I am glad to hear that you were able to use the piece on counselor judgment with your staff during your mid-season turnover. As you know, safety is a central concern for parents and camp professionals alike, and counselor judgment is an essential ingredient in maintaining both physical and emotional well-being at camp.
Your letter prompts me to share some observations and insights from my work at camps across the country this summer, starting with counselor judgment.
An effective way to introduce the “Counselor Judgment Checklist” to your staff during orientation is to have them get into groups of three to five and brainstorm situations they have actually been in or imagine that they might be in with campers (or other staff) during the summer. Mix your staff by handing out different colored 3- by 5-inch file cards that correspond to how long staff have been at camp. For example, hand out green file cards to your first-time counselors who have also never been campers at your camp; yellow cards to returning staff; blue or pink cards to staff who have been campers at your camp; and purple cards to staff who have been on staff for three years or more. Include at least one person from each color-card category in every brainstorming group. Staff in these particular groupings will provide very different perspectives during the brainstorming exercise.
The above exercise lends itself to an important discussion about making choices. Counselor judgment, like camper and staff behavior, is a series of choices. Most campers and counselors act so quickly or routinely (or unconsciously) that they are not aware they are actually making a choice. I am often struck by how children (as well as staff!) do not see that the consequences they experience come directly from choices they make.
For example, when a counselor is “called on the carpet” for some misbehavior, often his or her lament will be, “Why are you getting me in trouble?” The truth is that it was the counselor’s behavior and the choices he or she made that brought about the “trouble.” No one “got the counselor into trouble” — rather, it was a choice made without thinking seriously about the impact of that choice. I am reminded of a book title I recently saw that carries a similar message: How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Finger Prints Are on the Knife? So often, it is our own behavior that brings about the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Likewise, campers are often surprised to learn they have a choice when it comes to the way they act. The most common example is when a camper feels ridiculed or hurt by another child and responds by verbally or physically assaulting the offender. Many children have trouble making the choice to talk it out, get help, or respond in a less aggressive way. Campers often need to see a respected or admired counselor model other ways of responding to a provocation before they can change their behavior. After all, changing behavior really means making a different choice — something a child cannot do if they don’t know what other choices there might be.
In my experience, children understand the consequences of their choices much better when they are reminded that they can pick the way they act. (You pick a cherry popsicle, you pick volleyball, and you pick a behavior.) This will seem like real news to some kids, and by using the word “pick,” you can keep them interested if for no other reason than it keeps you from sounding like you are about to make a moral judgment.
I remember once talking with a camper about the way he always seemed to whine and complain, which encouraged disdainful responses from his fellow cabin mates. When I said that everyone in the cabin had a kind of “job” (a.k.a., role in the group), and that his job was obviously to be the complainer, he protested (keeping true to his role), “But I don’t like that job!” My response, which really got him thinking, was simply, “I don’t blame you. Why’d you pick that one?” It was the idea that he had picked his job that eventually helped me persuade him to get a new one with fewer adverse consequences.
Part of the challenge of getting children to understand the notion of “choice” has to do with the language you use with them. For example, when adults start talking about choice, many children hear what they might refer to as “adult-speak,” and they stop listening. “When counselors start talking to us about choices,” some campers have told me, “they sound like teachers and not counselors.” Other campers have told me it sounds like a lecture they&rs