Despite years of study and progressive program development, bullying behaviors (or “peer mistreatment”), especially among school-aged children, remain a significant public health problem, says the Centers for Disease Control (2012). Indeed, according to the Committee for Children (2012), a nonprofit working globally to promote children’s social and academic success, nearly one in three students ages twelve to eighteen reports being bullied at school. Evolving strategies to effect lasting change now focus on the outcome rather than the intent, converting bystanders into “upstanders,” and better adult modeling of inclusive social behavior.
Yet, despite our meaningful knowledge sharing about best practices in bullying prevention, we know that unwanted harmful words and actions directed at children and young adults take place at summer camp. As Joel Haber and Lisa Daley (2012) point out in “Bullying Prevention: Are You Up to Speed?”: “Bullying will take place wherever and whenever there is lack of a respected adult presence.”
So, what do we do? Add to our arsenal of curricula additional educational efforts aimed not just at identifying and discouraging hurtful behaviors, but also teaching and encouraging helpful ones.
- Create a community of caring.
- Develop socialization and friendship skills.
- Define appropriate relationships and expressions of affection.
- Encourage teamwork.
- Coach conflict resolution.
- Hold all members of the camp community accountable for their behavior as part of the collective community.
These comprise what I refer to as paradoxical prevention. Traditional prevention strategies generally target unwanted behaviors head on. A less common but more provocative paradigm suggests a paradoxical approach — creating an environment diametrically opposed to the problem and thus inconsistent with the bullying, harassing behaviors we try to excise from our camps. Let’s explore each of these six critical components of bullying prevention.
Creating a Community of Caring
Indeed, camp communities have historically been caring ones. Caring communities are ones in which all members feel safe — both physically and emotionally — and are able to express themselves through words and actions without fear of failure or ridicule.
Providing Physical and Emotional Safety
It goes without saying (or at least it should) that caring communities protect children from harm. Much of what we tend to cover during orientation and likely stress throughout the summer pertains directly to physical safety: swim with a buddy; count the children; wear bike helmets and life vests; match teams according to skill level and size; learn emergency procedures. All are important, and obvious, components of providing a safe physical environment for children and adults.
Creating a safe emotional environment is important as well. According to a list once posted on the refrigerator in our camp office, safe places are ones in which:
- People are kind.
- There is laughter that comes from sharing meaningful work and play.
- There are rules . . . they are few and fair and are made by the people who live and work there, including the children.
- People listen to each other.
- People care about each other.
Developing Friendship Skills
Ask most any camper — and staf f member — what they like best about summer camp, and they are likely to cite the friendships they have created and that appear, for many reasons, to be qualitatively different than those formed elsewhere. Indeed, close relationships between children and adults of all ages and backgrounds are the hallmark of the positive summer camp experience. They are the glue that binds pretty much everything else we do.
Thus, a goal for all of us this summer should be the promotion and facilitation of friendships while creating and sustaining a community of caring.
In many important ways, camps promote opportunities for children (and their counselors) to play, express humor, connect with their peer group, and find acceptance.
Play helps kids expend energy, deal with frustrations in a physical way, get the human contact they crave, satisfy their need to compete, channel aggression in acceptable ways, and develop social skills.
What can your counselors do?
They can help by promoting play and encouraging everyone’s participation.
Humor helps kids verbalize thoughts and questions about taboo subjects and helps them to deal with things they may be too afraid, or too embarrassed, to discuss directly.
What can your counselors do?
They can help by listening carefully for clues as to what’s really on kids’ minds.
Peers help kids see how they stack up as they provide a more realistic gauge of skills and abilities than do parents or family members. Peers also serve as a filter of attitudes and values promoted by adults.
What can your counselors do?
They can help by promoting healthy peer interaction.
Acceptance among peers is of critical importance to kids and affects their overall emotional and physical well-being. Kids who feel well-liked and accepted by their peers tend to be healthy, poised, adaptable, and conforming.
What can your counselors do?
They can help by praising kids. Studies show that praising children in front of their peers can have a positive effect on the way others view them.
Of course, regardless of the age, all members of a camp community benefit from these key ingredients of summer camp!
Building Relationships with Campers and Staff
One of the greatest opportunities our counselors will experience in their lives will be the chance to contribute something positive to a child’s life and to build constructive working relationships with their fellow staff members. Taking advantage of those opportunities requires no small amount of effort to find appropriate and effective strategies that work with each camper or coworker.
Defining Appropriate Relationships
As discussed, an overriding goal for camps is to make sure that all members of the community, regardless of sex, age, or position, feel safe and comfortable. And that means not only avoiding many of the behaviors we discourage, but also being proactive in pursuing appropriate replacements:
- Following camp policies regarding appropriate expression of friendship and affection (including safe touch protocols).
- Encouraging any child and adult to seek help if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
Appropriate expressions of friendship and affection include verbalizations of support and caring and, physically, quick pats on the back or quick hugs.
Relationship building begins the moment a child arrives at camp — and so does the chance to help that child grow. Staff members will also, at the same time, be building relationships with other counselors, becoming — in effect — teammates.
According to Stephen Robbins and Timothy Judge, authors of Organizational Behavior (2012), effective teams are ones in which freedom and autonomy are encouraged. Effective teams also perform work that has a substantial impact on others. Can you think of a bigger impact than the one you and your staff have on your campers?
During staff orientation at my camp, I encourage teamwork with three simple, yet critical, requests:
- Be a team player. This means sharing the work, anticipating what needs to be done, volunteering to help out, and supporting your fellow counselors.
- Be a good role model. This means always doing your best (even when no one is watching) and following the rules.
- Have fun! This means looking for ways to enjoy each other’s company. Teams that play together stay together . . . and if the kids see us having fun with each other, they’ll do the same.
These three principles work equally well for the children.
Coaching Conflict Resolution
Of course, there exist conflicts in most all human relationships. From time to time, it is likely we will have conflicts with our campers and with each other. They are inevitable and not inherently problematic. What is most important is how those conflicts are resolved.
There are several principles of effective communication and problem solving that are important to keep in mind. Try to:
- Build paths to success for all.
- Recognize the legitimacy of different points of view.
- Maintain open, honest communication.
If addressing a conflict or concern directly, it is critical that it be done as privately as possible. Also, it’s usually best to avoid the temptation to communicate disagreements or expressions of anger electronically, as sentiments may be hard to interpret or shared inappropriately with others.
A Collective Responsibility
Finally, it is incumbent on all members of our communities — kids and staff alike — to address concerns directly rather than engage in put-downs or “character assassinations.” Simply complaining about someone or something will do nothing to make your community stronger and better. It should be a stated expectation that if someone has a concern, he or she will do one of two things (in order of preference):
- Approach the individual directly and communicate the concern in order to seek a positive resolution.
- Speak with a superior (move up, not down or sideways) authorized to address the situation.
Everyone has a responsibility to report unacceptable behavior regardless of whether it is directed at children or adults. Fundamental to any program designed to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones is a framework in which rules are set and expectations are enforced. Thus, it is critical that campers and staff understand how they will be held accountable for their behavior through either your camper or staff codes of conduct and disciplinary policies.
The Spectrum of Unwanted Behaviors
Even with these efforts, it is likely that some unwanted behaviors will take place between campers and staff. So, what are the behaviors we’re trying to prevent? Teasing, taunting, hazing, and bullying . . . none are acceptable at camp. (See this PDF for help defining these behaviors.) Each of these behaviors undermines the very value system we promote and creates conflict.
Such bullying leaves many kids (and adults) feeling unsafe, humiliated, and angry. Thus, we have additional important work to do.
- Teach children when and how to ask for help.
- Provide supervision, particularly during unstructured time.
- Set firm and consistent limits on aggressive behavior.
- Help kids understand how bullying hurts other children.
- Encourage kids to support others who may be bullied.
We are also wise to remember that bullying affects everybody — whether they are victims, bullies, or bystanders and whether they are children or adults. By taking a paradoxical, “back-door” approach to bullying prevention, we can achieve an ultimate goal of the summer camp experience . . . friendship.
So, let’s be friends!
Centers for Disease Control. (2012). Measuring bullying victimization, perpetration, and bystander experiences: a compendium of assessment tools. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/measuring_bullying.html 
Coloroso, B. (2004). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From preschool to high school, how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Committee for Children. (2012). Bullying: how and why we should prevent it. Retrieved from www.cfchildren.org/advocacy/bullyingprevention.aspx 
Haber, J. & Daley, L. (2012). Bullying prevention: Are you up to speed? American Camp Association. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/bullying/bullyingprevention 
The Ophelia Project. (2012). Retrieved from www.opheliaproject.org/main/index.htm 
Robbins, Stephen P. & Judge, Timothy A. (2012). Organizational behavior (15th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Vaughn, Gretchen. (2007). Normal conflict vs. bullying/relational aggression. Retrieved from http://w3.cnm.edu/~erieb/CSE1101/Activities/NormalConflictBullying.pdf 
Stephen Gray Wallace , MS Ed, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com .
© Summit Communications Management Corporation. 2013 All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts
Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.