“It is not our abilities that determine who we are, it is our choices.” — Harry Potter

Since 1861 when the first organized camp began, awesome people like you have given their time and talents to make camps throughout the United States a life-changing experience. In the early years, camps were created to provide an alternative environment for children to learn through a new experiential model and to promote an appreciation for being in the outdoors. Staff had to be extremely flexible as they adapted to rustic conditions and crude program ideas.

Fast forward to this year and many activities seem far more sophisticated than ever before, but what has really changed in the process of leading campers through difficult learning transitions? Many time-honored camp traditions will stay the same, but the way people process information now is totally different from when even you were younger. To be successful at camp this summer, you need to balance fun, individual ideas, and activity outcomes — and figure out how to make each camper’s experience personal.

When you arrive at camp, a dual process of learning will began to take place involving your own adaptation to camp and finding out how you are supposed to do your job. Your camp provides a staff orientation to meet these needs, but eventually you will have to put your own talent and ideas into place. Given that you only have a few days to figure this out, it is helpful to have some experiential ideas for success before you form an action plan.

Discovering the importance of discussing skills that are not always covered in staff orientation began at the end of last summer when I asked a number of day and resident camps to send me staff feedback that reflected on their preparation for the 2015 season. Not surprisingly, most comments fell into one of three categories: positive, functional, or needs work. While the overwhelming majority of responses were positive, many staff said they were so caught up in policies and procedures they did not really understand how to do their job.


A great place for you to start is with a quick self-evaluation. Everything you are going to be asked to do may not be in your comfort zone, so be prepared to act with the camp’s mission in mind and intentionally make your initial apprehensive thoughts of secondary importance.

Incorporate your strengths when they are applicable and ask for help when procedures or tasks cause you to question your abilities. On a daily basis, use your camper-friendly character traits to develop meaningful relationships through repeated positive actions, honest communication, and an age-appropriate sense of humor. This will allow you to maximize your talents by leading your group without a pre-determined prejudice of what campers can achieve.

Find out what the expectations are for your area, age group, or activity, and decide how your skills match up with your assignments. Understand some chaos can be normal and, depending on the time, day, or event, this behavior may even be encouraged. Typical examples of acceptable organized madness might be a group celebration, personal achievement, or special event mania.

Being Inclusive

The next thing you need to do is to figure out how you can do your job while being inclusive. Effective staff lead by example while monitoring the group’s progress by doing quick camper checks on activity engagement. Pay particular attention to anyone who is detached, shut out, or trying too hard. Look for happy campers and try to duplicate their experience with struggling group members by implementing the big three: genuine leadership, positive attitude (even when you are tired), and creating meaningful connections.

Pay close attention to camper mannerisms. This will help you to determine the difference between a camper having serious issues and one experiencing a difficult transition. Even though you probably know camper development has steadily changed over the years with puberty starting much earlier than even ten years ago, paying attention to behavior patterns will be very informative. If you have a camper who is struggling, consult your supervisor immediately.

To help you understand the importance of being observant, research in the area of brain development reveals the connections of young adults (23 to 30) is far more mature than teens (12 to 16). The largest difference between them is in the frontal lobe and probably relates to cognitive processing and other “executive functions.” Thus teens need adults to help them stay physically and emotionally safe while their brains develop. Harsh discipline and abusive words do not speed up this process. Instead, they can compromise the developmental process (Reamer & Siegel, 2008).

You will be more effective if you vary your teaching approach with each activity. Great counselors challenge their groups by including some age-appropriate, problem-solving activities. Younger campers should be given quick, immediate choices that are not too sophisticated, and older groups should be responsible for driving more of their experience. Teens will be much more involved if they have a part in determining their experience. Be sure you understand the far-reaching effects of words and phrases you use. Speech patterns can define who you are, and they frequently demonstrate how much respect you will receive. Do not make the mistake of confusing insincere statements with comments intended to show a sense of humor.

The expression “use it or lose it” transfers impulse to connection. Model the practice of thinking before you speak or act, and use the inherent fun from activities to demonstrate this leadership technique. The key is to intentionally practice what desired behavior looks like during sports, drama, free swim, transition periods, or meal time. Try to incorporate different types of challenges throughout the day that include mental questions, how intellectual subjects are applicable to camp activities, and thought-provoking stories. Whatever behaviors the campers do a lot of is what they will get good at doing. By making the expectations positive, you will receive amazing results in return.


What you do every day is very important to the development of both campers and staff — and your actions are a function of how you interpret the implementation of values. Individuals adapt to various life roles in part through value fulfillment. People develop values based on their heritage and life experiences, and those values in turn influence subsequent behaviors (Kahle, Poulos, & Sukhdial, 1988). For example, counselors who value fun may want to play soccer to enhance their own skills, whereas staff who value a sense of accomplishment may wish to use sports activity time to help teach skills as a method to increase camper productivity. Values are integrally connected to social change. Each time you teach campers skills, they are reflective of individual abilities that lead to mastery of life lessons.

Youth Development

Your mental success kit must include an elementary understanding of youth development milestones. As campers grow older, young children and adolescents can experience different levels of behavior problems — especially in terms of physical and emotional development. Some campers will have trouble controlling their emotions when it comes to activities that require a lot of skills. Undesired behavior often occurs with proficiencies in which they struggle, require extended listening, or can be done with an absence of strong peer relationships. This provides you with a golden opportunity to differentiate their needs by forming a bond with the younger campers and teaching appropriate ways for older campers to make decisions that affect how they relate to others. Teens who are not held accountable for taking ownership of impulses will have difficulty developing skills to manage their emotions.

Empowered Identity

Introduce the concept of empowered identity. Through daily interactions, allow campers and staff the opportunity to express themselves in ways that feed into their strengths by putting them in a position to experience success. Then pick other tasks that are attainable using similar skills and incorporate them into new or difficult areas of personal development. This helps keep campers connected and prevents the serious problem of lost identity. If a camper leads cabin cleanup to satisfaction, this can lead to mastery at other areas of camp life, such as teaching a skill, being in charge of something, or planning a group project.

Ask questions to learn simple facts to initially keep campers included, such as where they are from, how big their family is, if they have pets, what they like/don’t like in school, favorite hobby etc. This will prevent other campers from forming quick personal opinions without knowing more of each person’s story. Secret: When this interaction is happening, you are listening for what information is missing. What is absent from their life that may cause them to feel disconnected? Even if you or the camp cannot provide all the answers, you can lead them to a place of comfort within the group.
Not everything you try will work. Do not give up without knowing all your options. Ask supervisors and other camp leaders for help. Your immediate effort may not be the answer to a problem, but keep desired outcomes in mind. You need to understand your job is hard and creating meaningful relationships is difficult. Campers will likely appreciate you even if they can’t always express it.

Promote the acceptance of diversity by allowing for the creation of subgroups (not cliques) that can help you to meet the group’s needs. This may require some additional training, so think of ways you can implement universal acceptance and then periodically use them as situations arise. Good examples of this might be celebrating different customs by camper demonstration, trying new activities like interpretative dance, or redefining communication standards to promote unconditional respect.

Meeting Campers on Their Level

Your days will be filled with camper questions about preferences, desires, and life in general. Be purposeful in how you respond and match each answer with the appropriate maturity level for the camper’s age. Younger campers are not emotionally prepared to understand the true value of the camp experience, so be respectful of their fragile thoughts. Promote positive relationship skills and stay away from “power counseling,” which is yelling and/or making campers feel intimidated by your position of authority — especially if you are physically bigger or prone to play the smart card.
Camp teaches life lessons through community, activities, and fun. Sometimes you may be asked to do things outside of your perceived expertise, like put on a costume or participate in a group song. Smile and embrace the chance to support the event. Do not take yourself too seriously, because you might miss an opportunity to experience something great. You can maximize your own experience by being an active part of camp life.

Coping with rites-of-passage experiences can be difficult because many campers do not speak frequently with authority figures. This challenge is heightened by the fact that communication between parents and teens may be at an all-time low due to competition with technology and social media (Wolfe, Jaffe, & Crooks, 2006). It is important you figure out how to create an environment where the value in what you are doing is greater than their existing desire to use electronics.

An important part of camp survival and, ultimately, success is grasping the extent of rapid change and new pressures that pose risks to campers in 2016. Especially critical are the adolescent campers whose lives seem to frequently be in an endless series of crises. However, these and all other age development stages provide you with a treasure map for success. Each has its own unique characteristics, and you can focus your strategies based on the learning patterns of each age group.


Success Kit Checklist

Here are some helpful techniques you can use to encourage camper success:

  1. Whenever possible, help campers to see what success looks like — most of the time nobody tells them.
  2. Provide a healthy progression of social skills. Model this behavior even if it is not your personal choice.
  3. Recognize teachable moments and use them when explaining camp activity to life lesson transitions.
  4. Practice and enforce desired behavior.
  5. Build relationships based on interest, effort, and understanding.
  6. Make decisions based on fact not emotion. Be a value-infused counselor.
  7. Use all positions in camp as a resource. Think of the different jobs (from counselor-in-training to the director) as a chain of maturity.
  8. Ask for help. It is a sign of good leadership.
  9. Take time for yourself to refocus. This can be difficult but it is a learned skill to figure out how it should be done.
  10. Have fun. Try not to lose your sense of purpose by being overly dramatic about responsibilities. Remember, your legacy depends on your actions — nobody remembers their best day of watching television.

Discussion questions

  1. When you arrive at camp, why is the understanding of the dual process so important?
  2. Everyone has a comfort zone with pre-established boundaries. What happens when you are asked to do something outside that zone?
  3. Being able to vary your teaching approaches is very important. Who were your favorite teachers and what did they do to connect with you?
  4. What will campers learn by observing your desired behavior during activities?
  5. Coping with rites-of-passage experiences can be difficult. How can you create an environment where what campers are doing is greater than their desire to use electronics?


Andrews, D.W., Soberman, L., & Dishion, T. (1995). The adolescent program for high-risk teens and their parents: Toward a school-based intervention. Education and Treatment of Children. Morgantown WV: West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.
Kahle, L., Poulos, B., & Sukhdial, A. (1988). Changes in social values in the United States during the past decade. Journal of Advertising Research, 28 (1), p.35.
Reamer, F. & Siegel, D. (2008). Teens in crisis: How the industry serving struggling teens helps and hurts our kids. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.
Todd, T. (2000). Solution focused strategic parenting of challenging teens: A class for parents. Family Relations, 49:2, p. 166.
Wolfe, D., Jaffe, P., & Crooks, C. (2006). Adolescent risk behaviors: Why teens experiment and strategies to keep them safe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, of GC Training Solutions is a certified camp director, former ACA National Board member, 28-year ACA section board member, author, and staff trainer with over 35 years of staff training experience. He works with camps, schools, churches, and businesses all over the country. To find out more about dynamic staff trainings, request a list of workshops, or to reserve dates, please contact Greg directly at 703.395.6661 or e-mail gregcroninva@gmail.com. For general information, please go to gctrainingsolutions.com.