Dear Bob,

J is an eleven-year old boy who spent his first summer at camp last year. A good kid with a good heart, J seems socially inflexible and immature. For example, when it came to playing cards with others, J could only play by his rules. When other campers wanted to stick with the way the majority played the game, he felt left out and hurt by what he perceived as being excluded. This issue seemed to get worse as the behavior pattern repeated and his cabin mates grew more impatient. J simply did not understand that playing a game with different rules is not something to confront your friends about and that disrupting a game is not a way to make people happy with you. J did not have any significant change in his behavior, as he never internalized what he heard from many staff members.

J and his entire cabin had an amazing summer and all are returning to camp. Before re-enrolling, however, many parents wanted to talk about J, suggesting we not take him back or just move him. We do not turn kids away simply because they have some growing up to do. Our position with parents is that this is a learning opportunity — not just for J, but for his bunkmates as well. Difficult people seem ever-present no matter what your age, so learning to deal with them seems like a life lesson to us.

That said, what do I say to J’s 2012 counselors to better prepare them for the summer? How do I present things better to J so he can begin to understand living in a group? What should be done and said to his bunkmates? Is there anything I can do during the winter to help with this issue come June?

Worried in the Woods

Dear Worried,

First of all, I commend you for your clear and courageous stance with your camper parents. Children are certainly a “work in progress,” and the learning here might not only be for J and his cabin mates, but for your parents as well. As much as they may want to, parents can’t always shield their children from life’s challenges. Indeed, it would backfire if they could. Their children would never develop the coping skills they need to succeed in life.

J is an example of just the kind of youngster who would benefit from having a behavior plan, or agreement, in place well before he comes to camp. Putting some things in place before the summer will help J be more successful at camp, and it will put his counselors for 2012 at greater ease knowing some forethought has been applied to helping them handle him.

Establishing an agreement or behavior plan sometime in the late spring can be extremely beneficial to J, but it must follow certain guidelines. To begin with, the child must be eager to come back to camp. Trying to create an agreement with a child who is not committed to camp simply will not work. From what you say, J had a good summer in other ways and seems keen to return. So far, so good!

The second requirement is that J’s parents need to be on board with the idea of having a behavior plan for J, and they must be involved in creating it. My suggestion is that you visit J at his home and talk about last summer. To do this, you will need to set up the visit ahead of time by reviewing J’s behavior with his parents on the phone and framing your visit as a way of coming up with a plan, or agreement, that will help J be more successful this summer. My guess is that J has probably displayed the behavior at school or with friends at home — not just at camp. Presented in the right way, J’s parents will not only be on board with your plan, they will be relieved that you are taking extra steps to help him be more successful with his peers. After all, the whole idea behind such a plan is to help J be more successful.

The next step is setting up what are called the “target behaviors,” or the things you would want J to be able to do or do differently this summer. Again, parents should be aware of these details so they can reinforce the objectives with J between the time you create the plan and the time he comes to camp. In general, target behaviors should have the following four properties:

  1. They should be stated in clear, simple, child-friendly terms (what you actually want the camperto be doing and saying).
  2. They should be stated in positive terms as much as possible.
  3. They should be stated in the first person, “I will . . .”
  4. They should be limited to no more than three behaviors.

Since J needs help playing by the gener¬ally accepted rules of various games, the first target behavior would be, “I will play by the rules that are agreed upon before the start of the game.”

J’s endeavor to control the rules of the game is clearly an attempt on his part to increase his chances of winning. Given this, you will need a second target behavior, such as, “When I lose a game I will still be friendly with the other players.” Having spent a lot of time around youngsters who have a need to control the rules of games and play, I would expand that second target behavior to include winning gracefully. After all, if a child is overly concerned with winning and losing, chances are good they are not only sore losers, but “sore winners” as well. Kids have an equally strong dislike of both.

I can’t tell from your letter whether there were other issues that might be included in the list of target behaviors for J. For example, “listening to his counselor and doing what his coun¬selor asks him to do” is a typical target behavior for many campers. Again, you don’t want to overwhelm a camper with too many target behaviors. If there are too many behaviors that a child needs help with, it may be that the child is simply not ready for camp. (See my “In the Trenches” column from the March/April 2010 issue of Camping Magazine for more on determining readiness for camp.) Listing too many target behaviors makes the agreement overwhelming and punitive to the child and harder for counselors to implement.

Now that you have identified the specific behaviors you want to help J master, which is his end of the bargain, you need to identify your end of the bargain. In J’s case, you might say that before he plays a game, his counselor will take him aside very briefly to clarify the rules of the game he is about to play and to encourage him to keep his promise to adhere to those rules and to win or lose gracefully. You might even consider having the counselor give J one of those plastic wristbands as a visible reminder of his goal. Giving a camper the sup¬port of a trusted adult — someone who can encourage him, be proud of him, or prompt him — is an example of your end of the bargain and is a key component of a well-crafted behavior plan.

To make the plan even more compel¬ling, it should also have both positive and negative consequences for compliance and lack of compliance, respectively. In your face-to-face meeting with J and his parents, ask him what he loves doing most at camp. Think through some op¬tions that don’t involve food, and see if you can set it up that every time J is able to comply with his plan, he gets a point (often represented by an actual “ticket” or sticker on a card). If he gets, say, six points, he gets to do his favorite thing. Many children pick things like extra water skiing, some one-on-one time with a favorite counselor, or getting first pick at an elective on a given day. With a little exploration, it isn’t too hard to come up with things that can serve as incentives for J if he can keep his end of the plan.

Likewise, the consequences that would come into play were J to “mess up” need to be clearly outlined so J and his parents know exactly what to expect. I also suggest making these consequences progressive. For example, if J gets into a struggle playing a game, the first conse¬quence would be that he would forfeit his right to play for one day and would get a “positive pep talk” from his counselor. If he can subsequently play and do well, he is “off probation.” If he continues to have a problem, the second-level consequence would be that his unit director would speak with him and his counselor — again, always striving to encourage him to turn it around and be successful. The third level of consequence would be to call his parents and explain his behav¬ior. A fourth level might be that he goes home for three days, thinks about things, and returns with a renewed determina¬tion to work harder to master his plan. Obviously, this step is only practical if the child lives within a certain distance from camp. The final consequence would be to go home for the rest of the summer.

With solid support from a caring counselor, many campers are able to achieve mastery over their behavior without triggering consequences. This is especially true when a year has passed, since many children do a lot of growing up in a year and often return to camp more mature and in a better position to participate in an agreement. Some campers are so happy and relieved to be able to come back to camp that they don’t need incentives or rewards. For them, simply being at camp is reward enough.

The final point in the plan is to have a chance to speak with J’s cabin mates at the beginning of the session. Done properly, it can help J’s peers be more patient and more supportive toward him. The key is to have this conversation when J is not present (otherwise it would be too embarrassing for him) and to be generous in your description. I might say something like the following:

We all know that no one likes to lose. Everyone likes it better when they play a game and win. That said, we all know that in the past, J has had an even harder time sticking to the rules. Why he has such extra trouble with this isn’t important. What is important is that you know that J wants to work on this extra hard this summer and we are trying to help him do that. We understand how annoying it can be when anyone breaks the rules, and we appreciate you giving J a fresh start. If he messes up in the beginning, we will handle it quietly off to the side. What we are asking you for is to give him a fresh start and be patient with him as he tries to get better at this. Everyone will have the chance to show some character by how patient and supportive you can be around this. And if it really starts to bother you, come talk to one of your counselors. Getting it off your chest can help you be more patient, so that’s a good thing.

Let me point out that in speaking with J’s cabin mates, you should describe J’s behavior in terms they can easily relate to and avoid labels, which will get you into trouble. You make it clear you’re on top of the situation and that J himself recognizes the need to change. Acknowledge their possible frustration and give them an outlet for it.

The final task is to explain the agreement to J’s counselors during staff training. In his case, given that his behavior the previous summer was so challenging, it might make sense for them to have a quiet sit down with him away from the other campers to review the agreement.

Many campers have benefitted from agreements like the one I have just described. Good luck with J!

Elements of a Behavior Plan or Agreement

  1. The camper must want to come back to camp.
  2. The camper’s parents must be on board and involved in creating the plan.
  3. The target behaviors are described in simple, positive terms. They must state exactly what you want the child to be doing and saying.
  4. There can be rewards for compliance.
  5. There must be progressively stronger consequences for lack of compliance.
  6. Counselors implement the plan with an aim of supporting the child in being successful.
  7. The cabin is told about the child’s effort to improve and given an outlet for their possible frustration.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2012 March/April Camping Magazine.