During a mid-summer visit to a four-week, coed, residential camp, I spoke with the division leader (DL) of the youngest girls and learned about an eight-year-old camper whom I will call Eva. Eva had some behaviors that were challenging her counselors, many of whom were becoming frustrated in their efforts to help her. Eva was very slow when getting dressed or cleaning up in the cabin, and when the counselors tried to hurry her up so she wouldn’t be late for breakfast or an activity, she became defiant, cried, and whimpered and complained about her counselors being mean.

As I customarily do in these situations, I asked what it was that Eva liked at camp. Among other things, she loved going to the petting farm the camp maintained, where she got a thrill out of petting the baby deer and lamb. I asked this to see if there was any way to motivate Eva by rewarding her with more time to do the things she loved most at camp. If petting the baby deer seemed attractive to Eva, maybe the prospect of feeding the baby deer would prove so irresistible that she would be willing to modify her behavior in positive ways that would also make her camp experience more gratifying for her and her counselors!

I also asked about her relationships in her cabin and was told, not surprisingly, that the other girls were becoming increasingly annoyed with her mini temper outbursts, which would happen when a counselor was trying to get her to finish dressing, make her bed, or clean up around her area in the cabin. The perception was also spreading among her cabin mates that Eva was costing them points during cabin inspection time. Clearly, helping Eva improve her own behavior might brighten her chances of making friends in her cabin group.

When I asked what the counselors had done in response to these challenging behaviors, I heard that they mostly tried to reason with her, but that the “reasoning” often disintegrated into a struggle with Eva being upset (and late) and the counselors being frustrated.

Here is what I prescribed:

  1. I explained to the DL that Eva was probably a “slow processor” and that she wasn’t trying to make life difficult for her counselors by being obstinate or passive-aggressive, but that she simply took longer to do things and figure things out than most campers her age. While I could not prove my theory, it is a more generous way to think of Eva — one that I hoped her counselors could embrace as a way of finding more patience for her. While patience alone would not do the trick (I assured the DL there were other steps we would take with Eva), it is important to note that in cases where counselors are frustrated with a particular camper, we need to help them change their mindset about that camper before anything else we might have to offer will have a chance of working! While I was fairly confident about my assessment of Eva’s behavior, I knew my plan for her would work in any case.
  2. I asked whether there was one counselor in her cabin who might have a better relationship with Eva and could serve as the “lead counselor” in working with her — someone who could establish the plan (see point four) and work out the details with her. Children like Eva who struggle with a behavior that is central to their functioning at camp (like getting dressed and cleaning up) often respond better to one person who can establish greater immediate trust and rapport with him or her. That trust and rapport can eventually be shared with other staff members, but the point is to get a counselor whose relationship with the camper is stronger so the process can move more quickly.
  3. I pointed out to the DL that communicating with Eva probably had its own challenges that the counselors might not have recognized. Just as you would never make a cell phone call without first having a signal, one had to be sure we had Eva’s attention before speaking with her. This is because children who are internally distracted like Eva (that is, they daydream) may seem like they are listening (like a “four-bar signal” on a cell phone) when in fact they are thinking about something else entirely and don’t hear a word we are saying (a “no-bar signal”)! To be sure we have enough “bars” to “make the call” (to connect), we need to make clear, nonthreatening eye contact with Eva and even put a hand on her shoulder or upper arm. Doing these things will help ground Eva’s attention.

    Continuing with the cell phone metaphor, we also need to be on the lookout for “dropped calls” — that is, when Eva or children like her glaze over or become expressionless, indicating they have momentarily tuned out. Tuning out is simply an indication that the child has again become distracted by some internal thought or feeling that takes his or her attention away from the person speaking with him or her. When this happens, the counselor needs to pause and gently reestablish her connection before continuing with the conversation. It helps in situations with internally distracted or slow-processing children if we are clear, brief, and crisp with what we want to say. Searching around for the right words with children like these is a surefire way of losing them!

  4. Once we are in Eva’s “service area” (once we have a real connection with her), we need to make a plan with her before she is getting dressed or cleaning up. In other words, once she is in a routine where she is typically slow, it is too late to negotiate with her. This is true for many children struggling with many different kinds of behaviors. Once a camper’s feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness kick in, it is very difficult for him or her to be calm and rational, step back from his or her behavior, and take instruction from his/her counselor. Once Eva starts dressing or cleaning up, she is in what my friend and fellow camp consultant/ trainer Jay Frankel calls the “Point of Struggle.” I will elaborate on this concept in another column and show how it is relevant to many situations at camp, but for now, let’s get back to Eva.
  5. The plan I suggested for Eva was to get a simple notebook (even a few sheets of paper stapled together will do the job) that would become her sticker book. Every time Eva could respond to a simple counselor request (“Get your socks on before I can count to ten!”), she would earn praise and a sticker. Given Eva’s interest in animals, animal stickers would probably create additional interest for Eva.

    Note: Using a sticker book has many benefits. It is simple, attention getting, and motivating. Counselors can use it to be positive and encouraging (“Hey, Eva! You can get another sticker!”), rather than negative and threatening (“Eva, if you don’t get your shoes on, you’re going to be late again!”). The stickers, while motivating in themselves, are also a means to a greater end: If Eva earned a certain number after two days, she got to feed the deer! Again, this provides counselors with a way to encourage and support Eva rather than nag her and become negative and frustrated. Counselors keep the sticker book and bring it out when they need to employ it.

  6. After several days, the counselors can experiment with giving Eva two tasks to perform in a row before getting a sticker, thereby increasing her ability to work independently of her counselors. Also, some payoff other than feeding the baby deer might need to be found if, after a while, Eva becomes less interested in this privilege. If feeding the baby deer doesn’t lose its appeal, then there is no need to change the payoff.

After explaining these steps to the DL, I suggested I meet with the counselors to explain the steps and Eva’s plan directly to them. I found the counselors were enthusiastic about the plan because they could envision it working (it was simple, made sense, and utilized what we knew Eva liked). I find this enthusiasm to be characteristic of counselors at camps around the country. Counselors want to make a positive and supportive impact on their campers; they often just need the tools to help them make that happen.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.  “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the March/April 2014 Camping Magazine.