In the Care of Other People’s Children, Part 3: Supervision Tips for Frontline Staff

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed
May 2020
Camp waterfront
Most accidents involving campers occur in program, living, and common areas — typically when campers are (or were supposed to be) under the supervision of frontline camp staff such as cabin counselors, program staff, and activity-area supervisors. If this describes your role, this makes sense because you spend the most time directly with campers, including during program activities, mealtimes, and over night. As such, your day-to-day decision-making and supervision is a primary control for managing risk.

Unfortunately, many camper accidents occur as a direct result of frontline staff making poor decisions, specifically in areas of safety or supervision, putting campers at risk. As a frontline staff member, it is important to understand how your actions, decisions, or judgments affect a camper’s safety and well-being, or the quality of the program. Every decision you make (or fail to make) or action taken (or not taken) can be the difference between a camper getting hurt — physically or emotionally — or having a great time.

You are responsible for making sure that no camper is left unsupervised. Camp activities are rarely static, and campers are going to be energetic and often in perpetual motion — so supervision should never be passive. Rather, supervision is an active skill. And active supervision requires focused attention and intentional observation of campers at all times.

Be Where the Action Is

Staff should always be in close physical proximity to wherever the campers are. Position yourself so you can easily and continuously observe all the campers in your care. Consistently implement surveillance strategies such as watching, counting heads, and listening. In situations where you should not be visually observing campers for child protection reasons, such as when campers are showering or changing, stay within hearing range to remain aware of what is going on (or otherwise follow your camp’s policies).

Set up the environment and position yourself in a location so that you are easily accessible to campers. For some activities, that means always being set up and prepared for rescue/emergency response in a quick and effective manner. Consider how long it will take to respond to campers from that distance. Stay close to campers who may need additional support. As applicable, keep spaces between staff and campers clear and free of equipment, etc., with nothing blocking visual surveillance or in the way of potential emergency response.

Stay Mentally Focused and Engaged

In addition to being physically present, you should also be mentally engaged without any distractions. Avoid anything that distracts you from paying attention to your duties — conversations with other staff, use of electronics or headphones, etc.

Pay Attention to Interactions Between Campers

Watch for cliques, kids getting left out, bullying, and other problematic behaviors. What are they doing with — or to — each other? Is it appropriate? Is it emotionally safe? Is it physically safe? Is there potential for harm? Is there a way to make it safer? Is everyone included? Or is there a child being left out?

Count Your Campers

Staff are expected to always be able to account for the campers in their care. Continuously scan the activity/area to know where everyone is and what they are doing. Regularly account for all your campers by visually identifying each child and doing head counts. This is especially important during transitions between activities; count campers when departing the cabin/activity area and again when arriving at the next location to make sure no one was left behind.

Listen

Staff should always be within hearing distance. Staff who are listening closely can often identify signs of potential danger. Specific sounds or the absence of them may signify reason for concern. A group of campers who suddenly fall silent is a good indicator that someone may be up to no good. As applicable (and appropriate), enforce keeping room doors open/ajar, and eliminate any barriers to being able to hear campers, including loud music or headphone use.

Anticipate Camper Behavior

Use what you know about your campers — such as their individual interests, personalities, behavior challenges, issues, skills, etc. — to predict what they will do, and plan ahead to counter any negative or unsafe behaviors. As applicable, use any information provided about the camper, such as medical, mental, emotional, or social health issues to anticipate behavior. Examples of potentially unsafe behaviors include wandering off or not controlling emotional impulses when they get upset, aggression, fighting, or dangerous risk-taking. Staff who know what to expect are better able to “get ahead of the problem” and protect campers from harm. This may include helping campers develop strategies for dealing with issues to deter or prevent unsafe situations. It is not expected that a week at summer camp will cure behavioral problems. However, if you can anticipate the cause, it can help reduce or prevent associated risk issues.

Maintain Clear Rules and Boundaries for Behavior, and Be Consistent

Beware of trying to cut campers slack on the rules, especially with the intention of getting them to like you better. Failure to address/correct behaviors sends the message that rules are not really rules. Failure to correct behaviors when they occur sends a message to the other campers that the behavior is OK. And the perception that the behavior is OK perpetuates the behavior and may also cause campers to question your credibility and perhaps even challenge you further. This can become a critical issue when the rules pertain to camper safety or impact supervision.

It’s OK to Set Limits, Redirect, or Say No

As camp staff, it’s your job to make decisions based on what is appropriate and safe, which is sometimes contrary to what is popular and attractive to the campers. Yes, you want to make the campers happy and it can be difficult to tell them they can’t do something, but safety should always be the first priority. Enforce rules and regulations to prevent injuries; don’t succumb to camper pressures — and know how to respond when campers try to negotiate or manipulate you.

While staying consistent with your camp’s mission and policies, practice consistent limit setting, as well as camp-acceptable ways to say no or otherwise redirect campers. This may include offering an acceptable alternative or using a calm explanatory approach in redirecting campers to a more appropriate activity.

What Would Their Grownup Say?

Possibly one of the easiest and most effective tools to evaluate your decision-making is to imagine that the camper’s parent(s)/guardian(s) were standing right there watching. Would you make the same decision? Would you say what you just said? Would you behave in the same manner? If you wouldn’t do it with a child’s parent watching, then you shouldn’t do it.

Personal Behavior and Consequences

When caring for other people’s children, your conduct must establish and maintain an environment that supports the campers’ physical and emotional safety. For some, the social aspects of working at camp can be a significant challenge — and really easy to overdo. Along with getting enough sleep, it’s important to keep the partying under control. You won’t be able to bring your best self if you are exhausted or impaired. Further, the consequences of not being 100 percent on the job can literally become a life or death issue for the campers in your care. Don’t do something dumb that jeopardizes kids’ safety or the reputation of the camp — or that may haunt you for the rest of your life. If your social activities are impacting your ability to perform your job duties, odds are you won’t have those duties for long; no responsible camp is going to tolerate staff who are drunk, stoned, high, or hungover while in the care of other people’s children.

Personal Well-Being

Everything from the long hours and heat to camper interactions and the constant need to "be on" can take a toll. Factors such as stress and exhaustion can significantly impact your ability to maintain high-quality supervision of campers. As much fun as the staff social scene can be, it’s critical to maintain a healthy balance between work time, downtime, and play time. As permitted, try to go to bed when your campers go to bed — even if it’s before curfew — and sleep during rest periods whenever possible. Sleep during your time off. Sleep on your days off. Be intentional in taking your time off, and make sure to take time away from the camp, campers, and/or your coworkers. While it may seem fun for the first week or so of camp, no one can sustain burning the candle at both ends for the duration of the season — and your goal is to shine brightly, not to burn out.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you assess your ability to remain focused on and engaged with your campers? Is there anything you can begin doing today that would improve that ability?
  2. You are paying attention to your campers’ interactions during an outdoor activity and realize several of your campers are being excluded. What actions might you take to make sure everyone is feeling included and actively participating?
  3. What are some actions you can take to make sure your campers are clear about the rules?

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed, has over 25 years of professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the owner and director of Chef Camp, a residential culinary immersion program for teens, and CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreational facilities, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at dianettyrrell@gmail.com.


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