The dreaded call comes the day after camp ends. A parent is calling to report that his child had a miserable camp experience because of a bully in their group, a mean counselor, or . . . (you fill in the blank).
What's a camp director to do? You've spent time with your campers, observed their interactions, talked to them, and you and your staff didn't see any of what the parent is now reporting. In fact, you thought the camper was fine, and he even told you he was fine when you specifically asked him how he was doing. Since the campers and staff have gone home, it's hard for you to follow up and find out exactly what happened. You're now at the mercy of the camper's and parents' version of events, and you don't have any information until you do your own investigation. And, what's worse, it's definitely too late to fix whatever the problem was. You're frustrated that you didn't know the problem during camp — especially because you could have worked on a solution that might have turned the camper's miserable experience around. You became a camp director to help people, and you're good at problem solving, but you can't help with a situation if you don't know about it!
About ten years ago, we got tired of learning about bullies, teasing, impatient counselors, and other unhappy situations after it was too late for us to do anything. As a result, we developed a mid-session evaluation process that is time and personnel intensive, but, we believe, has been well worth the work. Campers have the opportunity to share how camp is going in a non-threatening, simple way, and we have the chance to follow up while the campers and staff are still at camp. Our process, which we now refer to as "Half Sheets" (since we use half a sheet of computer paper for each questionnaire), has improved the quality of our camp program. We are able to find out about problems while campers and staff are still at camp and take appropriate measures to resolve issues.
Most camps have an end-of-session evaluation that parents and campers complete (either together or separately). We have found these to be extremely helpful in making decisions and changes to our program, menu, staffing, and other areas of camp. The statistics about our activities, menu items, and staff are helpful as we plan improvements for the following summer. Finding out about bad situations, counselors who aren't meeting our expectations, or bullying, though, are not things we want to hear about after camp is over. Whether it's a dreaded phone call, an e-mail, or a negative post-camp evaluation, we would much rather find out about an issue while the camper is still at camp and the problem can be resolved.
During the summer of 2010, I received two calls from camp director colleagues at different camps within a week of each other. They were both asking about the same thing: How do we do our mid-session camper evaluations? I had shared with them in the past how we had developed a system to find out how campers were doing in the middle of the session. Both camp directors had received post-session phone calls letting them know about bullying in a cabin group of which they and their staff were unaware, and they wanted to try to avoid it in the future.
One of the directors had tried doing mid-session evaluations a few summers before, but had met with resistance from his staff about the process. He was ready to give it a try again and wanted to know how our process worked. I was happy to share. My husband and I later discussed how, given the culture of today's parents and kids, this may be something that all camps will one day need to do. Parents expect us to observe and handle problems even when their child isn't comfortable telling his or her counselor.
Before Camp Begins
The most important part of the process occurs before camp begins during our staff training. We train our leadership staff to conduct camper evaluations. Specifically, they are instructed to:
- Treat the form and process seriously and not rush kids.
- Let campers know how important it is to be honest.
- Explain that counselors and cabin mates would not know what comments the campers wrote.
- Let campers know that the leadership staff member and supervisor of the counselors in the group would be the only ones to read the form, but that they would be following up with appropriate people, including the campers themselves.
Then the leadership staff role play with one another to practice how they will introduce the process to campers and give each other feedback on how they can improve their presentation.
For our new counseling staff not familiar with the process, we explain that some kids, no matter how many times you check in with them one-on-one, will not be comfortable sharing negative feelings and don't want to be viewed as a "tattle tale." By giving campers the opportunity to write down any problems they are having, it gives counselors the opportunity to be aware and help the camper have an improved experience. We show our staff a sample form, so that they will see exactly what campers will be answering. We also explain why the process needs to be confidential (counselors don't see the evaluations), the steps to the process, and their involvement.
Step-by-Step Guide to a Mid-Session Evaluation Process
- Train the leadership staff who will be administering the program.
- Explain the process and the reasons for the mid-session evaluations to your staff during training week.
- During camper orientation, let campers know about the different adults who are available to help them if they need anything. Explain that they will also have the opportunity to write about how camp is going, and that they should let leadership staff know about any problems if they haven't been comfortable talking about it to anyone else.
- Three to four days into camp (for a two-week session), have trained leadership staff meet with the campers (in groups) and have them complete the forms (using the words and process they have been trained to use).
- Campers complete the forms quietly — on their own — generally in less than five minutes. Younger campers may need to dictate to an adult from outside their cabin group.
- Leadership staff review the forms (away from campers) to determine if there are any issues that require follow-up. Once they have talked to campers and conducted follow-up work, leadership staff put notes on the back of the form so that directors can see what has been done to address the issue or concern.
- Depending on the severity of the circumstances or issue, the camp director assesses what additional follow-up needs to done, including a call to the parents to let them know what has occurred and what staff are doing to rectify the situation. The director and/or staff follow up with the camper later in the session to be sure that the problem has been resolved.
- Forms are filed in each individual camper's file, so that they can be referred to later as needed.
In addition to being able to identify and address problems while camp is in session, we have found another benefit to our mid-session evaluation process. Since most of the evaluations are overwhelmingly positive, we have immediate feedback directly from campers to pass along to counselors. They appreciate hearing that their campers are having fun and learning what campers enjoy most about camp. Feedback directly from campers is a powerful tool in staff development that we have found far more effective than the old model of stating our observations of them as a counselor. The mid-session evaluation process took a few summers to hone and perfect to best meet our needs, but we are certain that the tremendous benefits to our program have been worth the time and effort.
Audrey Monke, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) for the past twenty-two years. Audrey has been a member of ACA since 1989 and is the past president of WAIC (Western Association of Independent Camps). Audrey can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com, and more of her articles can be found on her blog at sunshineparenting.blogspot.com.