Bob Ditter has faithfully served the camp community for decades — and while he continues to do that, this will be his last In the Trenches column for Camping Magazine. We are so grateful to Bob for sharing his insights, practical advice, and his heart with us. It is that heart and desire to help, without fear of touching on difficult subjects, that has inspired and supported so many. Bob is a champion for camp — and we are better for the words of wisdom he has given us.

It didn't take long before “Jarrod” showed his “hand” on the bus ride to camp. Within 10 minutes of leaving the camp meeting spot at the mall, he was nudging kids and fighting about what seat he wanted and who could sit next to him. When one of the counselors on the bus intervened, Jarrod swore at him and accused the counselor of treating him unfairly.

I'll spare you the details of the rest of Jarrod's week at camp. Suffice it to say that this young man had several run-ins with both staff and fellow campers and, at the end of a week that was extremely trying and exhausting for the staff and peppered with inappropriate, sexualized language and threats to other campers, Jarrod went home. The staff and campers alike felt a sigh of relief.

After the summer was over, the director of the camp wondered whether his staff and the other campers could have been spared the long week of provocative and disruptive behavior that Jarrod displayed before he finally left. He asked me, “Is there any way to determine earlier in the session whether a camper like Jarrod is likely to adjust to camp or not?” As my camp director friend pointed out, he would have loved to have protected his staff from the anguish and frustration they felt and the effort they made trying to help the boy, especially since it was all in vain. Even after Jarrod was sent home, the counselors felt guilty that they hadn't done enough to help him turn things around, which was another costly and unfortunate toll on the staff.

This is a question I have heard from many camp professionals across the US. The answer is yes, certain behaviors or tendencies can help you determine whom you can reasonably serve and whom you can't. However, before I lay out the six signs that a camper is likely not to make it at camp, let me spell out the dilemma I think most camp directors and operators face when sizing kids up this way.

Camp professionals, being the caring child advocates they are, want to make things work for all the children who come to their programs. Because we have all seen the remarkable, positive impact camp can have on young people, including staff, we want to make it work for everyone. In that sense, we have a one-size-fits-all view of how camp can help kids. While this durable faith in the camp experience is a wonderful outlook to have, when it comes at the expense of the counseling staff and the other campers, it is time to reassess whether the cost justifies that brave point of view. The truth is some kids' mental, emotional, or social health (MESH) needs are beyond the scope of mainstream programs, and certainly beyond what our counseling staff can realistically deliver. Holding on to certain campers whose needs are best met by a program specifically suited to addressing those needs is not only taxing to your staff and takes away from what the other campers are not getting as a result, it is unfair to the child.

I myself have had to face this dilemma. When I was the director of a therapeutic day camp program in Boston in the 1980s, there were certain kids whose needs were so great and whose behavior was so disruptive and troubling that even we could not adequately and safely serve them. It was not a comfortable or happy experience saying to some parents, “We just don't have what your child needs, and they deserve to get what they need and not be set up for failure.”

Being clear with parents in this way takes courage. It is obviously painful for parents to hear their child has issues that may require special consideration or programming — another reason many camp directors wait too long before facing the reality that certain kids are just beyond the scope of what they can realistically and safely provide. Who wants to think that by keeping a child at camp in the name of generosity, we could actually have a hand in preventing a family from seeing that their child just isn't thriving? By being clear in this way, you are not only protecting your staff from undo frustration and stress, but you are also guiding parents to the realization that their child needs more specialized help.

The Six Signs of Campers You Can't Serve

  1. A camper acts up within the first six hours or first day of camp.
    While many campers need time to adjust to camp, it is not a good sign when a camper lashes out physically or makes provocative statements, sexual or otherwise, or threatens a staff member or other campers within the first six hours of resident camp, or on the first day of day camp. While some campers can recover from such behavior once they establish a connection to a trusted adult on the staff, early acting up should raise an alarm.
  2. The camper takes no ownership of what they did and/or feels no remorse. 
    You can't solve a problem you don't think you have or don't recognize. Once a child can see their contribution to the problem, you have something to work with. Without that, the chances of turning this kid around are slim. One other thing to consider when you see that a camper is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior is that such a stance is usually an indication of how injured a child secretly feels. Once a child feels “broken,” or “damaged,” (which is how they see themselves, not how I see them), their sense of shame is too great for them to admit their mistakes or offenses. They need deeper healing than what you can give them.
  3. When there is a repeat offense soon after the first intervention.
    You have sat with the camper and talked it all out and they seem to understand what they need to do to set the course straight, and within two–12 hours they are back exhibiting the same or similar behavior. Such a pattern suggests that their issue is much more entrenched than you may have realized and not just a reaction to a momentary situation at camp. As I have often said, the more we intervene with any particular problem — staff or camper related — the less likely it is going to resolve well.
  4. Other campers become genuinely fearful of the camper.
    Once you see that the impact of the camper's behavior is spreading, you have a larger problem on your hands. This is not only because other campers may have their experiences interrupted or negatively impacted by the offending camper's behavior, but because the camper is now getting a reputation, which will make it harder for them to change.
  5. Counselors begin to feel unsafe with the camper.
    Counselors go through stages of reactions with campers they can't reach, from an initial alarm and attempt to intervene, to a rescue fantasy, to resignation, and then fear. Once counselors are afraid of a camper, you've lost any way of dealing with them unless you want to become their personal shadow for the rest of the camp session. 
  6. A weapon is involved in the acting up or another camper or staff member is assaulted.
    Aside from the obvious safety issue and the resultant sense of fear that brandishing a weapon or assaulting someone elicits in both campers and staff, when a camper resorts to the use of a weapon or strikes out at someone, they are often telling us just how scared and desperate they feel inside. This is another indication that they are feeling challenged in ways most camps are not equipped to handle.

Camp certainly gives kids a world of good, but only when we are clear about the kids we can serve and the kids who need more than what we reasonably have to offer. It takes specially trained, experienced staff members and a well-thought-out program and a therapeutic environment to serve some kids. I also want to be clear that by offering some ways to assess whether you as a camp director can reasonably and safely serve any particular child, I am not encouraging discrimination or labeling or judging children who have challenging MESH needs. I am only saying that we have to be thoughtful and careful about taking children who we have a realistic opportunity to serve. If a child can communicate with staff and develop a strong connection to at least one trusted adult at your camp, you have a much better chance of having a positive impact on that child without exhausting your staff or cheating the other kids out of what they came for.

Be safe out there!

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

Photo courtesy of URJ Camp Harlam, Knuckletown, Pennsylvania.