Dear Bob,

One of the challenges we've had working with staff is figuring out how to get them to tone down or adjust their behavior when working with campers. We often hire staff who seem to have great energy or a good sense of humor or who have other qualities that they don't know how to regulate. For example, we had a young man who was very spirited and energetic and great with the kids, but who would sometimes keep his boys up too late or get them so excited that they were then hard to manage and get to bed. We've also had counselors who were great listeners and very patient with the kids — to a fault! Sometimes I, or other members of the leadership staff, would have to end their conversations or meetings or their campers would never get to their activities.

How can we help these young staff members adjust themselves so we don't squash their enthusiasm but get a more even experience for the campers?

Curious Camp Coach

Dear Curious,

The challenge you describe is one I have heard many times from camp professionals around the country. Your question gives me an opportunity to share a few ideas that might be helpful when trying to capitalize on counselors' strengths while helping them modify or manage those strengths so they don't become a liability.

Create a Culture of Feedback and Reflection

In my work with staff at camps across the country, I have found that camp leaders — directors, owners, unit directors, division leaders, and head counselors — simply don't have much training or practice in giving helpful feedback. First of all, when we talk about feedback with staff, they often cringe as if the news they are about to receive will be hurtful or upsetting. We perpetuate this less-than-receptive attitude about feedback by using phrases like "constructive feedback," "helpful feedback," or "negative feedback." I don't know about you, but if someone approached me and said they would like to give me some "constructive feedback" about a talk or training I just did, I would be less than thrilled.

My suggestion is that you discuss the notion of feedback with your staff in a fresh way by tying it to their aspirations as staff members. After all, most camp staff are at camp with some desire to have a positive impact on children. Even ex-campers who are firsttime counselors, who often come back to camp to be with their friends and extend their camp careers, can see how beneficial the camp experience has been to them. Indeed, one of the characteristics that is often applied to millennials is their desire to do meaningful, purposeful work. What I say about it is that all feedback is designed to make you even better at what you say you want to do; namely, be a positive influence on the campers. Some feedback is "warm," which simply means it feels good; and other feedback is "cool," which means it doesn't feel that good. Yet, all feedback is designed to help you be the effective counselor you say you want to be.

Talking about feedback this way helps to create an environment in which everyone is learning, not just the campers. It also puts the emphasis on effectiveness and growth rather than on how feedback makes us feel. Another way to strengthen the message about growth is to show the "ClassDojo" videos to your staff (see the Additional Resources section at the end of my column). This series of short, animated video clips helps put into words the challenges we all have in navigating the trial-and-error world of learning a new skill.

The Red Balloon

Another way to dramatize the point you will be making about linking feedback with personal growth and development is to perform the "Red Balloon" exercise that I created a few years ago (see Resources section). I enact this role play in front of the entire staff by asking for a volunteer to come up in front of everyone. I blow up a large, 12-inch, red, helium-quality balloon and hand it to the volunteer, saying, "This red balloon is a part of you, just like a nose or ear or any other body part. No matter what I do or say, hold on to this with both hands." I then place my hands over their hands for a moment as they grab onto the balloon.

"Let's suppose you are a counselor and I am your supervisor here at camp. One day I happen upon you walking from one activity to another, and I take the opportunity to chat with you about something I noticed last night. 'I went by your cabin last night and, wow, it sounded like you and your campers were having a great time. I suspect it was a great bonding time and it sounded like a lot of fun. My only concern is that your kids were up pretty late and they seem a bit tired this morning. I wonder, could we find a way for you to bond with them and have that kind of fun and still get them to bed on time?'"

I then toss the volunteer a white balloon that, I announce to the audience watching, "is my perfectly well-intentioned piece of warm and cool feedback." But because the counselor is holding that red balloon, they can't grab hold of this piece of helpful feedback, so it bounces off.

I go on. "A few days later I come across you again and I say, 'Hey, I happened to see you with your campers down by the lake yesterday, and I was so impressed with how you had them all lined up on the benches and were carefully going over all the rules. You really had their attention. I wonder, could you also have used that time to get them into their personal flotation devices just to save some time?'"

I then toss the volunteer the white balloon again, my well-intentioned piece of warm and cool feedback, and once again it bounces off because the counselor is holding on to that red balloon. I turn to the audience and ask, "Can anyone tell me what this is?" I point to the red balloon that the counselor is holding.

Eventually someone says, "Pride." (I also hear things like, "ego"; "they think they know more about their campers than you," "stubbornness," etc.) I ask the audience another question. "How many people here, including me, have one of these (red balloons)?" I then raise my hand, and usually everyone else does too. I wait a moment and say, "Well, I hope so, because that's why we hired you. Your pride is what makes you invest yourself in your work. It is what makes you want to do a good job. It's what makes what anyone does great."

After letting that settle in, I ask, "So how many people here either know someone whose pride is so big that it prevents them from taking advice or from learning from others; or whose own pride got in the way of you asking for help or learning?" Again, as I raise my hand, so does most everyone else. "How many of you know someone who you wish had a little bit bigger red balloon — whom you wish had a bit more pride?" Again, several people raise their hands.

This is where I make my point about pride, which is like any attribute. Pride is a part of us. What we all have to ask ourselves is, "Is my pride controlling me, or am I controlling my pride?" This is the essential question we should ask ourselves about any strength or competence we might have.

Hook a Compliment to a Concern

The "Red Balloon" demonstration about pride is an example of a technique I call, "hook a compliment to a concern (HC2C)." It can work with any quality a counselor — or leadership staff — might have. For example, we all know that taken to an extreme, any positive attribute can become a liability. Being a good listener can be great as a way of getting to a deeper understanding of things. Then again, there are times when if all we do is listen, we might never take action. Being organized is another example. We probably all know someone who is a great list maker and who is very organized. Yet, if their list-making and adherence to their plan causes them to be inflexible or to "miss the people" in their midst, it can become a liability.

By first acknowledging that strength or the positive intention in their action — "I love what a great listener you are. So many of the campers trust you. I think it's a great quality." — we can then mention a concern. "My only concern is that you are so good at listening that all some campers want to do is tell you their story in a way that keeps them from getting to activities."

In the case of the spirited counselor you describe in your email to me, I might use the "HC2C" technique and say, "I love how much energy and spirit you bring to your work with the campers. They obviously adore you for it. It's a great quality and I never want you to lose it. My only concern is that sometimes you get the kids so excited they can't calm down. Then they have trouble getting settled for bed. You and I both know they can also get over-stimulated in a way that has them play fighting and that can get out of hand. How can we help get the best from your spirit and enthusiasm that doesn't get the kids so riled up they can't settle down?"

The question implicit in each case is, "Does your quality or skill or facility in an area run you or do you run it?" In other words, learning how to take our strengths and manage them so we get the best from them while avoiding pitfalls is an example of deeper maturation and growth around self-regulation. After all, at camp it's not just the campers who are doing the learning.

Additional Resources


Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. In the Trenches is sponsored by Easy Street Insurance, Inc.