Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how great camp activities are, which special events seem fun, or even what new facilities have been added if each camper does not feel understood and appreciated. Given the vast number of different tasks a counselor must perform each day, it seems almost impossible to establish a meaningful connection with each camper. Even experienced counselors can become overwhelmed with the prospect of completing assigned duties before the end of the day. Because camp is a delicate balance between meeting individual needs and developing a unified community, the overall experience for some campers is left to chance. Despite our best efforts to be attentive, some requests, behaviors, or expectations are ignored, and campers can quickly feel disconnected.

At camp, the "things to do" list may seem to be longer than the time allotted. Counselors are often racing to get basic duties completed and do not always make time for the most important assignment: to make sure each camper feels they are a special part of the group. This responsibility becomes magnified when schedule changes, undesired attitude, or behavior problems push a counselor’s abilities to the limit. When this happens, potential growth opportunities are lost, and subtle camper cues for help can be missed. These stress factors can build over time and often will carry over to the next session or all season.

Both day and resident camp counselors need acclimation time to get used to camper needs and group sizes. Some programs are short in length so adding campers who need additional attention can really disrupt the group-interaction process. Depending on the situation, some counselors may be assigned one camper and others will have a group of ten or more, but in either case, the responsibility for inclusion is the same. All campers have specific needs, and your job is to discover what they are and then provide solutions that are both functional and age-appropriate.

How Is It Possible to Have the Time to Be Inclusive?

Before we get into specific skills, let us begin by acknowledging being a camp counselor is fun. In fact, the ability to play, and play well, is one of the most effective tools you have. Metaphorically speaking, you are going to use controlled forms of recreation as a vehicle to model the very essence of camp — teaching life skills!

To do this effectively, counselors must understand how to evaluate efficiently the progression of self-awareness. This process will include: understanding the social and emotional development of children; working on individual competencies; seeing the value in parallel process; knowing the qualities of an inclusive counselor; and demonstrating skills to help campers build friendships.

Improving Desired Outcomes

After orientation concludes and you are nervous with the anticipation of campers arriving, please keep in mind you have very little time to make a difference in a child’s life. You can improve your group’s desired outcomes by starting with your own developmental process and making it a priority to acquire a set of skills that include understanding the social and emotional development of children. This means you have to simultaneously be aware of your own feelings while observing and comprehending the emotional states of others. During daily activities you need to manage strong emotions/expressions and carefully use them in a constructive manner. Strive to establish workable and lasting friendships by regulating your own behavior while developing empathy for others.

As you pick up skills in the different activity areas of camp, remember many children have disabilities you cannot see. You may have to alter your teaching techniques or instructional approach for maximum effectiveness. This elevated thinking allows you to develop a set of competencies that promotes both camper inclusion and experiential education. Specifically, you are looking for age-appropriate ways to problem solve by using campers’ interests as motivational tools to develop skills. One way to do this is to modify traditional activities so the parameters fit your objectives. Develop innovative rules, words, or costumes that create a new way of accomplishing what you want. Modifying activities to benefit campers will encourage additional skill sets to be used, thus improving your chances for daily success.

In order to be effective as an inclusive counselor, you must make the camp experience personal to every camper. In the beginning of each session, you are responsible for explaining expectations and discussing how each person’s role contributes to the group development process: this includes instructions from specialists and taking directions from supervisors. Well known clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel states in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, "Children learn by our example. If children are to develop genuine respect for you, they need to know what respect looks like in action" (p. 63). Let older campers take an active part in decision making by allowing them to help set consequences. Use activities to teach campers how specific actions will lead to group support using the common denominators of mutual respect and individual understanding.

This type of interaction with campers should not be limited to group or cabin functions. It needs to be a critical component of a communication process that includes parents, administration, support staff, CITs, and alumni. Because counselors are different ages and have varying amounts of experience and education, it is important to implement a system where each member of the camp community feels comfortable speaking. How you act/react with campers should reflect, in some ways, how guidance is given by supervisors. Camp leaders should also be modeling this parallel process with senior staff so it reflects a consistent philosophy of open dialog.

Tips for Effective Counselors

It is impossible to define the actual skill set you need for every situation. Camp life changes quickly and independent variables like weather, staff illness, and natural occurrences all require fast thinking and intelligent decisions. However, effective counselors strive to master some universal skills that positively translate in most situations. Keep in mind these important tips when dealing with kids:

  • Try not to make important decisions when you are exhausted. Being tired is one of your biggest time management obstacles, so occasionally use discretion and get some sleep!
  • Keep your sense of humor handy, and use it when appropriate.
  • Participate in activities with motivation.
  • Understand their world, yet be mature in decision making.
  • Be responsible at ALL times but have fun.
  • Set a good example for others, and embrace the diversity of each camper’s abilities.
  • Have a genuine passion to improve the lives of others by showing unconditional positive regard.

The reason you need to be so deliberate about your actions is because campers need a safe env ironment before they feel comfortable taking risks. Once they feel secure, the real learning will begin. Fundamental to the camp experience is the opportunity for campers to interact with peers and build friendships. Although fostering friendships and preventing rejection among campers might not seem like one of the most critical parts of a counselor’s job, in all actuality, it is.

Achieving Group Cohesion

Research suggests that children who are rejected by their peers are at risk for a host of negative outcomes in life. Early peer rejection has been found to predict delinquency and externalizing behavior in adolescence (Bagwell, Molina, Kashdan, Pelham, & Hoza, 2006 ; Laird, Jordan, Dodge, Petit, & Bates, 2001; Prinstein & La Greca, 2004). Peer rejection in childhood is also associated with adolescent alcohol and tobacco use, school dropout, adult psychopathology, and juvenile and adult crime (Greene, et al., 1999; Parker & Asher, 1987). Furthermore, peer perceptions predict long-term adjustment better than other variables including academic performance, intellectual functioning, and teacher perceptions (Cowen, et al., 1973). Taken together, these f indings highlight the importance of preventing peer rejection in childhood.

Innovative counselors who want to achieve group cohesion understand the ongoing responsibility to foster friendships and prevent peer rejection among their campers. Arguably the most essential thing a counselor can do to support peer friendships is to be inclusive to all campers in their group. There are several ways a camp counselor can accomplish this goal:

  • Spend one-on-one time with each of your campers.

    Counselors need to find time each day to spea k indiv idua l ly to each camper. Because of the aforementioned hectic schedules, it can be difficult to devote time to each individual camper. However, spending one-on-one time w ith each camper models positive behavior and can have a big impact on campers’ behavior. When counselors engage in a conversation, no matter how brief, with each camper in their group, that counselor is saying to all of the other campers in the group, "This camper is important, special, and valued." Taking time to do this with each camper not only relays the message each camper is important, but also greatly decreases the impression of a counselor having a "favorite" camper or group of campers. These conversations should take place as often as possible and only need to last a few minutes to be effective.

  • Praise your campers for positive peer interactions.

    When campers misbehave, counselors are taught ways to correct the undesirable behavior. However, not many counselors are taught how to praise their campers for exhibiting positive behaviors. Positive reinforcement is an effective tool for increasing the occurrence of positive behaviors and can be used to encourage inclusiveness in a camp group. Counselors should openly praise their campers for being friendly to all campers in the group and including everyone in activities. Simply stating, "I like the way you all are eating lunch together today!" can show the campers the counselor appreciates their behavior.

  • Engage in a variety of activities that highlight the strengths of different campers.

    Although your camp schedule may be fairly well established, counselors inevitably have time when they can choose an activity for their campers. Often counselors fall into a pattern of choosing similar activities to fill these empty slots, such as alternating between playing Frisbee and kicking a soccer ball around. Although these are two different activities, they both rely on a certain level of athletic ability to excel. Odds are, not all of the campers in your group are going to be athletic. So it is important to vary the activities you choose. Sports one day, an art activity the next — choosing activities that allow different campers to excel and experience success can help a counselor avoid camper hierarchies within a group and teach their campers everyone is valued equally regardless of their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Work toward group goals.

    Teaching your campers the importance of working together as a group promotes teamwork and friendships. When campers experience success as a group, it strengthens the bond between all of the campers who worked to achieve the goal. Counselors can set group goals for a variety of behaviors or accomplishments. For example, counselors can set goals/rewards for having everyone clean up the lunch table in less than two minutes, having everyone changed for pool in five minutes, or completing a team-building activity.

  • Divide your campers carefully.

    Throughout the summer, your camp group will inevitably need to be divided into smaller teams to play sports or participate in larger special activities. As a counselor, it is important to use ideas such as birthdays or first letters of their name to separate campers. This will avoid potentially devastating situations where someone is picked last or not at all.

The Perfect Environment

Camp is the perfect environment to help children feel understood and appreciated. Having the time to participate in activities with campers gives you the opportunity to interpret and influence the social and emotional development of children positively. It is important to develop age-appropriate ways to problem solve while making the camp experience personal. Through a strong communication model of parallel process, counselors need to implement some universal tips to help build strong friendships. Although it is unrealistic to expect that all of your campers will be friends, teaching them to appreciate each other is the desired outcome. Once you begin to empower campers to be inclusive, they will begin to appreciate how fun camp can be when peer rejection is replaced with universal understanding. Lastly, spend individual time with each camper. Use this bond to make camp an unforgettable experience by motivating campers to be respectful with each other. If you use their individual strengths to help attain group goals, you will teach them the power of what they can achieve when everyone feels included in the decision-making process.

Bagwell, C.L., Molina, B.S.G., Kashdan, T.B., Pelham, W.E., & Hoza, B. (2006). Anxiety and mood disorders in adolescents with childhood Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14(3), 178-187.

Cowen, E.L., Pederson, A., Babigian, H., Izzo, L.D., & Trost, M.A. (1973). Long-term followup of early detected vulnerable children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 41(3), 438-446.

Greene, R.W., Biederman, J., Faraone, S.V., Wilens, T.E., Mick, E., & Blier, H.K. (1999). Further validation of social impairment as a predictor of substance use disorders: Findings from a sample of siblings of boys with and without ADHD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 28, 349-354.

Laird, R.D., Jordan, K.Y., Dodge, K.A., Petit, G.S., & Bates, J.E. (2001). Peer rejection in childhood, involvement with antisocial peers in early adolescence, and the development of externalizing behavior problems. Development & Psychopathology, 13(2), 337-354.

Mogel, Wendy. (2001). The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. New York: Scriber.

Parker, J.G., & Asher, S.R. (1987). Peer relations and later personal adjustment: Are lowaccepted children at risk? Psychological Bulletin, 102, 357-389.

Prinstein, M.J., & La Greca, A.M. (2004). Childhood peer rejection and aggression as predictors of adolescent girls’ externalizing and health risk behaviors: A 6 year longitudinal study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 103-112.

Greg Cronin of GCTrainingSolutions is a certified camp director and consultant with over thirty years of camp experience. For information on staff trainings and workshops, please visit www.GCTrainingSolutions.com. Contact the author at 703-395-6661 or e-mail Greg@GCTrainingSolutions.com.

Joanna Sadler has over twenty years of camp experience as a camper and a counselor. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Virginia Tech, a master’s degree in psychology from James Madison University, and is currently a doctoral student in child clinical psychology at Ohio University.

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.