The Art and Science of Youth Development: The Role of the Camp Counselor

Lance Ozier, EdD
May 2019
boy on bridge

What do campers need from the counselors who work with them? They need caring relationships with adults they can trust. They need clear limits, high expectations, and healthy challenges. Campers need to be accepted for who they are. They need counselors to support them in taking positive risks and avoiding negative ones. In short, they need you to be the very best you can be.

For the last 20 years, most of what I’ve learned about teaching and being a camp counselor is an art: trusting your gut, having good instincts, laughing, and having fun. Yet there is a science behind what we do: interacting positively with participants, individually and in groups; and using strength-based approaches, respectful communication, and affirmative techniques, such as developing trust, listening, and engaging with participants. This is the “stuff” of which high-quality counselors are made.

Research suggests that the quality of programs is related to positive youth outcomes, and skilled staff are a critical component of high-quality programming (Vance, 2010). Unpacked and translated into accessible language, here are some important, research-based competencies for working with youth that will help ensure you have the necessary skills to be successful this summer.

Competency: Positive Reinforcement

Use positive reinforcement to encourage campers and achieve the goals of the program.

A key ingredient for a successful summer is that counselors have more positive than negative interactions with campers. That is, we aim to constantly interact positively with participants individually and in groups, whenever possible, using a strength-based approach. For example, imagine a small group of campers during rest hour — some campers are reading quietly, while others are tossing their towels like a lasso and using their flashlights as lightsabers. Rather than yelling at kids to stop, use respectful communication and affirmative techniques by praising the campers who are doing exactly what you’ve asked. Look for the kids who are following directions. Say something like, "I like how Luke is sitting quietly on his bed and not bothering anyone by reading his book." Naming and praising the behaviors you desire is much more effective than reinforcing the negative behaviors you don’t want other campers to emulate.

In the same vein, my friend Bob Ditter (1997) has called camp an "envelope of safety," and by safety we are not just referring to the physical safety of campers — camp is a place to create the conditions for mental and emotional safety that result from us taking care of one another. One of the consequences of interacting positively with campers and other staff is developing trust by listening to and engaging with participants. Once trusting relationships are established, kids become less resistant and more open to trusting you to support their decision-making. Sarcasm and humiliation should never be used as tools for bonding with young people. Instead, try asking campers, "How can I help?" and "What do you need from me?" as methods for opening up to difficult or resistant children.

Another tried-and-true tenet of positive youth development recognizes the need for young people to feel in control. Often adults and caretakers are consumed with telling kids what to do, when instead simply offering a choice can help a camper take control of the situation and build their sense of independence, over time supporting their individuation from the adults in their lives to build fluency in a world on their own. This summer, remember to offer maximum “choice and voice,” and respond to priorities articulated by participants. For example, rather than tell your group of campers the bunk rules, invite them to suggest the norms that will promote respect and keep the group safe. Use this conversation to help kids understand what is expected while allowing campers to make important contributions to the group, rather than dictate your expectations without compromise. This also helps hold kids accountable, because it’s easier to ask a camper to follow a rule they’ve helped set than one you’ve demanded they follow.

Competency: Embracing Diversity and Personal Responsibility

Have awareness of identity formation during adolescence, including expressions of identity, and know how to manage related tensions.

At the heart of being a summer camp counselor is the ability to promote an inclusive, welcoming, and respectful environment that embraces diversity. As mentioned, this is done largely by actively fostering positive relationships with the campers and between the campers and their peers. Make children feel physically and emotionally safe by being part of the group. For example, as you are fostering an inclusive environment, immediately address bullying and teasing — don’t let it go on. Not confronting this issue early not only erodes the safety of the environment, but it also sends the wrong message that this kind of behavior is tolerated. Confronting may seem hard initially. I certainly remember the challenge of having to collectively bring the community’s attention together for the first time to address disruptive behavior and conflict. Yet, this is a principle part of effectively managing groups, and I felt more confident as a leader as a result, not to mention the relief at maintaining a sense of group order and safety.

Competent camp counselors also identify and respond to factors that give rise to feelings of exclusion among a group of campers, such as being perceived as “different” because of culture, language, race, or ethnicity; physical, emotional, or cognitive disability; atypical behavior or appearance. This summer you can demonstrate appreciation for and sensitivity to the diverse languages, cultures, traditions, family structures, and perspectives of others. For example, by providing opportunities for participants to appreciate and celebrate the cultures and traditions of their fellow campers, as well as demonstrating knowledge of your own culture, traditions, and biases, you are promoting inclusiveness by challenging unexamined assumptions and stereotypes. Camping Magazine has inaugurated a Social Justice series, and these articles will be helpful resources for those staff wishing to explore issues of inclusion more deeply (refer to the Social Justice Series sidebar for more information).

Finally, one of the most fun aspects of your role this summer will be your ability to develop leadership, teamwork, and self-advocacy skills among participants. For example, giving campers the opportunity to lead group discussions and campfire programs, or simply taking charge of the “count-off” at line-up. These might seem like small steps, and yet you are building the foundation for their ability to take on larger tasks later on. You will also want to encourage campers to take ownership of bunk chores, dining hall routines, and other tasks that build personal responsibility during the summer program. These provide opportunities for campers to participate in decision-making about program activities as they help lead group and team projects. As a result, you will foster decision-making and problem-solving skills by teaching self-advocacy and personal responsibility.

In my 20 years working in education, I have learned the value of a camp experience is the opportunity for young people to explore, discover, and experiment. The creation of such a space where this is possible for children, in whom new meanings and understandings emerge, results from encountering both struggle and success. At camp, I know every moment of every day of every summer contains challenges — big and small — for developing participants’ capacity for self-reflection, communication, empathy, and tolerance of diverse opinions and cultures.

Learning at camp is about meticulously observing the smallest moments and interactions; it is about taking the time to notice the struggling sprigs of acorns working their way through the soil. This metaphor illuminates the slowness, perseverance, and curiosity necessary to understand how camps serve as a combination of risk and success, a soil in which children feel safe and comfortable with their attempts and mistakes, such as meeting new friends, getting along with others, and taking responsibility for their camp community.

Start thinking now about what you want your campers to carry home. It’s not just the dirty socks and stained clothing at summer’s end, but the skills and attributes you model: confidence, compassion, and creativity. The path to their success will often be guided by your gut — let your conscience be your guide — and practice the scientific-based skills that will benefit your campers. Get to know the competencies that the youth development field has shown are important, because now more than ever, camp affords children the important time they desperately need to negotiate with other children and adults the contradictions and complexities; consider alternatives; and identify the compelling.

Now, get out there and change some lives!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some behaviors you would identify as bullying and stop immediately if you witnessed them occurring among your campers?
  2. What’s one activity you could do with your campers that would recognize and celebrate their diversity?
  3. What might you do to promote responsible and healthy decision-making among your campers?

References

Ditter, B. (1997). In the trenches. Camping Magazine. Martinsville, IN: American Camping Association.

National Institute on Out-of-School Time. (2012). Core competencies for young work professionals. Boston, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. (2009, June). Core competencies for youth work professionals. Retrieved from nyc.gov/assets/dycd/downloads/pdf/Youth-Work_Professional-Core-Competencies-full-document-6-2009.pdf

Starr, B., Yohalem, N., & Gannett, E. (2009). Youth worker core competencies: A review of existing frameworks and purposes. Washington DC: Next Generation Youth Work Coalition.

Vance, F. (2010). A comparative analysis of competency frameworks for youth workers in the out-of-school time field. Child Youth Care Forum. 39(6):421–441.

Lance Ozier, EdD, spent 15 summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York as a counselor and education coordinator at Morry’s Camp. From 2010 to 2016 he volunteered on ACA’s Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE), and was recognized with a Hedley S. Dimock Award in 2015. Lance is also an instructor in the departments of Youth Studies and Curriculum & Instruction at The City University of New York. Contact the author: Lancewittozier@gmail.com

Social Justice Series