The title of this article, “Counselor Judgment — Campers’ Lives Depend on It!” is not in any way written to be frightening to a new counselor, but quite honestly, it is very much written to make the reader anxious. Why? Because parents and guardians of children want them back at the end of each day or the end of the season, alive, well, and in the same physical and emotional condition (if not better) than they sent them to YOU.

Fulfilling this desire of camp parents does not happen automatically. It happens because camp leadership creates orientation, training, and continuing supervision to help you meet that challenge. The American Camp Association (ACA) provides this very special issue of Camping Magazine devoted to staff for exactly the same reason. The young people that you will care for depend on you for everything they need to help them get used to being away from their homes and friends. Most importantly, you will help them make good choices and show them that when they are upset, homesick, or frightened, they are able to turn to you for support. Are you ready to provide all of that using good judgment?

Think about it for a moment: Parents will be sending their children to counselors and staff whom for the most part they may not have met. Parents make an assumption that the safety of their children is not an issue because of the trust relationship they have with camp leadership. However, you need to understand that staff judgment continues to be a substantially serious concern and challenge to camp leadership. Why? Because the lives of other people’s children depend on the decision-making processes of counselors and staff. It’s quintessential that staff understand the importance of responsible decision making in keeping campers safe.

We believe that no staff person choosing to care for other people’s children would ever knowingly or purposely create a dangerous situation. For this reason, we offer assistance in exercising good judgment.

Questionable Judgment by Staff

Here are examples of incidents that took place with staff in charge:

  • A seven-year-old at camp was swinging. The swing broke when the child was in midair, and he fell ten feet, broke his arm in three places, and now has a permanent deformity. This could have been avoided if the equipment had been properly checked by staff. Assuming equipment — in this case, the swing — is in proper working order and not checking it before use is an example of poor judgment.
  • A six-year-old boy was barefoot, slipped off the jungle gym, and broke his arm. A bold sign clearly indicated the requirement of sneakers. Where was the counselor to ensure this rule was followed?
  • A lifeguard and counselor were both doing back flips off the side of the pool. An eight-year-old girl tried to imitate them — fortunately, she was not seriously hurt when she hit her head on the side of the pool. Should staff be setting such a bad example?
  • Two male twelve-year-old campers were completely unsupervised because their counselor left them to privately use his cell phone. The campers got into an argument that ended up with one camper sustaining a serious eye injury. Many camp rules were broken because a counselor exhibited poor judgment.
  • A counselor saw a camper cutting herself. The camper promised she would never do it again and asked that it not be reported. The counselor agreed. Three days later, the camper was found unconscious in a pool of blood. The counselor risked the child’s life by not using good judgment and reporting the incident.

The Value of Staff Training

Reacting Calmly and Rationally

A few years ago, Captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger made front-page headlines for his remarkable emergency aircraft landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the waters of the Hudson River in New York City. All 155 people aboard his plane escaped unharmed, thanks to Captain Sullenberger’s heroic actions. Sullenberger had something important on his side that day; something that enabled him to marshal those outstanding qualities and helped him guide his passengers to safety. He had a system. He had mastered that system long before he sat down in the cockpit on that fateful day. So when the engines became disabled, he was able to react calmly and rationally knowing that the system worked and that all he had to do was work it. The time you spend in staff training enables you to create your own systems by considering options before acting.

Suggested Systems for Staff Consideration

Four Letter Leadership

The following four-letter words (which represent safety acronyms) will help you generate good judgment to move to equally good action while on the job. These acronyms will help illustrate important systems. Use them as tools to protect both campers and yourselves.

#1 CANI: Constant And Never-ending Improvement
Never stop learning. You will learn amazing things as you interact with your campers. Parents always acknowledge that fact. Since you are in the role of substitute parents, the same holds true for you.

#2 LEAD: Learn, Energize, Attitude, Develop
Learning leads to growth and development. Campers often describe frontline staff like you as some of the most important people in their lives. Why? Because campers learn what you teach them, what you model, and what you stand for. As an adult leader, their growth and development is what you are all about. Creating lifetime memories is awesome.

#3 CORE: Capture, Observe, Realign, Execute
CORE is the essence of the thought process. Used as an acronym, CORE establishes a system of behavior when faced with something unfamiliar. One acts only after this thoughtful process.

#4 STAR: Stop, Take a breath, Aware, Respond appropriately
STAR behavior is relevant in all areas of life. This acronym reminds you to prevent impulsive reactions. It’s equal to counting to ten before responding.

#5 STOP: Safety, Train, Observe, Proceed
STOP is not only effective while at a stop sign on the road — it will assist you in ensuring the health and safety of campers and yourself. Staff training is purposely designed to help you make good judgment calls. React with safety as the goal and observe a situation before proceeding.

#6 SAFE: Scan, Assess, Fix, Evaluate/Enter
Make sure areas are suitable for campers and yourself. Scan the space/environment. Assess it for safety, and determine if it is an efficient and effective environment that can produce your desired outcome. Fix any problem noticed on the spot, if possible. Evaluate that everything meets your desired plan, and then allow participants to Enter.

#7 RACE: Rescue, Announce, Compartmentalize, Extinguish
Fire safety and camp safety have many of the same principles. Rescue whomever you can. Once the rescue is complete, Announce the fire/problem and get help. Take steps to Compartmentalize — close all doors and keep the fire contained / campers calm as much as possible. Then, and only then, work to Extinguish the fire / solve the problem.

#8 PASS: Pull the pin, Aim — base of fire, Squeeze the handle, Sweep back and forth
If use of a fire extinguisher is ever necessary . . . remember this acronym!

#9 DUMB: Dialogue, Understand, Mutual respect, Behavior
Remember this to get along with others. Dialogue with others leads to Understanding. When we understand, we develop Mutual respect and then Behave in an appropriate manner.

#10 LUCK: Listen, Understand, Communicate, Know
The biological lesson of having two ears and one mouth is an indication that we should Listen twice as much as we speak. When we listen, we Understand. Once we understand from listening, we can Communicate appropriately. From communication, we come to Know. LUCK is a tool that doesn’t rely on luck at all. When employed, this powerful formula leads the way to a more humane society.

A personal note from the authors to the very much respected caretakers of other people’s children:

Dear camp colleagues,

This summer you have seized your responsibility to ensure the safety, health, and growth of other people’s children and yourselves.

  • Remember to supervise all kids at all times; practice must match protocol.
  • You are part of the legacy of providing all children in our care with a positive and enriching camp experience.
  • You are a role model helping impressionable kids build character, learn, grow, have fun, and be safe!
  • You were hired because you are a caring individual, and the responsibility you accepted is to put the campers’ care before your own needs.
  • Your judgments and decisions will inform your actions.
  • Finally, asking for help is a sign of strength: Silence when needing assistance is weakness and poor judgment.

Our very best wishes for a fun-filled, safe summer for you and those you care for with the help we hope we have provided.

Bruce Lipton and Norman Friedman

Additional Resources

  • “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” by Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein — Harvard Business Review, February 2009.
  • Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
  • Spontaneous Evolution, by Bruce H. Lipton, PhD, and Steve Bhaerman
  • World Authority on Leadership Psychology, by Anthony Robbins
  • What Are We Ignoring? by Sandor McNab
  • “In the Trenches: Using Sound Judgment,” by Bob Ditter, Camping Magazine, July/August 2001,


Bruce I. Lipton is director of finance and operations at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Contact the author at or 215.885.8556.

Norman E. Friedman, MEd, is dean of Gene Ezersky Camp Safety College and director of A.M. Skier Partners, Hawley, Pennsylvania. Contact the author at or 800.245.2666.

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.