For many of us, Counselor in Training (CIT) programs — sometimes called Leaders in Training or Junior Counselors — are an essential component of camp operations and culture.

Not only do they serve as a terrific way to build a recruitment pipeline of committed, informed, qualified counselors and staff, but they also help carry forward camp’s traditions and culture. CITs lead songs, bring smiles, and serve as role models for younger campers. They often represent the heart and soul of camp as the future leaders for camp programs.

By providing a bridge for kids who love camp to transition into leadership roles, these programs help bring forward energy, creativity, new ideas, and “camp spirit” from one year to the next. 

But CIT programs also carry risks. Whether it’s challenges that arise from youth supervising youth, employment law considerations about what can or cannot be communicated with families, or the scientific fact that young brains are not yet fully equipped for certain types of decision-making, many potential risk factors must be considered. But before we can dive in and tackle those risks, we should first ask a fairly important question: what exactly is a CIT? 

A Wide Variety of Definitions

This past summer, The Redwoods Group Consulting Team visited over 150 camp programs. And each one of those camps had a slightly different perspective on the roles, responsibilities, and status of their CITs. That variation in itself can be a major challenge when it comes to managing these programs, because developing and implementing best-practice recommendations must take into account a vast variety of nuances and variations. 

For the sake of simplification, however, camps employ three main types of CIT positions, as follows: 

  • CITs as program participants. Meaning they pay to be at camp — sometimes at a discount — but participate in different activities, with different roles, than their regular camper peers.
  • CITs as unpaid volunteers. These CITs are given a free place at camp in exchange for their services in assisting with camp operations and programming.
  • Paid CITs. The last group are essentially paid staff members. They earn compensation for their work, and they are legally considered to be camp employees. These CITs are often called “junior counselors.”

Each type of program has specific risks, as well as benefits. That’s why it’s important to be clear about your camp’s definitions — and to shape the roles accordingly. Before we get into those specifics, however, there are some areas of commonality that all types of CIT programs must address. 

Minors Supervising Minors 

Across all types of CIT programs, the biggest safety concern to be aware of is when and if minors are put in charge of caring for other minors. Inherently, as camp leaders know, challenges can arise when young people are in a position of authority over their peers. And challenges can be amplified when a camp accepts both CITs and campers from the same age groups. Among the factors to consider are: 

  • Power Dynamics. Do young people have the skills and knowledge to exert authority and maintain order over their peers? And conversely, how do we make sure they don’t abuse their authority? Whether it is your intent or not, when an individual has the title of CIT, the power dynamics inherently shift, putting the CIT in a position of power.
  • Maturity. Brain science tells us that young people just don’t yet have the same decision-making abilities as older adults. They can be more impulsive, less rational, and more easily stressed. So how do we manage those tendencies, especially if circumstances arise that force them to improvise or change their plans?
  • Existing relationships. Because CITs are often drawn from the pool of past campers, existing relationships can also pose a challenge. That might be animosity or prior conflict between a CIT and a camper. Or it might be in the form of a romantic relationship, attachment, or favoritism. In all cases, though, it’s crucial to manage those relationships and ensure safe, equitable, and professional conduct.

The American Camp Association recommends that any group leader is at least two years older than the group they are supervising. And this can be a great rule of thumb for making sure you are assigning your CITs with appropriate responsibilities without increasing unnecessary risk.

CITs and Culture

Another area of commonality across CIT programs is that, traditionally, participants have been given a lot of autonomy at camp. And this autonomy is sometimes deeply embedded in camp traditions. Whether it is a formal graduation tradition or an informal part of your culture, think through how these traditions or activities reflect your camp’s values in 2024. While skinny dipping in the lake on the last night of camp may once have been acceptable, we live in a different time and a less tolerant society than we once did. The way camp has “always done it” may open up camp to needless risk — and liability — should something go wrong.

As camp professionals, we all know that managed autonomy can be a great way to build character and encourage growth, but there is always a need for structure and supervision. Not only does structure and supervision help shape the behavior of CITs themselves, but it also sends a signal to older staff about how they should interact with the CITs at camp.

CITs and Older Staff 

Because CITs have a different status at camp compared to regular campers, older staff may be more inclined to have inappropriate conversations with CITs that they wouldn’t dream of having with campers of a similar age. And opportunities for inappropriate interactions are amplified by the fact that CITs often have access to behind-the-scenes staff areas or are allowed to stay up during staff downtime.

Similarly, while there is always risk of abuse among any age group, the fact that CITs enjoy a different status at camp may lead some over-18 staff to feel less inhibited about romantic or sexual relationships. 

In some claims we have investigated, we’ve seen staff harassing or even sexually assaulting CITs. In another, we saw an unpaid CIT develop a relationship with a 19-year-old staff person. While there was no sign of explicit coercion or threats, the age gap was still there — and a minor program participant forming a romantic relationship with a supervising staff member exposed that camp to reputational risks and potential legal ramifications, as well as repercussions and criticism from the CIT’s parents.

Ultimately, the question a camp has to answer in a case like this is simple: why was there time or opportunity for staff to be harassing, dating, or otherwise acting inappropriately with someone they were supposed to be serving as a role model?

CITs and the Law 

One of the reasons it is so important to define your CIT program clearly is because how, and if, your CITs are compensated can have a profound impact on how they are viewed by the law. For example: 

Employment law. If your CITs are paid for their work, then they are considered camp employees. That means they are subject to restrictions about what you — as an employer — can disclose to outside parties about your staff. This includes parents and guardians. So if a situation arises, you may be restricted in how or if you can interact with family members to address it. It is important that camps consult with local counsel to understand local laws that apply to employing minors.

Supervision ratios. Conversely, an unpaid or volunteer CIT is not considered staff. That means they cannot be counted toward the supervision ratios that you are required to meet and should never be left alone with minors. While it’s OK for an unpaid CIT to take the lead on an activity, paid staff must always be present to provide coaching and oversight.

As just one example of how these dynamics can play out, we’ve seen instances where an unpaid CIT is left alone with campers in a cabin while the paid staff member enjoys their “free time” from 9:00 p.m. until midnight. What happens if there is an emergency? Or if a child needs to use the bathroom? You end up in a position where a program participant is placed in a position of authority and trust, and you ultimately have no staff member in charge of the situation. That’s putting both your campers and your CITs at risk — and it’s also opening you up to significant liability concerns if anything should go seriously wrong. 

Critical Steps for Managing CITs

Given the powerful role that CITs play in camp culture and traditions, there is no reason to abandon these programs or scale them down. In fact, if anything, a well-managed CIT program (paid or not) can play a vital role in boosting camp safety by creating a pipeline of trained, committed, and engaged leaders who can hit the ground running when they eventually graduate to full staff. And let’s not forget the smiles, energy, and spirit that CITs bring to camp. This, in itself, is priceless.

It’s simply a matter of designing those programs for success. That means: 

  1. Define roles. Be really clear in defining your CITs’ function in a formal job description, including their responsibilities, privileges, compensation, and expectations, as well as any training they are expected to take and the consequences they may face for not fulfilling their role. 
  2. Document everything. Clearly outline your policies and practices in a manual and share that manual with participants. Similar to staff training, CIT training should be documented. Have CITs sign an agreement and code of conduct. This will be important if a claim should ever arise. 
  3. Reflect on your traditions. Look closely at both formal and informal traditions that involve CITs. How do they align with camp policies? And just as important, how do they advance and sustain your camp’s values and purpose? If they don’t, be willing to move on and adapt, or let those traditions go. 
  4. Consider CITs as a program. CITs deserve to benefit from their time at camp. So be sure to think through not just what the CIT does for your camp, but also what CITs are getting from the experience. Consider developing a curriculum and a lesson plan with learning goals and outcomes. Not only can this help with safety, but it can serve as a marketing and recruitment tool for CITs who may also be considering other career-building options instead.
  5. Set your team up for success. Consider this question, regardless of CIT type: how are you setting them up for success? Paid participants or volunteers should not be left alone with campers. Providing CITs with the opportunity to teach campers a game or provide instruction at the waterfront is a great opportunity to learn. But your staff should be there to provide support and manage campers. If your CITs are paid staff members, then the responsibility may be different. But the core question is the same: how are you, as an employer, setting your staff up for success? Pair them up with someone with experience, provide training, and check in regularly. Be really clear about what level of autonomy they have, as well as any additional privileges or freedoms they may enjoy.

Remember, effectively managing the risks around CITs isn’t just about managing risk. It’s also an opportunity to make sure that your CIT program is as enriching and worthwhile as it possibly can be. In an age of tight labor markets and staff shortages, a strong CIT program is one of your best tools for ensuring a well-trained workforce for the many camping seasons to come — while also weaving in camp culture and spirit while building alumni who will always think of camp as their home.

Photo courtesy of Camp Manitou for Boys, Oakland, ME.

Katie Johnson is a senior consultant with The Redwoods Group, a Crum & Forster Company.

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