It may very well be the case that matters of discipline, often grounded in interpersonal conflict, consume a disproportionate amount of time for counselors at summer camp. Or at least it seems that way.

Effective disciplinary strategies are more art than science (Wallace, 2010). What seem to matter most are the outcomes of our attempts to manage camper behavior: Did our chosen method resolve the conflict in a way that reflects the fundamental philosophy and core values of our camp? Traditional approaches to discipline revolve around reward (for appropriate or “good” behavior) and punishment (as a consequence for inappropriate or “bad” behavior). If we can teach the perpetrator(s) something about respect and responsibility along the way, so much the better. In this sense, much of what may be practiced in summer camp settings regarding discipline mirrors the “retributive justice” paradigm embedded in our country’s criminal justice system. Or as a former camp counselor of mine used to say, “If you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler.” Retributive justice rests on the answers to three seminal questions (Wikipedia, 2014). 1. What laws (rules) have been broken? 2. Who did it? 3. What does the offender(s) deserve? Sound familiar? Yet real discipline is not synonymous with punishment. Rather, it is a larger construct in which punishment may or may not reside (Wallace, 2008). Effective disciplinary environments necessarily include discussions about expectations, remorse, reparations, and hopefully, reintegration.

Revisiting Retribution

It’s precisely that reintegration piece that has educators questioning hard right turns toward zero tolerance of aberrant behavior. Indeed, while such policies have been proven effective in discouraging certain behaviors, such as alcohol and other drug use (Wallace, 2008), there is an amplifying argument that exclusionary approaches may do more harm than good. For example, in the New York Times article “Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle,” Nancy Riestenberg of the Minnesota Department of Education notes that lost class time due to temporary or permanent dismissal results in alienation and, often, early involvement with the juvenile justice system (Brown, 2013). Also offered up is the suggestion that typical punishments do little, if anything, to heal the victim’s pain (Cotton, 2014). In its editorial “Zero Tolerance, Reconsidered” (2014), the New York Times editorial board opines, “Schools across the country are rethinking ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies under which children have been suspended, even arrested, for minor offenses like cursing, getting into shoving matches, and other garden-variety misbehavior that in years past would have been resolved with detention or meetings with a child’s parents.” Such schools include ones in Broward County, Florida; Los Angeles, California; and throughout the state of Texas.

Restorative Justice

There and elsewhere, educational institutions are pursuing programs that focus on restorative, rather than retributive, justice. According to Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice, the efforts to build a more meaningful model of addressing crime and misdeeds are spreading from the criminal justice system to schools and beyond (2002). What is restorative justice? Simply put, it is a systematic implementation of philosophies governing responses to injustice that places a premium on righting wrongs and including all those affected: the perpetrator, the victim, and the community. While similar models date back thousands of years, restorative justice began to be popularized in the late 1990s and became widespread by 2006 (Wikipedia, 2014). In many schools, such programs are intent on developing closer relationships among students, teachers, and administrators while encouraging young people to think of meaningful reparations for misdeeds. They also encourage empathy for one another through “talking circles,” such as the ones facilitated by Eric Butler at Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, California (Brown, 2013).

Around and Around We Go

In conflict resolution circles, the facilitator (you) — sometimes referred to as the “circle keeper” — invites all participants to share information, explain their point of view, and express their feelings. Safe and open communications ameliorate the conflict and also strengthen relationships, emphasize respect and understanding, and encourage involvement in a process that betters the community as a whole (ICJIA, 2009). All of this is critically important. As pointed out by the National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings (2013), those in conflict need the opportunity to tell their side of the story, express their thoughts and feelings, understand how the situation happened and how it can be avoided in the future, feel understood by the others involved, acknowledge the harm caused, and find a way to move past the situation and feel better about themselves. Inclusion is a principal tenet of restorative justice, according to Implementing Restorative Justice — A Guide for Schools, published by the State of Illinois (ICJIA, 2009). It offers a three-part explanation of goals associated with the model.

  • Accountability — as expressed through opportunities for wrongdoers to be accountable to those they have harmed and enable them to repair that harm to the extent possible.
  • Community Safety — a recognition of the need to keep the community safe through strategies that build relationships and empower the community to take responsibility for the wellbeing of its members.
  • Competency Development — an attempt to enhance the prosocial skills of those who have harmed others, address underlying factors that led to the misbehavior, and build on the strengths of each young person.

For its part, the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation (2008) promotes four steps to reparation: (1) apology, including acknowledgement (accepts responsibility for actions and recognizes the harm they caused), affect (expression of remorse or shame), and vulnerability (change in control from the offender to the victim); (2) restitution; (3) changed behavior; and (4) generosity (performing services not related to the infraction or the victim).

Summer Camp

Might such an approach to conflict, discipline, and accountability be germane to the summer camp community as well? Probably. For example, as counterpoint to the questions associated with traditional, or retributive, justice, a restorative model asks these questions. 1. Who has been harmed? 2. What are their needs? 3. Whose obligations are these? (Wikipedia, 2014) Nestled in such inquiry is a shift of focus from the offender to the offended and the subsequent impact to the aggrieved individual and the community in which he or she is living. If we replace “individual” with “child” and “community” with “camp,” we can begin to see the outlines of an approach to discipline more consistent with the broader themes of what educators (yes, you!) preach (Cotton, 2014).

  • Appreciation
  • Belonging
  • Consideration
  • Empathy
  • Encouragement
  • Inclusion
  • Respect
  • Safety

These values underscore the benefits of transforming cultures from punitive ones to restorative ones — a feat accomplished by many schools across the country — although I suspect those very cultures already permeate summer camps as well. The bottom line: the restorative justice approach provides unique ways to effectively address sometimes complicated behavioral and disciplinary issues while preventing future problems and thus enhancing the educational value proposition your camp represents. In addition, the “circles” approach referenced earlier is one entwined with the summer camp experience, fostering camaraderie, collegiality, and codependency.

The Camp Counselor as Circle Keeper

Regardless of your camp or specific job, it is likely you will be thrust into the role of disciplinarian — remediating bad behavior and facilitating resolution. As with most things in life — and at camp — there is no one-size-fits-all handbook for every situation. That would be boring anyway. What there is, however, is a fairly straightforward set of strategies you can employ as you work toward guiding conversations and generating solutions that benefit the entire camp community. Here are a few helpful ones (Women and Children’s Health Network, 2013).


Everyone involved needs to understand what the conflict (argument) is about. To do this, everyone needs to:

  • Say what they feel (without interruptions).
  • Listen to what other people have to say about their feelings (without interrupting them).
  • Try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and understand his or her point of view.

Avoid Making Things Worse

  • No put-downs.
  • No mean, nasty remarks that will hurt people’s feelings — no personal remarks about a person’s looks, gender (whether boy or girl), “secrets,” or things that have happened in the past.
  • No screaming and shouting.
  • No fighting, hitting, kicking, pushing, or any kind of hurting the other person’s body.

Work Together

  • Make “I” statements, such as: “I feel hurt when . . .” “I need to feel or be . . .” “I hear what you are saying, but I feel . . .”
  • Say what you feel without blaming the other person, e.g. “I feel sad when you shout” is better to say than “Your shouting makes me feel sad.”
  • Take turns at speaking. You might even want to decide before you get started on a time limit for each person to speak. That way everyone gets the same chance to say what he or she wants.
  • Talk quietly. It’s hard to keep your voice down when you feel upset, but using a quiet, firm voice is far better than shouting. A loud, nasty voice makes everyone upset and unwilling to listen. • Write down what you each see as the problem and then read what the other person has written.
  • Do some active listening (show the person that you are listening) by:
    • Looking at the speaker to show that you are giving your full attention. Don’t overdo it, though. Staring hard at someone makes that person feel uncomfortable.
    • Making “listening noises” (but not interrupting). You know the sort of thing — saying “uh huh,” “yes,” or “no” in the right places.
    • Repeating what you heard. When he or she has finished, say what you think you’ve heard.

Find the Solution

Once you have listened to each other and found what the problem is, you need to look for a solution.

  • Brainstorm together to think of ways in which you could resolve the conflict. Think of as many solutions as you can, even if they seem silly at first.
  • Another person may be helpful to write down your ideas or suggest ways of making your ideas work so that you can resolve the conflict.

A Better Way

In the end, camp counselors have an extraordinary opportunity — and capacity — to engage campers in a process that moves them along the developmental continuum from an external locus of control (we tell them what to do) to an internal locus of control (they tell themselves what to do). At the same time, you’ll be helping them become more self-aware, more other-centered, more responsible for their behavior, and more accountable to the community they inhabit and, in fact, help to create. And so it is that we can envelop the wrong and the wronged in a true circle of support.


Brown, P.L. (2013 Apr 3). Opening up, students transform a vicious circle. New York Times. Retrieved from 
Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. (2008). What is restorative justice? Prison Fellowship International. Retrieved from
Cotton, A. (2014 Jan 21). On the defensive: The need for restorative justice. Wisconsin Law Journal. Retrieved from
Editorial Board. (2014 Jan 5). Zero tolerance, reconsidered. New York Times. Retrieved from
Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA). (n.d.). Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. Retrieved from SCHOOL%20BARJ%20GUIDEBOOOK.pdf
National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings. (2013). Transforming conflict. Retrieved from
Wallace, S. (2010). Confessions of a disciplinarian: How managing camper behavior can save the summer. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from
Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap. New York, NY: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing.
Wikipedia. (2014). Restorative justice. Retrieved from Restorative_justice
Women and Children’s Health Network. (2013 Jan 7). Conflict resolution. Retrieved from
Zehr, H. (2002). Little book of restorative justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps; senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD; associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University; and parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, visit © Summit Communications Management Corporation 2014. All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine

Photo courtesy of Princeton-Blairstown Center, Hardwick, New Jersey