When I first began teaching and working with kids, I began by thinking, “We are all going to get along. I am going to be the best teacher these kids have ever had, and we are going to be friends.” I actually thought so highly of this “we’re all in this together; we’re going to be friends” mentality that I put my teaching desk directly in the center of my classroom. I was surrounded by my twenty-five seventh-grade students, whose desks were all facing me in a giant circle. “We were one” . . . or so I thought. Needless to say, my students took full advantage of my inexperience, and by the holidays of that year, I had a fortress built in the corner of my classroom with my teaching desk hidden behind it. My students had gotten the best of me because I wanted to be their friend instead of their teacher.

You might be thinking “Well, that’s different. That was school, and camp is a much different setting.” While you are correct on so many levels, the one big takeaway that I hope you get from my story is that going into this summer, if you think you are simply going to be the “cool counselor” or you think you are a going to “be friends” with your kids, it could be a really long camp season for you — and also for your campers.

This article includes some ideas that will help you become the cool counselor for the right reasons. All of these will help you provide what most kids need and want — structure! The majority of the campers in your cabin or activity group need structure in their day, and they want some rules to follow. When a cabin group is simply a “free for all” without routines or guidelines for kids to follow, the campers become distressed and off center — and they make their own rules. When your campers reach this point, the consequences for both of you can be pretty terrible.

Here are some tips to follow to set a climate of respect and fun for everyone in your cabin or group this summer.

Set the Tone

By establishing yourself as a confident leader in your cabin, you will immediately earn the respect of your campers. You can do this in many ways. Be prepared and know what “the plan” of the first couple days of cabin life or group life will be. Know the routine and how you are going to implement it. Be flexible, but be ready to set the tone early. Have a first day or night schedule placed in your cabin — a “lesson plan” of sorts — so your campers have the chance to know how things are going to operate in your cabin for the first couple days. Chances are you will have some campers who are brand new to camp. This will help curb some of their anxiety and make them feel more welcome to what is happening. Review this information with your campers. Confidently go over “the plan” with your kids. Answer their questions. It will give them a sense that you are running the show and you are a well-prepared, caring, and thoughtful leader.

Have Clear Group/Cabin Expectations

When I first started working with kids, I had lists and lists of rules and regulations. “Do this; don’t do this.” My kids were on information overload. Confidently sit down with your cabin group or day camp group on the first day or night and explain to them how important it is for everyone that there are established rules. Let the campers participate by suggesting rules as you write them down. Then narrow the list to about four to six that are truly important to your group.

Once your whole group has agreed upon the list, write them on a large piece of paper and have everyone sign it — including you. Post it for all to see, and tell your group that it’s an “active document.” Explain that an “active document” means that if the cabin is not living up the some of the expectations that you have agreed upon together, you’ll sit down as a group and you’ll talk about it.

Keep the expectations basic, but be sure to show your campers what these expectations look like. For example, if campers determine that “respect each other” is an important rule, share with the group how they can demonstrate the rule by knowing each other’s names, not speaking when others are speaking, being courteous, taking turns, etc. Make the rules easy and tangible, and make the examples clear.

Better to Simply Look Like a Fool Than to Open Your Mouth and Prove It

What do I mean by this? Simple. Don’t say anything that you can’t deliver. You will lose credibility immediately with your campers. Sometimes young counselors think by promising your kids the world, they will like you more from the start. “If we win cabin cleanup for this session, I will take you all to the local amusement park.” “We’ll have a pizza party if we follow the rules the whole session.” These might seem like extreme examples, but believe me, your campers will not forget anything! If you say it or promise it, you better do it. Kids will not respect the person who talks the talk but can’t deliver.

Fun and Safety

You need both. Your campers are at camp to have fun, but they need to be safe as well. They need it, and their parents expect it. You MUST provide both, but safety should be your first priority. Counselors who only focus on fun concern me as a camp professional and as a father. Sometimes, for the sake of appearing “cool” to campers, we let someone do something that may not be in the best interest of safety. If something were to happen to a camper as a result of this lapse in judgment, it would have devastating consequences. Safety first and last!

Be Consistent and Predictable for All Campers

Fairness is so important to all kids. Kids know immediately if you are not implementing all of the agreed-upon rules and regulations consistently. Obviously, not all situations can be handled the same way; however, being consistent and predictable as much as possible with your campers will help you a great deal in earning their respect.

Don’t Blur the Lines of Professionalism

You are the adult; they are the kids — all day, every day. We are the adults. We make the decisions in our cabin or group. We are the ones who will ultimately determine how successful the summer will be for each of our campers and for ourselves. Will there be moments where you reveal a little bit more of yourself as the summer goes on? Certainly. However, even though you may be a twenty-year-old, first-year counselor, you are still the one who is the authority figure. Be sure you are living this as well as saying this. Don’t let there ever be confusion as to who is in charge in your cabin. This can be conveyed in a kind and loving way, but be sure your kids are clear about everyone’s role, personal space, and duties.

Hold Fast

Finally, remember that as the summer goes on, you may get tired. You may reach a point when you feel like relaxing some of the rules and regulations. This is only natural, but hold fast to your standards. By remaining true to who you are and the environment you have created with your campers, you will achieve your goals — to be a cool counselor and a professional one who has earned the respect of your campers.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the long-term implications to you and your campers of not maintaining a level of professionalism?
  • Why should you set expectations as group, instead of the counselors just setting the rules?
  • Who were some of the role models in your life that you had a lot of respect for? Why did you have respect for them? Perhaps you can be that “best role model” for some of your students?


Steve Maguire has facilitated over 400 summer camp staff trainings across the United States over the last five years. To learn more, contact Steve at www.goturnstone.com

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.