In 1988, Camp Director Ken O’Kelley developed a leadership program intended to train teenagers in skills utilized at camp, which they could then transition into life skills outside of camp. That first year saw three participants complete a 10-week program. Throughout the years, the program evolved into a highly competitive program called the Advanced Leadership Academy (ALA), with multiple levels of participation. The first level, named Navigators, is a one-week experience that allows campers to experience all the exciting things camp has to offer to an older camper (e.g., water activities, adventure activities, ropes courses). In addition, Navigators are equipped with the basic teamwork, servant leadership, and presentation skills needed to succeed in subsequent ALA programs.

The second level of participation, Advanced Leadership Camp (ALC), is a two-week experience spent learning to serve others first. This leadership program has served elderly in assisted living centers, animals through the Humane Society, the environment, and young day campers. Teenagers in the ALC have directly affected thousands through highly interactive leadership training, including personal presentation skills, peer leadership, and small group leadership.  An interview with a camp administrator is required for admission to ALC.

The third level of participation, called Leader-In-Training (LIT), is a three-week intensive program that serves more than 6,000 campers every summer. YMCA’s character values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility are central tenants in LIT training. Participants will bond over campfires, gain confidence on the ropes course, have nights out with their peers in town, and raft the waves on the Ocoee River. The LIT program is often referred to as the “backbone” of YMCA Camp High Harbour. Its participants are the first to wake in the morning, the last to go to bed at night, and are involved in leadership activities all day long. A professional interview is required for this position.

In 2020, more than 550 teenagers interviewed for the year-round leadership program that will result in either a two-week or three-week summer experience. The ALA develops life-applicable leadership skills in participants Grades 8 and 9. Through our Servant leadership: Advocacy for campers, Learning and personal growth, Task performance, and Teamwork (SALTT) model, young leaders establish attributes that help them advance as leaders — not only at camp, but within their schools and communities.

The YMCA of Metro Atlanta set out to quantify and extend the success of its LIT program and its SALTT model attributes.

Previous Camp-Related Research

Although some research has been completed about the effects of resident camp on its participants (Neill, 2008), far less has addressed leadership training programs that prepare adolescent campers for possible positions as counselors. While much of the participant-based research was lacking in rigor, it suggested benefits of camp in areas such as problem-solving, self-confidence, self-perception, and social skills (Garst, Franz, Baughman, Smith, & Peters, 2009). However, in a summary study of 96 programs (including more than 12,000 children), about one-third of participants did not demonstrate benefits (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997).

Quality of camp staff is considered an important element associated with the developmental and psychosocial outcomes of campers (Thurber et al., 2007; Ventura & Garst, 2013). At the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, we viewed our attention to cultivating teens to be camp counselors as an opportunity to nurture behavioral skills. Such skills could help them in their future educational and professional pursuits, and also foster interpersonal skills that would maximize their positive influence on the young campers they could eventually supervise. We recently extended our efforts through the use of research-to-practice methods, an overview of which is provided here.

Although it was presumed that emerging camp leaders should have high levels of initiative, leadership, teamwork, and compassion, research was not yet incorporated to determine the specific characteristics that would be most beneficial — and whether they could be purposefully cultivated within existing preparatory models. Training practices, currently based on common-sense assumptions, might be advanced using behavioral science; however, this was not yet occurring. We viewed this as an opportunity. To begin addressing that gap, we began a multi-step applied research program focused on first defining behavioral variables critical to future camp counselors’ success, then nurturing them. This would enable more intentional targets for training these dedicated teens and, eventually, determine how this focused training affects the younger campers many will one day supervise.

Design of Our Initial Study

The first step of our research was to determine variables worthy of careful measurement over a period of leadership training processes. Previous related research and focus groups comprised of camp specialists were used to help identify what these factors should be, but behavioral/psychological theory was also incorporated to provide a sound “shape” to both their selection and the study design. In total, eight well-validated scales were extracted from three larger inventories, the Self-Control Schedule (Rosenbaum, 1980), the Multidimensional Adolescent Functioning Scale (Wardenaar et al., 2013), and the Persistence Scale for Children (Lufi & Cohen, 1987). Each of them was designed and validated for adolescent ages, and consistent with existing program philosophies and goals. Table 1 provides names of the specific scales used, their descriptions, and sample items. LITs simply checked responses, which were electronically scored at two points in time.

 Scales Incorporated within the Study

We planned to assess changes over six months in the chosen variables as well as relationships in those changes, again according to behavioral theory. For example, social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1997) and self-regulation theory (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007) indicate that improvements in participants’ self-control will impact their confidence, persistence, and social functioning. Thus, hypotheses were crafted that suggested statistically significant improvements would be found across variables, and improvements in the self-control variables would predict increases in scores on the interpersonal functioning variables. Statistical findings would drive our conclusions and future actions.

Because excellent interpersonal functioning is a worthwhile characteristic of a camp counselor (Griffith & Larson, 2016), possibly (based on findings) more directly focusing on improving self-regulation/self-control skills (Abraham & Michie, 2008) would be a good direction to pursue to facilitate this. In subsequent investigations, we could follow up to see how/if those behavioral changes serve to impact camp-related outcomes in younger campers. Even if not all hypotheses were confirmed, we would enable an intentional, measurement-driven process for continual improvement. If we are truly open-minded, additional and alternate hypotheses could emerge for testing as the empirical process of seeking improvement continues. Although we acknowledged the great benefit of administrator experience, we wanted to see if the scientific method could supplant over-reliance on the anecdotal, which often dominates in the camp field. In addition, funders are increasingly demanding more evidence-based accountability of effects of programs they (might) choose to support.

Study Findings

After appropriate consent, 129 emerging potential camp counselors completed surveys, both during a summer resident camp and at a winter conference.

Finding 1

Statistically significant improvements were found on Coping Efficacy, Total Self-Control, and Family-Related Functioning, with General Functioning improvements being marginally significant. However, when number of years (ranging from one to seven) in the program were accounted for, additional improvements were also detected.

Implications: Although notable progress was identified, to best assess psychosocial gains the measurement of variables should start as early in the program as possible. Progress on relevant skills appears to be cumulative over years, but considerable room for improvement was evident.

Finding 2

Although ages of participants ranged from 13 to 16 years, age did not affect any of the identified psychosocial changes. Neither were gender, race/ethnicity, grade, nor type of schooling associated with degrees of improvements.

Implications: Programming might be equally beneficial across demographic variables. 

Finding 3

Changes made in the self-control variables significantly predicted changes in social functioning and persistence variables. After accounting for changes made in earlier years, the outcome variables were predicted even more accurately.

Implications: Because changes in self-control so strongly predicted dimensions of social functioning and persistence, processes for training specific self-regulatory skills (e.g., relapse prevention [bouncing back after setbacks], use of a personal behavioral contract, time management) should be an integral part of the camp counselor leadership process.

Because goal setting was already a priority within the emerging camp counselor process at the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, a model adapted from our health promotion efforts was useful for an enhanced understanding of how the self-regulatory skills fit within a goal-setting paradigm (see Figure 1).

 Goal Setting Model Assimilating Self-Regulation Skills

Finding 4

Objective assessment of relevant psychosocial variables can be completed within camp training processes, which can then be used to improve trainings.

Implications: Camp staff can easily complete assessments electronically. The associated findings then can purposefully influence theory-based trainings.

Next Steps

After employing trainings for emerging camp counselor candidates intended to improve their self-control/self-regulatory skills, effects on the younger campers will next require assessment. We decided to select one self-regulatory skill (e.g., curtailing negative self-talk and reframing it into more productive self-statements [cognitive restructuring]) per day and employ methods for its improvement at the start of the camp day, reinforcing that content during lunch time and at the end of the day. Minimal time or adjustments to the existing protocols were needed for this. Figure 2 presents this model. Measurement of the effect of this intentional camp component will enable an objective, data-driven cycle of improvement and productivity across age ranges and camp interests.

 Model for improvement based on study findings


Camp processes have the potential to positively impact children and adolescents. However, well-meaning camp administrators often hold fast to traditional ways of thinking and serving. Many exceedingly depend on their experience, although open-minded professionals might considerably extend such through select incorporation of behavioral science. We have shown productivity in use of the scientific approach for:

  1. Generating a research question
  2. Forming hypotheses
  3. Developing a practical research design
  4. Extending curricula based on empirical findings
  5. Further testing to leverage and refine trainings for the benefit of emerging counselors (and potentially their charges)

Although such measurement-driven approaches are atypical in camp settings, we plan to persist with these research-to-practice procedures and continue to inform the field of our findings. We encourage others to also facilitate partnerships between practitioners and applied psychologists who seek data that can be rapidly used to improve the lives of many. Rather than be threatening to the status quo, we hope the methods suggested here serve to demonstrate a way in which state-of-the art research can be used to improve a well-established field; a field with high trust in its ability to improve the social and psychological wellness of many.

For More Information

The findings of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta’s peer-reviewed study were published in the “Effects of a Teen Resident Camp Leadership Program on Changes in Dimensions of Self-Control and Interpersonal Functioning, and Their Theory-Based Relationships” in the Evaluation and Program Planning journal. (Annesi, 2020). Find it at


Abraham, C., & Michie, S. (2008). A taxonomy of behavior change techniques used in interventions. Health Psychology, 27, 379–387.

Annesi, J. J. (2020). Effects of a teen resident camp leadership program on changes in dimensions of self-control and interpersonal functioning, and their theory-based relationships. Evaluation and Program Planning, 78, Article 101745.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 115–128.

Garst, B. A., Browne, L. P., & Bialeschki, M. D. (2011). Youth development and the camp experience. New Directions for Youth Development, 130, 73–87.

Griffith, A. N., & Larson, R. W. (2016). Why trust matters: How confidence in leaders transforms what adolescents gain from youth programs. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26, 790–804.

Hattie, J., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that have a lasting effect. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43–87.

Lufi, D., & Cohen, A. (1987). A scale for measuring persistence in children. Journal of Personality Assessment, 51, 178–185.

Neill, J. T. (2008). Meta-analytic research on the outcomes of outdoor education. Paper presented to the Sixth Biennial Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, Bradford Woods, IN, January 2002; updated in 2008. Retrieved from

Rosenbaum, M. A. (1980). A schedule for assessing self-control behaviors: Preliminary findings. Behavior Therapy, 11, 109–121.

Thurber, C. A., Scanlin, M. M., Scheuler, L., & Henderson, K. A. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 241–254.

Ventura, A. K., & Garst, B. A. (2013). Residential summer camp: A new venue for nutrition education and physical activity promotion. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10, 64.

Wardenaar, K. J., Wigman, J. T. W., Lin, A., Killackey, E., Collip, D., Wood, S. J., Ryan, J., Baksheev, G., Cosgrave, E., Nelson, B. & Yung, A. R. (2013). Development and validation of a new measure of everyday adolescent functioning: The Multidimensional Adolescent Functioning Scale. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52, 195–200.

James J. Annesi, PhD, FAAHB, FTOS, FAPA, is a health psychologist and vice president of research and evaluation for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. His focus has been on the incorporation of scientific research findings, much of which has been developed within the YMCA’s “living lab,” within applied settings. Jim has published nearly 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles, 100 articles translating research-to-practice, and four books related to health behavior-change theory and methods. In 2019, he received the American Psychological Association’s Excellence in Clinical Health Psychology Award. He is also an elected fellow of the American Academy of Health Behavior and a senior editor of Permanente Journal. 

Ken O’Kelley is the senior vice president of youth and teen development for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. He has been working with the YMCA for the past 32 years. Ken provides leadership for three camps, with sites on Lake Burton, Lake Allatoona and Lake Lanier. YMCA Camp High Harbour at Lake Burton and Lake Allatoona are currently serving over 6,200 young campers in the summer and over 8,000 campers September through May. In addition to the resident camps, Ken also provides leadership for 26 Day Camps in Atlanta serving over 43,000 camper weeks. Ken provides leadership to the YMCA of Metro Atlanta in all 18 branches. The program inspires civic leadership and creating servant leaders. Ken recently began also providing leadership to youth sports programs across YMCA of Metro Atlanta branches.

Drew Hullinger is the executive director of YMCA Camp High Harbour located on Lake Allatoona. Lake Allatoona will serve over 3,000 campers this coming summer and employ over 175 staff members. He has been working with the YMCA of Metro Atlanta in the resident camping field for 20 years. Drew began his career at Camp High Harbour as a seasonal employee and worked up the ranks to his current position. He has been a leader at five different camp locations and two travel camps for YMCA Camp High Harbour. Drew led several international service trips for teens through the Metro Atlanta YMCA.

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