Camp has changed significantly since my first year as a counselor in 1989. Advancements include: online registration, drones shooting video footage, cool water trampolines and climbing devices, overnight camps with shorter sessions, and day camp programs growing in numbers every summer. But some of the biggest advancements across the industry are not as obvious. Focusing on child development has become the priority for camps that want to have a long-term positive impact on children’s lives.
When I became a director of Camp Menominee, an overnight camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin, in 1990, and then day camp owner of Triple C Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1999, it was clear there needed to be intentional strategies to support counselors in dealing with difficult camper behaviors. By 1999, stereotypically more campers were acting out, and our staff recognized that younger children needed a camp-oriented plan for discipline support. We found male campers’ parents were turning to medicine to treat their children’s poor behavior rather than employing other problem-solving strategies.
When campers want to be at camp (especially overnight camp), there is often less need for discipline. They are excited to be involved in the activities and follow camp rules and their counselors’ directions. Many become strong leaders through this healthy environment. Campers get positive attention and love the experience. These campers are often described by their counselors as simply, “great.” They pay attention, follow instructions, and want to be good friends to the other campers and staff. However, even the best-behaved campers have their moments, so it is critical for camps to have a discipline strategy when the need arises.
What’s the Plan?
An oft quoted adage says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” The days when camps chose to operate without a plan for intentional guidance for staff concerning child development or a rationale for program schedules are over. Directors generally no longer allow counselors to wing it. We in the camp community know that a plan puts directors and front-line staff on the same page. And while some flexibility within the plan is acceptable, a starting point is a must.
The following strategy for positive discipline has evolved and worked at our camps for the last 25+ years. It is not perfect, but it is a plan. Make sure, whatever your plan, that you incorporate it into staff training and give your counselors the opportunity to role play scenarios so they are prepared to execute when the real deal comes along.
Make an Effort to Connect
Priority number one in positive discipline is to make a huge deal out of positive behaviors. Bob Ditter says, “Connect before you redirect” (2017). This is a critical step in building the relationship between camper and staff, and may be as simple as a counselor giving a camper a nod of the head, an empathetic look, or a respectful, friendly hug. Making a connection builds trust with campers, and that trust will be important when things go askew — and they will!
When campers meet their counselors for the first time, it should be a celebration for both parties. Staff are excited to finally be with campers they have been trained to guide, teach, and help to develop emotionally, mentally, and physically. And campers are excited and nervous to learn about this great leader they have been promised. Counselors must be proactive during this first meeting. Excitement and exuberance from the staff will instantly let campers know their counselors are interested in them and will help campers and staff bond. Also, welcome campers with fun visual statements such as name tags, decorations, and fabulous first-hour activities including name games that help to build relationships from the start.
You may ask what this has to do with discipline. When staff are connected to the campers and there is a mutual respect, the need for discipline is minimal.
Use Positive Words
Positive words have an enormous effect on humans. When an individual in charge asks someone to do something, the expectation in the listener’s head very often appears in the form of a picture. When a person gets asked not to do something, the same is true, but this can cause confusion. Suppose I’m the person in charge of supervising you, and I say to you, “Please close your eyes and don’t think of a pink elephant!” Did you just think of a pink elephant?
When we ask a child not to do something, why do we expect them to comply? For example, a camper is standing on a picnic bench. Staff says, “Please get off the bench!” What does the camper want to do? Stand on the bench. If the staff member chooses positive words and says, “Please put your feet on the ground,” they will see much better results from the camper. Be intentional with this training. It takes a lot of practice to become habit.
Expect Imperfect Behavior
Campers often look for attention. What type of attention and how we give it to them is ultimately up to staff. The key is to emphasize the positives with campers and manage the negatives. Do not over emphasize the negatives. If we set high expectations from the first moment, our campers will rise to them. So make sure those expectations are set for campers when they first arrive at camp, and that camp staff are clear on how to reinforce positive behavior. (Check out “100 Ways to Praise a Child” on Pinterest: pinterest.com/pin/108297566010457094 and use it during staff training when you can role-play behaviors and expectations.)
Teach your staff how to redirect behavior to a more positive focus when a child makes a choice different from what is in their best interest. If Johnny is throwing rocks in the creek when the desired behavior is looking for salamanders, his counselor could say, “Johnny, please come over and help lift this rock and let’s see what’s under it.” Most of the time redirection like this will accomplish the goal of getting the camper back on track.
You will notice that the counselor never said anything about the negative choice (throwing rocks). Staff should focus on the desired behavior. How the counselor has built a relationship with Johnny before this incident will influence how Johnny responds. When we respect our campers and they respect us, redirecting generally takes place easily and without conflict.
If Johnny ignores the counselor and continues to throw rocks in the creek, the counselor should offer Johnny choices without mentioning throwing rocks. The counselor could say, “Johnny, you have a choice to make. Please come over and help with lifting these rocks and looking for salamanders, or you will have a time-out. It is your choice.”
If the latter becomes necessary, stick with short, in-sight time-outs. For some campers, one minute is sufficient. If Johnny refuses the desired behavior, then the counselor must follow through and put Johnny in time-out. The counselor should pick a location that is close so Johnny can be seen, but far enough away that he will not be a distraction for the rest of the group. After a minute or two, the counselor can go over and talk with Johnny to reinforce their trust relationship and get Johnny back to catching salamanders with everyone else as soon as possible.
If Johnny continues to throw rocks in the creek and ignores instructions for time-out (it rarely gets this far with kids who want to be at camp), then the counselor can offer Johnny additional choices. “Johnny, please sit on that stump in time-out, or you will see the director. It’s your choice.” Subconsciously, the director is a direct line to Johnny’s parents or family. Again, if Johnny does not comply, then follow-through to the camp director is required.
Involving the director at this stage allows the group to return to their activity and fun — and the camper who is looking for negative attention will receive support from the director. I recommend that the director come to the area where the camper is misbehaving to avoid the chance the child will forget why they are in trouble during the walk to the director’s office. The director will go through the stages of conflict resolution with the child and make the counselor aware of what took place. Staff must have the support of the camp director for success. Once the director has spoken to the child, the camper should be given the opportunity to make restitution with the counselor and/or the other campers.
We train staff to work it out with the campers; this empowers the staff to focus on group relationships. If two campers are involved in a verbal altercation, staff should keep their eyes and ears open and perhaps put some distance between them for a short time. Long-term, it’s important the campers learn how to work with each other. In life, individuals must recognize and embrace each other’s differences. If campers cannot work out their differences on their own or with a counselor’s assistance, then it’s time to involve an upper-level staff member. Positive mediation is a skill that may be beyond the purview of teenage or 20-something staff. Utilize an experienced director and communicate appropriately with parents. If and when campers return to group activities, the experience can be a teaching moment. In the group, discuss problem-solving and choices we make that have real consequences. Processing the experience is an important part of development.
In the event of a physical altercation between campers, it’s best to involve an upper-level staff member or the camp director immediately.
Support Your Staff
The best way to ensure front-line staff will positively reinforce behavior in their campers is for you, the director, to model that action with your staff. Additionally, we must partner with parents to help campers grow and understand issues of attention seeking, building friendships, and skill development. When imperfect moments do arise, stay the course and support your counselors, knowing you have given them a plan and expect it to be executed. Hold your staff accountable to the plan because it is in the best interest of the campers you serve. The results will be positive all the way around.
For more information on positive discipline, refer to the following:
Photo courtesy of Camp Walden in Cheboygan, Michigan.
Ditter, B. (2017, May). Six habits I wish every counselor had. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/six-habits-i-wish-every-counselor-had
Howard “H” Rothenberg is an ACA visitor and partner and director of Franchise Operations for Hi Five Sports Franchising. He also co-owns Triple C Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, and helps all camps through campcoach.com. Reach “H” about anything camp at email@example.com.