Challenging children are not out to get you — they are out to get their needs met. While there will be moments when it may seem precisely as if they are out to get you, more often than not, campers' challenging behavior serves a function, and understanding that function is instrumental in your efforts to deal with them effectively. What are those functions and needs? Research, common sense, and observations suggest some common answers: power, attention, security, and love.

Manipulating the Environment

In dealing with challenging behavior, it is important to remember that you cannot change challenging (or difficult) campers, only your reaction to them and their behavior. Changing and manipulating the environment is another option. If you learn to recognize environmental and contextual clues that may predispose a camper to certain behaviors, you can start to adjust the environment and even social situations. This may mean pairing the camper with certain other campers; not having too many choices or materials out at once (and therefore, too many stimulations); or simply lengthening, shortening, or rearranging activities on the schedule.

Remaining cognizant of campers' efforts to get their needs met, you can gear the environment and your responses toward effecting these goals. If a child needs to feel more powerful, you can create positive and healthy opportunities for this to occur, before that camper acts out and seeks power in an inappropriate way. Manipulating the child's environment in this manner increases the chances for positive behavior by the camper and, therefore, the chances for you to use praise and positive reinforcement. Threats and punishment may work in the short term, but a positive approach is more likely to produce enduring results.

Remember that praise must be genuine; the more specific the better. Kids are smart. If all you ever do is tell the entire group, "You guys are great," some of them will eventually tune you out. Campers want to feel unique. Instead of saying to John, "I love your painting," consider telling him, "I really like how you made those green circles." While self-esteem is critical, children should know what about them is special.

Staying Calm and in Control

As difficult as it is when working with a group of campers, you must remember that you are the adult in the situation and must act accordingly. Children learn from and model your responses, so it is imperative not to react with anger and hostility, particularly if you are attempting to curb these behaviors in campers.

Take a step back and take a deep breath. If you are feeling too stressed or tense to remain calm, find a way to cool down. It's not always easy. If you have a partner, take a moment and go take a walk.

Responding to Challenging Behavior

When campers do transgress, there needs to be a response. This can be tricky. If you have identified that Kayla is acting out for attention, you may wish to ignore that behavior, to the extent that you can, so as not to reinforce it. You will also give Kayla plenty of positive reinforcement when she acts appropriately, but in this instance, your response is not to respond.

In many other situations, of course, you must respond more directly. If a child is acting inappropriately toward other campers, redirect the behavior as best as possible. You may need to remove the camper from the situation, especially if emotions are too high for a successful dialogue and mediation right then and there.

Perhaps even more challenging are the moments when children simply won't listen or follow directions or when they engage you in a power struggle. You must not take the bait!

The key is to strive for a win-win situation. It can be a delicate balance. As camp staff, you must retain a degree of authority and control - campers must not think they can dominate you. On the other hand, when exerting your authority, disciplining a child, or simply telling him no, you must do so in a manner that does not erode his self-esteem or make him feel defeated.

Being positive and fair
It is, of course, preferred to administer discipline and consequences in as positive, educational, and realistic manner as possible. Positive in that you express disapproval of the behavior, not the campers, and let them know you believe they will do better. Education in that you help them know why their actions were inappropriate, how they impacted others, and consider alternatives together. Realistic in that taking Joseph's dessert should not result in a thirty minute time-out.

Consequences should be immediate, direct, and informative. Simply removing a camper from the group for long periods of time is not likely to prove terribly successful. If a camper has committed a transgression that serious, it may be necessary to involve the camp director and parents and maybe even remove the child from camp, at least for the day. Again, this should be a last resort. Removing a camper from the program may be necessary is he has become a danger to himself or others, but remember, if this child is acting out because he lacks a sense of belonging and connections, disconnecting him entirely may be the worst thing for him.

You Have the Opportunity to Do Good

Challenging children are out to get their needs met. In addition to some of the more common and aforementioned needs - power, love, attention, a sense of belonging - many children endure very difficult and complex home lives, and you must strive to understand that and offer as much help as possible. Studies have shown that many troubled youth join gangs to compensate for the sense of belonging they lack. Clearly, the opportunities and responsibilities you confront to help campers meet their needs are awesome ones. Research has also indicated a direct and critical correlation between the opportunities children receive in their environment to learn appropriate relations and behavior and the development of these capacities in the brain itself. As camp counselors, you have an opportunity to do an infinite amount of good.

Before you can help others meet their needs, however, you must meet your own. You must take care of yourself. Take a walk when you need to. Use your free time to relax, read a book, or do something for yourself. If you can accomplish this, you will stay revitalized and renewed, and in that spirit, return to the work of heroes: helping to nurture and shape the lives of youth.

Daryl C. Rothman, MSW, has directed early childhood and youth programs for camps for seven years. He is a frequent speaker at various workshops and conferences, including the Mid-States Camping Conference.

Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.