have from a lifeguard chair or float or pool deck. If you become so involved in a game that you let go of your responsibility to monitor the group and maintain emotional and physical safety, you are risking your own safety and that of your campers.

This does not mean that counselors cannot have fun and join in with campers. However, when you play with campers, you must remember that you are not playing at the same level you would be with peers. You must learn to participate with a reserve or restraint that allows you to keep an eye on how campers are doing and not so much on how the game is going. You may also want to establish a kind of "tag team" with other staff members where you each take a turn playing while the others supervise.

As staff, you want to have the most fun and trouble-free summer possible. There is no fun in the guilt or anxiety you will ultimately experience if you make a judgment call that results in a camper getting hurt. Using the counselor judgment checklist and following the advice about balancing your work will help you have a healthy, happy summer and will provide your campers with the envelope of safety they need to thrive.

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 2001 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.