Among the many challenges camp directors face at staff training time is effectively addressing the personal conduct of those charged with caring for the campers—a task made increasingly difficult by high rates of underage drinking, other drug use, and early intimate sexual behavior among high school and college students. Tackling this challenge strictly from a command-and-control, behavior "management" perspective bypasses important opportunities to both protect children and teach valuable, lifelong lessons to new generations of leaders and role models.

Chief among those lessons is that the campers are under their influence at camp . . . and throughout the year.

Communication with Counselors

Too often, dialogue between administrators and staff is one way, highlighting policies, procedures, and disciplinary steps rather than the finely textured reasons for them in the first place.

Replacing ultimatums with informed discussion helps build important connections between rules and rationale, addressing expectations for personal conduct based on the principles of respect and responsibility. And those reinforce the incredibly powerful role that counselors play in influencing the choices of youth.

This approach works best as part of an overall strategy that encourages safe, healthy, and legal decision-making by staff members. Anything less leaves camps susceptible to the modeling of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior, examples that easily transcend time and place, indelibly marking young minds already struggling to reconcile many competing messages about personal conduct and responsibility.

Respect for Community

A critical component of any well-functioning summer camp is respect: respect for oneself, respect for others, and respect for the community. Bundled together, they promote a true appreciation for the role of camp counselor and the incredible power it bestows.

In theory, signing on for the job means relinquishing the egocentric patterns of thinking and behaving generally promoted in our wildly individualistic culture, perhaps especially during the college years, and embracing an other-centered approach to caring for, and about, all members of the camp community, particularly the children. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Reframing staff decision-making with an eye towards personal accountability related to respect makes choices about personal behavior more a referendum on commitment to the campers than a divisive game of cat and mouse between counselors and administrators.

Responsibilities and Rewards of Being a Mentor

With respect comes responsibility, most poignantly reflected in the relationships between counselors and campers and most critically actualized in the role modeling that takes place whenever there is interaction (in person, on the phone, or online). Helping counselors internalize a true understanding of their responsibility to campers sensitizes them to the very real, and very likely, consequences of their own decisions, thus making poor choices less likely.

Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Group points out that young people rank "setting an example" for brothers and sisters as one of the most commonly held reasons they choose not to drink or use drugs. A similar sense of responsibility can be nurtured when it comes to counselors and their campers, and the benefits can be measured in behavioral outcomes.

First, young people with an informal, natural mentor in their lives—such as a camp counselor—are more likely than not to believe their mentor has a responsibility to them and that they have a responsibility to their mentor . . . such as "being good" and/or living up to their mentor’s expectations. When those expectations include discussion of, or modeling behavior regarding alcohol, drugs, and sex, the results can be dramatic.

According to Teens Today, middle and high school students reporting a high level of mentoring are significantly more likely than those reporting a low level of mentoring to avoid risky behaviors. More to the point, young people who have attended a day or overnight summer camp are less likely to drink (26 percent vs. 36 percent); use marijuana (8 percent vs. 18 percent); or engage in sexual behavior, such as intercourse (29 percent vs. 40 percent) or oral sex (29 percent vs. 39 percent) than their noncamper peers.

There are other important benefits as well. Young people with a mentor are more likely to report having a high Sense of Self (46 percent vs. 25 percent) and to say they take positive risks (38 percent vs. 28 percent), such as performing charitable work, starting a business, taking advanced placement courses, or trying out for a sports team. Looking at campers versus noncampers, the numbers tell a similar story (53 percent vs. 40 percent and 48 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sense of Self and Positive Risk-Taking are each linked to lower incidence of destructive, or potentially destructive, behaviors and to overall mental health.

Strategic Approaches to Prevention

Of course, discussions about decision-making imbued with references to respect and responsibility are most effective when they represent just one thread of a larger strategic approach to prevention that encompasses well-defined, well-rehearsed, and well-executed strategies designed to create change.

And when it comes to influencing the personal behavior of counselors, effective strategies must be multidimensional, systemic, and practical.

A multidimensional approach:

  1. Changes commonly held attitudes and perceptions about "normal" and acceptable behavior by applying social learning theory to community-based social marketing initiatives;
  2. Involves staff members in the planning and implementation of practical, replicable activities that offer meaningful alternatives for fun, camaraderie, and release;
  3. Provides reinforcing educational information about the risks, including legal ones, associated with certain behavior;
  4. Establishes clear, unambiguous expectations for conduct, both in camp and during free time; and
  5. Enforces consequences for violating camp rules.

It is also important that camp directors not fall into the trap of "owning" the problem. That lets other important stakeholders off the hook. A systemic view involves all members of the community in building and embedding its multidimensional approach. Not until everyone from the counselor to the cook recognizes the role of community in establishing and enforcing reasonable expectations for behavior can we effectively avoid mixed messages and achieve desired results.

Finally, whatever steps are taken to ensure appropriate conduct by staff must be practical and thus achievable. Changing a culture requires repetition in messaging, content, and consequence, and that is only possible when the overall strategy is easy to explain, easy to implement, and easy to measure.

So What Can You Do ASAP?

  • Assess the situation at your camp and which issues seem most problematic.
  • Support the active involvement of all segments of your community (including the counselors) in developing a strategy to address staff behavior.
  • Actively communicate expectations, information, and consequences.
  • Provide alternative activities and multiple channels for feedback to determine results.

With concerted effort and a well-developed strategy, we can empower our counselors to model positive, appropriate behaviors by reinforcing respect and responsibility in the camp community.

Sense of Self 
Sense of Self is a young adult’s self-evaluation on his/her progress in three key developmental areas: identity formation, independence, and peer relationships. Teens Today research has found that teens with a high Sense of Self feel more positive about their identity, growing independence, and relationships with peers than do teens with a low Sense of Self. Specifically, high Sense-of-Self teens reported feeling smart, successful, responsible, and confident and cited positive relationships with parents. Also, significantly, high Sense-of- Self teens are more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use than are their low Sense-of-Self peers.

Positive Risk-Taking 
Teens who take positive risks (Risk Seekers) in their lives (such as joining a club or tackling a physical challenge), their schools (such as taking advanced placement courses, trying out for a sports team, or running for student council), and their communities (such as volunteering to help the homeless or elderly, starting a business, or working with younger children) are 20 percent more likely than teens who do not take positive risks (Risk Avoiders) to avoid alcohol and other drugs. Risk Seekers are also more likely than Risk Avoiders to describe themselves as responsible, confident, successful, and optimistic and to report they often feel happy.

Social Learning Theory and Social Marketing Campaigns
Social learning theory addresses, in part, behavior change resulting from the modeling, observation, and imitation of others, directly or indirectly. It recognizes the prominent role of reinforcement (which makes behavior more likely) and punishment (which makes behavior less likely) as they relate to the environment in which a person is making choices. For example, when a counselor’s decision to avoid smoking marijuana while working at camp conforms to the behavior of the other counselors, she may receive reinforcement for that behavior in the form of acceptance. She may also be reinforced by a third person, such as the camp director, for staying of out trouble or by the satisfying results of the behavior itself (such as being more connected to the children). Conversely, the observation of punishment reinforces the unacceptable nature of certain choices. Research suggests that many behaviors are learned through modeling, including those involving moral judgments of "right" and "wrong."

Social marketing campaigns involve the planning and execution of marketing programs to bring about social change. According to the Social Marketing Institute, the ultimate objective of such programs is to influence action. The desired actions, avoiding alcohol when underage for example, are more likely when the perceived benefits are greater than the perceived costs. Those perceptions can be created or altered through standard marketing techniques applied to social behavior. Such campaigns have proven successful in addressing a number of important issues such as seat-belt use, youth smoking, HIV/AIDs prevention, and environmental citizenship.

References (Jan. 31, 2007). "Social Marketing." Social Marketing Institute. (Jan. 31, 2007).

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about SADD or the Teens Today research, visit

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 
2007 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.