Scene 1: Tabatha, one of your five-year-old day campers, is going through her fussy-eating routine with you at lunchtime again. What happens is now so familiar to you that you’re certain you can play it out in your sleep. You offer her one food choice after another and she alternates between pretending she doesn’t hear you and screaming, “You know I hate that!” No matter what you try she doesn’t like it. It almost seems as if she enjoys this “dance” with you, even though the stress is taking a toll on both of you and is beginning to annoy the other children.

Scene 2: You awake from your dreamy sleep with a mild startle. It’s 5:30 in the morning. As you gather your senses you realize that Alyssa, one of your new campers in the “Butterfly” cabin, is crying again because she’s homesick. In moments she is standing next to your bed looking at you tearfully. You are afraid she’s going to wake up some of the other girls in the cabin if you can’t quiet her down soon. It’s been over a week since camp started and somehow Alyssa is still homesick at certain times of the day, especially in the morning before everyone else is up.

Scene 3: You walk into your cabin of 11-year-old boys after the end of evening activity to find Darrell literally swinging from the rafters! As you and your co-counselor begin to shepherd the other boys to their nighttime duties, like brushing their teeth and changing out of their day clothes, one of you has to cajole this hyperactive, laughing boy into getting ready for bed. Not only is he loud and trying to get you to chase him, he begins to jump onto some of the other boys, pulling them into his wild behavior. Even when you threaten to take away his flashlight time, it takes him three times as long to settle down than it does his cabin mates.

What all of these scenes have in common is that they are a moment I call the “point of struggle” (a phrase actually coined by my friend, master trainer, and recent recipient of ACA’s Hedley Dimock Award Jay Frankel, and used with his permission) — a time when a camper or campers are exhibiting such challenging behavior that it puts their counselors on edge. This happens regularly at both day and resident camp, so learning to anticipate or identify the point of struggle (POS) can make life a lot easier for both you and your campers this summer.

Human Chemistry

When campers are in a POS, whether they are acting up, stressing out about something, or simply exhibiting poor self-control, they are in a state of high agitation. When this happens there are certain body and brain hormones — adrenalin and epinephrine, respectively — that are at a higher level than usual. These hormones are designed to put us into a “fight or flight” state, which is great for survival if there is a real threat to us, but not so great for getting along at camp. When campers have higher levels of these two hormones coursing through their systems, their more primitive “reptile brain,” the instinctual part of our brains designed to protect us from danger, is on high alert; and the more advanced human cortex, where we do our reasoning and perspective taking, is actually off-line. What this means for campers who are in a point of struggle is that they are less able to do the following:

  • Listen (they can’t make sense out of what you are saying)
  • Take in helpful information
  • Follow directions
  • Accept help
  • Self-soothe
  • Re-establish their self-control

With their emotions running high, campers in a POS are more reactive and less cooperative. Confronted with a camper in this state, counselors themselves tend to become distressed and reactive as well. In other words, when campers are having some of their worst moments, counselors usually follow suit and have some of their worst moments. Not only that, your usual set of tools for calming kids down and getting them to cooperate often won’t work once they are in a POS. The best strategy is to avoid getting into the POS in the first place.

Steps for Staying Out of the Point of Struggle

Luckily, there are several things you can do to avoid the point of struggle.

  1. Try to identify patterns in the behavior of your campers. In each of the examples at the beginning of this article, you can see that the behavior in question is probably not a surprise after a few days of camp. Once you can anticipate the behavior of your campers, you can plan ahead. For example, does your camper tend to act up just before swimming? Does he or she become agitated at bedtime or during cabin cleanup? Does he or she become overtired in the afternoon and fall apart emotionally? Does your camper get homesick after dinner? Patterns in camper behavior are easy to spot once you know to look for them.
  2. Plan ahead. Talk with your campers well ahead of the time that their challenging behavior normally occurs. For example, with the fussy eater, by the time you are in the dining hall it’s too late. You are at the “scene of the crime,” so to speak, and the cues around food will have already triggered her reactive state. In the case of the homesick camper, again, once you are in the point of struggle it is too late to make a plan let alone execute that plan. In the case of the camper who has trouble settling down at night, trying reason with him in that moment of struggle is too late. With the picky eater you can discuss food choices far more reasonably, with better input from her, if you do it a few hours before you even think about setting foot in the dining hall. With the early morning homesick camper, making a plan in the afternoon during rest hour will yield much better results than at 5:30 in the morning.
  3. Offer choices and alternatives. With the picky eater, ask her what she typically eats at home. Ask her what her favorite camp foods have been so far. Have your head counselor or unit director get some information from her parents about food choices that you can talk over with her. By doing this well before you approach the dining hall, you will not only get more cooperation and input from her, but you will be better able to position yourself with her as her ally rather than her enemy. The same goes for the early morning homesick child. Talk about what she can surround herself with the night before that she can use to soothe herself or occupy herself with when she wakes up. Does she have a stuffed animal that she can keep close by? What about something to read or color? What if she were to draw a picture for her mother and father that illustrates what her favorite activities were the day before? (Hint: Focusing on the positive will help.) Tell her that her drawing can become a “letter” you can send to her parents later that day. Again, the more you are able to engage the child before any hint of homesickness has set in, the more the camper will see you as an ally and the more he or she will be able to come up with ideas of his or her own.
  4. Put incentives in place ahead of time. With the boy who has trouble settling down at bedtime, talking with him ahead of time may help you find out if his wild behavior is actually a defense against feeling sad about missing home. When you talk with a child while he or she is calm and not yet in a troubled state you are more likely to find that child to be more self-reflective. Whether or not you are able to get a sense of what might be driving the behavior, putting some simple incentives in place ahead of time may help you manage the behavior. By giving this young man something positive to focus on, you just might help him reassert his self-control once bedtime does roll around.

Incentive Cards

Incentive cards are a simple way to engage certain campers in a more positive and cooperative way. For our man Darrell who has trouble settling down at night, discuss with him the possibility of his getting certain “points” if he can get his teeth brushed within a specific time limit, or if he can be the first one to be on his bunk ready for bed, or if he can help organize his things before getting into bed. To negotiate this successfully, you as Darrell’s counselor would need to talk with him well in advance of actual bedtime — well before the POS — and find out if anything he could “earn” might appeal to him if he had the chance to get those points. Rewards that campers typically like at camp are things like:

  • Being able to get the mail for the cabin one day
  • Feeding the animals
  • Playing a special game with a favorite counselor
  • Being the first to pick an elective
  • Having an extra turn at a favorite activity
  • Getting an additional full period of a favorite activity, such as water skiing or playing gaga

By speaking with Darrell when he is calmer and not yet in an agitated state, not only is he more likely to hear what you have to say and buy in to the plan, he is also more likely to come up with ideas of his own about what might be possible incentives. By setting up an incentive card — which is an actual 3" x 5" file card on which you make a check mark when Darrell accomplishes one of the targeted behaviors — it allows you to be his ally and cheer him on or encourage him at bedtime rather than threaten or argue with him. “Hey, Darrell, this would be a great time to earn an extra point for yourself!” Once he has earned a point, you have the opportunity to praise him, which is a much better place to be than having to scold or yell at him.

Incentive Charts

One specific time in the daily resident camp schedule when many campers typically get into a POS is during cabin cleanup. Many children are simply not used to making their bed, picking up their dirty laundry, or doing any of the other chores that come with cabin cleanup. Unfortunately, camper parents usually also fail to speak with their children before they come to camp about the fact that not only is cleanup something that happens everyday, but that they expect their child to participate fully.

No one likes cleanup — well, not any of the campers I know. So rather than getting into the characteristic tug of war that happens between most counselors and campers during cleanup, try using an incentive chart. An incentive chart has the name of each camper written on it with a space next to his or her name for points that camper can earn for the group. For example, each camper that makes his or her bed — to an acceptable standard within the time allotted for cleanup — might get three points next to his or her name. Those points are pooled toward a group goal of, say, 250 total points. (Set the number of total group points high enough so that it takes four or five days for the cabin to reach its goal). Campers might also get additional points during each daily cleanup period for getting their cubby straightened, for sweeping, or doing their job on the “job wheel.” The idea is for each camper to earn as many points as possible to get the targeted number of points that will earn the entire cabin something they all might like — such as a pool or pizza party; or a movie and popcorn at night. Remember that the idea is to discuss the scheme with the group before they are in the point of struggle. By doing so, you are more likely to get their thoughts about what they might like to earn and to build excitement for the plan.

The use of an incentive chart can also contribute to a sense of teamwork and cooperation among your campers. They all work together toward a common goal to which each can make a contribution. Smart counselors review the progress the group makes each day and tally the total number of points so they can continue to motivate the group to be successful. You might even point out when they have achieved a “personal best” for the most number of points in one day as a group, or the two or three top point earners for that day. Having an incentive chart allows you as the counselor to cheer campers on and encourage them to get points. “Hey, you guys! You are only 50 points away from earning your party!” Incentives work better than threats and put you in a more positive place with your campers. Rather than scolding them or threatening them, you get to cheer them on. One detail to look out for is an outlier who hasn’t been able to earn points for the group. If this should happen, take that camper aside and see if you can help motivate him or her by taking an interest in him or her or being curious about what is keeping the camper from contributing. Often all it takes to get an outlier camper to “buy in” is some positive personal attention.

Staying out of the POS can help make the summer much less stressful for your campers and much less distressful for you. If there is one skill or strategy for you to master this summer, learning how to stay out of the point of struggle might be your best bet.

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