Martin was sitting in the office of the boys' head counselor again. He'd been playing "Ga Ga" when another camper got him out. In what had quickly become an all-too-typical response for nine-year-old Martin, he lashed out at the camper, charged him with cheating, and then got angry and swore at the counselor who had been trying to intervene. He accused the counselor of "always picking on" him and favoring the other camper. Eventually, Martin stormed off with the counselor in hot pursuit.

"Martin," it seems, turns up at just about every camp I visit. In fact, I think he's been around for most of the twenty-seven years I have been visiting camps. It might be true that "Martin and his friends" show up a bit more frequently than they did years ago, or that they are generally more rude or resistant to help when camp professionals intervene. They may also be on more medications than in years past, and their parents do seem increasingly to "side" with the story their children tell them rather than the description of their behavior the camp director gives. The tools camp professionals need to master the art of managing camper behavior in the short term must be simple and practical. First, we are often limited in what we know about the personal or family history of our campers. Second, our approaches need to be ones that can be grasped by counselors, who often have little experience managing children's behavior, so they can support and help execute them.

Basic Skills

So what are the basic tools or skills all camp professionals should possess in order to be effective with camper (and staff!) behavior? There are three, along with four procedures, that are essential.

The most critical skill is validation, or reflecting back to kids what you hear. Validation is an acknowledgment of the feelings, opinions, or stories of others that helps them to feel heard and respected. Without validation we cannot develop trust, credibility, or respect with others. Validation allows us to strengthen our alliance with the healthy part of the camper — that side of each person that wants to be accepted, connected, and successful. There are many ways to validate a camper, including:

  1. Acknowledge their feelings: "I can see how hurt you must feel." Take care not to presume you know what someone is feeling. It must come from them and it must be acknowledged as theirs, not yours. To say, "Oh, I know exactly how you feel!" is usually a mistake.
  2. Acknowledge their courage in sharing something potentially embarrassing or humiliating: "I can see it took some courage to say what you just did. I respect you for that." Remember that you can respect the courage it took to admit or share something even if the actual thing they are admitting you don't respect. "Even though I don't respect what you did, I respect your honesty in telling me."
  3. Validate any positive way they tried to handle something or any positive intention they may have had in their actions, even if what they eventually did wasn't positive: "I know you were only trying to help. I think it got to the point where you needed to sit down, but I can see what you were trying to do." Many children feel unfairly judged when they want to be more positive or appropriate in their behavior, but they just don't have the skill to pull it off.
  4. Acknowledge your contribution to the problem: "I must apologize because I didn't truly appreciate how upset you were and how much you wanted help but just didn't know how to ask for it." We often misjudge campers or fail to recognize what it is they most need help with, and to acknowledge this can help build an alliance.

Remember, validating someone's experience or feelings doesn't mean we necessarily agree with those feelings. It is simply a way of building an alliance with the child, without which any attempt to change their behavior will fail. I used to say, children learn when they listen, but they don't listen unless they feel heard.

While validation is what I would call a master skill, in some ways setting the tone or spirit for all others, practicing it is only possible after the use of the set of skills it goes hand-in-hand with, which is listening. Much has been written about good listening skills, so I will highlight only a few as follows:

  1. Find some privacy. Take children aside in a tactful way so they aren't humiliated.
  2. Be interested. Many listening problems vanish when we have an open and interested attitude. The whole point of listening is not just to let people have their say, but to truly understand them. The best way to convey your interest is with points 3, 4, and 5.
  3. Be aware of your body language and use it deliberately. Be alert, make eye contact, lean forward, or put yourself on the same level physically with younger children. Remember that up to 80 percent of what children "get" from our communication with them is non-verbal.
  4. Get rid of distractions, like background noise or objects in your hand. Distractions dilute our ability to be present.
  5. Stop talking and asking too many questions. The more we talk, the less listening we do.

The third essential skill is inquiry or knowing how to get good information in a non-judgmental way. Don't get me wrong, there may come a time when you must take a stand about certain behaviors that you eventually deem hurtful, inappropriate, or unacceptable. Before you can formulate a plan or response to any child's behavior, however, you have to get good information. Inquiry is simply a way of getting a better understanding. To do it well you must assume the role of an investigator or scientist who is trying to get a clear picture of things in a way that is as free from your own bias as is humanly possible. A few important considerations:

  1. Go easy. Most children do not like being "drilled into!" Boys in particular are skeptical when we come on strong with questions, since they worry the outcome will either be that they will be humiliated or punished or both!
  2. Try to approach children as if they are the experts about their own behavior. Assume a position where you let them "educate" you.
  3. Ask what, not why! This is subtle but useful. When we ask "why," many children feel pinned down. When that happens they become evasive in their answers ("I don't know why. Because. She did it first!") Another way of saying this is that the majority of your questions with children should be clarifying ones, where we ask them to expand on or explain what they mean by something they've already said.
  4. Find out when something first started happening or when it was first noticed. An important question is to ask if this has ever happened before, or at home, or with other kids, etc.
  5. Use follow-up questions, especially if a child says something that catches your ear or that you don't fully get.
  6. Nothing will shut a child down more quickly than when we ask a question to which we already know the answer. It is better to be clear and honest with children than it is to play games. If you see a child do something and then you ask them, "Did I just see you do that!?" you are not really asking, you are testing. Children perceive this as a threat and will lie or stonewall us to avoid the shame they are sure is coming their way. Such an approach closes children down.

Procedures for Managing Camper Behavior

The real trick with these three master skills is knowing how to use them in sequence. Working with children is all about subtleties and balance — knowing when to listen, when to validate, and when to ask a clarifying question. The idea is to create what play therapists call a flow experience, where the child is trusting to the point where they are truly present.

The first procedure is joining. Joining is simply a kind of early signaling, both verbal and non-verbal, that you are a friend and are there to help, not shame. Let's take the case of our friend, Martin, who gets easily frustrated when he loses. When I met with Martin I asked him simple, non-intrusive questions about how long he had been coming to camp, what he liked most about it, and what he didn't like. It was joining, a time where the interaction is safe, low key, and low risk. In this exchange, I am using all three master skills — validation, listening, and inquiry — just to establish a simple connection.

Setting the Table
The next procedure is what I call "setting the table." This is where I state the reason for the meeting and set the conditions whereby Martin will be more inclined to cooperate in working to change his behavior. I do not ask Martin what he thinks we are meeting about, I tell him, because I want him to know he can count on me to be direct and non-shaming and not play games. As part of setting the table, I first mention some positive things I have heard about him from his counselor, preferably with his counselor sitting right there. After saying a few positive words about him, I tell Martin that we are meeting because I know that he has lost his temper at some activities and that I am here to help him with this problem. I give him some specific examples of times when this has happened, since it helps me be credible, and I repeat that he is not in trouble but that we are here to help him with this. From here the conversation gets a bit more serious. This is where I practice what I call an empathic understanding of children. I tell him that I am concerned that the other kids might get the wrong idea about him and think he's a poor loser or just a loser in general, but that I don't believe that.

Obviously, setting the table has many pieces to it — positive affirmation of the child; clear, matter-of-fact statement of the problem; reassurance that we are here to help; and an empathic statement about the child's pain. When I tell a child why it is I think they don't like their own behavior, I must put myself in their shoes and try to imagine the social and emotional cost they are paying. Stating this cost out loud, in an empathic way, has tremendous power. I can guarantee that most children have never been spoken to by an adult this way. And let's be clear that by stating the cost I am not absolving the child of the responsibility for their actions. The point is to see if we can create buy-in on the part of the child for the plan.

Behavioral Planning
Behavioral planning is the third and most creative procedure. It employs practical, specific strategies to shift behavior. In Martin's case, we did three things:

  1. I got him a yellow wristband, like the one popularized by Lance Armstrong in his attempt to increase awareness about cancer. Whenever Martin went to one of the sports he had trouble at, a counselor will give him the band to put on "for good luck," and the counselor will put one on himself. The wristband is his bright reminder to stop and count to ten before he gets angry in a game. When the counselor gives him the wristband, he also gives him a little pep talk and tells him that if he gets upset, he should come to you for help in keeping his temper.
  2. We told Martin that a counselor will be carrying a small 3-by-5-inch file card, and every time he "catches" himself, asks for help, or takes his own time out to cool his temper, he would receive a point. Once he earned a certain number of points, he was rewarded with an extra water skiing period or an opportunity to play a special game, etc.
  3. An important aspect of planning with children is getting their input. In this case, I asked Martin what special things he likes to do that he'd like to earn more time at.

Follow Up
The final procedure is follow-up. By setting a time to check back with a camper, we make it clear that we care, that we mean business, and that we are invested in the child succeeding.

Specialized Techniques

There are a number of other specialized strategies that are helpful in the camp environment.

One of these skills is visualization. If you have a child who is trying to overcome a fear of an activity or social situation, visualization may help. Visualization can also be used to enhance performance, such as running a race or playing any sport or making a new friend. Picturing the event in your mind and strengthening that image can build confidence and spirit.

Triple Play
Another technique I use is something I call the "triple play." Most boys and many girls can "connect," or make better friends, when they play together. This is why camp is such a great place for making friends. However, many children who are shy or not comfortable in larger groups often have trouble fitting in or making friends at camp. They do better with peers in smaller groups or one-on-one. The triple play is where a counselor takes two campers for one activity period and does something fun and interactive with just the two of them. There are many considerations to the triple play that must be handled well for it to work effectively. First, the other kids will wonder why they can't join in. I would simply have all counselors do triple plays with a variety of campers, perhaps rotating the shy or socially awkward camper through a number of such "camp play dates." Also, the shy camper needs some preparation about returning to the larger group at the end of the triple play period, when the more popular camper will join up with the rest of his or her friends. Without this preparation, the shy camper may feel crestfallen that their newly acquired friend has abandoned them for the other kids. Third, I would talk with the shy camper and get their thoughts about who in the group they would like to try to make friends with. Take caution in pairing the kids up. Many socially awkward kids will want to make friends with the most popular camper in the group, which may simply not be the best first move for them.

There are many behavioral strategies that work well at camp, and this has just been a sample. The American Camp Association National Conference in Orlando in February 2009 promises to showcase many more.

Author's Note 
The examples in this article are based on real people. The names and certain details about them have been changed to protect their privacy.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.