Creating a Strengths-Based Camp

Audrey Monke, MA
November 2017
campers in team-building activity

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” —Albert Einstein

Several years ago, deep into my research on positive psychology, I stumbled upon an obvious truth: We are happier when we spend more time focusing and building upon our strengths than remediating our weaknesses. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

Teachers and parents traditionally spend more time and energy focusing on children’s weaknesses than on their strengths. They fixate on the lowest grades as opposed to the areas of highest interest and achievement. Extra tutoring and coaching are just two examples of areas where parents send a clear message to children: “You are not good enough and need to be fixed.”

Psychologist Lea Waters put it this way: “Whether we want to or not, we spend more time in fix-it mode with our kids. We spend more time correcting what is wrong — zeroing in on weak spots, overcoming their faults and what is lacking in them.”

Many children are getting the message that they are expected to excel in all areas and that weak spots make them unworthy. Common sense and our own life experience tell us that perfection in all areas is not a realistic nor achievable human goal, and yet our culture continues to send the opposite message to young people. And while there are some basic academic competencies children need to master, this hyper-focus on weaknesses can lead to negative outcomes, including feelings of worthlessness, apathy, depression, anxiety, and suicide, to name just a few.

Recent research has proven that much of the angst and stress our youth feel can be alleviated if we shift from a deficit model, where our focus is on what is wrong with the child, to a strength-based focus, where we focus instead on what is going well for the child (Peters, 2015; Zimmerman, 2013; Lerner & Geldhof, 2011). Summer camps can play a key role in the strengths-based movement by training staff in the language of strengths and helping campers identify and practice using their strengths. By offering kids the chance to identify, embrace, and utilize their natural strengths while they’re at camp, we can help alleviate some of the negative feelings they have become accustomed to having about themselves. A strengths focus can build up children’s confidence and improve their outlook, which will most likely lead to improved outcomes in all areas, even weaker ones.

Strengths-based Approach at Camp

I started using a strengths-based approach at my camp several years ago after learning what positive psychology research had to say about it. A simple starting point was researching different strengths assessments and reports, training counselors in the language of strengths, and helping them identify character traits and personality strengths they can praise in campers. To point out strengths, counselors need to know what they are looking for and what to call these positive traits.

For example, when a camper stops to help a friend pick up something he dropped, the counselor can point out, “You are good at helping others. You saw that your friend needed help and helped without being asked.” Pointing out this positive, prosocial trait reinforces that particular strength and encourages the camper to continue utilizing that strength. A side benefit is that other campers see a positive behavior being reinforced and are encouraged to practice it themselves.

Ideas and Resources

If you’re looking for specific ways to create a more strengths-focused camp program, here are some ideas and resources:

 

Read Up on the Strengths Movement

Recent books have promoted strengths-based teaching and parenting. Reading one or more of the following will get you well on your way to becoming a “strengths expert:”

Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers by Jenifer Fox

The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen Flourish, by Lea Waters, PhD

Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents, by Mary Reckmeyer, PhD

The following websites also have excellent resources about strengths:

VIA Institute on Character: viacharacter.org

Gallup Strengths Center: gallupstrengthscenter.com

 

Learn to Talk about Your Own Strengths

 

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

As a camp leader, starting with yourself is key to becoming a strengths promoter. What are the qualities you like best about yourself? I’ll bet you haven’t thought about that question much. You may tend to focus more on the things you don’t like about yourself or the qualities you see in other people that you wish you had. Take one of the strengths surveys yourself
and learn to talk about your own strengths.

Roosevelt’s quote is one of my favorites. Isn’t it so true? When we spend our time wishing we were more like someone else, we’re definitely not creating good, joyful feelings in ourselves. And our kids are not learning how to appreciate their own good qualities.

Why is it important to know our strengths? For us to be as fulfilled and happy as possible, it’s important that we know and use the qualities that come most naturally to us. In fact, when we use our “signature” strengths, whether in a hobby or our work, we get in the state of flow and ease that makes us feel great. When we use our strengths, we are able to be our best and truest selves.

Alternatively, if we consistently talk about things we don’t like about ourselves and neglect our strengths, we aren’t modeling a good example and we risk raising kids who learn to dislike themselves. And that does not promote happiness.

I’m not advocating constantly talking about how great we are. Instead, I propose we model self-awareness and self-acceptance by showing kids how to celebrate strengths while also acknowledging weaknesses. From us our kids can learn to see themselves in a more positive way and not condemn themselves for qualities they lack.

 

Train Counselors in the Language and Identification of Strengths

 

“Strengths are the activities, relationships, and ways of learning that energize people.” —Jenifer Fox

As camp leaders, parents, teachers, or anyone else who works with kids and young adults, we can positively impact young people by learning to talk about ourselves and the kids we work with using the language of strengths. You do not have to become a trained expert in strengths assessment to use the language of strengths, but becoming aware of some of the key questions to ask will better equip you to help campers and staff identify their natural talents and gifts. Here are some questions to consider in determining a child’s strengths:

  • What causes the child to express excitement? What topics of discussion engage him or her?
  • What are the things that keep his or her attention the longest?
  • Are there sounds or words he or she reacts to more than others?
  • Is he or she generous? How does he or she show this?
  • Does he or she show sympathy? Is he or she caring or funny?
  •  

Promote Strengths-Based Discussions with Campers

 

“Too often, when students are in school, they are not looked at in terms of their strengths; rather, there is a focus on remediating their deficits. This is rarely a source of inspiration for anyone.” —Maurice Elias

In a traditional approach when working with kids, camp staff, teachers, and parents might ask questions that focus on remediation:

  • What problem is the child struggling with? When did it start?
  • What are the child’s weaknesses?

Switching to a strengths-based approach, questions come from a more positive perspective:

  • What’s going well in this child’s life? What has contributed to this?
  • What does the child like best about him or herself?

Counselors are naturally good about getting to know campers. Encourage counselors to open discussions about hobbies, interests, things campers are good at, and activities they enjoy. Introducing the concepts of “engagement” and “flow” in terms that campers understand will help them use their time at camp to reflect upon what really makes them tick, and may inspire them to better hone their strengths. A good way to identify strengths is to consider topics of conversation or activities that bring out high energy and a positive mood in children.

 

Learn to Administer and Decode a Strengths or Personality Assessment/Inventory

If you really want to dive into the strengths movement, there are strengths assessments and different personality surveys you may consider using with your staff or campers.

Two popular strengths assessment programs are the Gallup Strengths-Finder and the VIA Signature Strengths Survey. While both are useful assessments, I’ve found the VIA survey to be more practically applicable (and less expensive) in the camp setting and have used it in recent summers with our leadership staff and our junior counselors.

VIA Survey

The VIA Institute on Character offers the only free, online, scientifically validated survey of individual character strengths. The survey, which has been completed by more than five million people, identifies five “signature strengths” from a list of 24 different character traits in the areas of (VIA Institute on Character, 2017):

  • Wisdom and knowledge — cognitive strengths
  • Courage — emotional strengths
  • Humanity — interpersonal strengths
  • Justice — civic strengths
  • Temperance — strengths that protect against excess
  • Transcendence — strengths that forge connections and provide meaning

VIA also offers a free newsletter with character strengths tips, strategies, and stories as well as online training courses ranging from $100 to $500 on topics including Creating a Strengths-Based Life and Positive Relationships and Character Strengths.

I have used the VIA survey for our leadership staff and junior counselors at camp, as well as for my own family members, for the past three years. It has been remarkable to witness what happens when people have that “aha” moment of seeing a list of their strengths, finding out more about them, and learning how to use them in different settings. When given a name for a part of themselves they recognize and intuitively know, kids gain a vocabulary to talk about themselves more positively.

The VIA Youth Survey is geared to ages ten–17, so it has worked well with our junior counselors (ages 16–17). For all VIA surveys, users can print a free list of each individual’s strengths, but I have opted to also purchase the $10 colorful, detailed report. In our junior counselor strengths workshop, I do several exercises to get them thinking and talking about their strengths. Before I give them their official VIA reports, I have them first highlight five strengths they think they have, write sticky notes for each other with one strength they see in each of their peers, and read a note from their parent in which the parent identifies five strengths. So, before even looking at their report, the junior counselors have been talking and thinking about their strengths for 30 minutes. At the conclusion of the session, we go through their reports and talk about what character strengths are consistent with what others think of them and which strengths are surprises to them. We also talk about how they can use their strengths as counselors, what activities at camp energize them, and which things drain them, so they can learn how to best use their character strengths to excel as counselors.

For our leadership staff, I have purchased the $20 Via Pathways Report and have also experimented with the Team Report, which shows our group’s areas of strengths as well as individuals who make unique contributions. The surveys and reports have proven useful and are a great way to discuss important leadership topics, including how to make sure people get assigned to tasks that are appropriate for their strengths.

Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment

The popular Gallup organization offers a series of books, training courses, and the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment, which measures the presence of 34 different talents/themes/strengths in areas such as communication, harmony, and responsibility (Gallup Strengths Center, 2017). Gallup offers comprehensive training for strength coaching, although the cost is high ($5,000–$7,000), so it’s probably not realistic for most camp professionals to gain official certification. Taking the StrengthsFinder Assessment costs $20–$90 depending on how in-depth of a report you wish to receive. I enjoyed reading my report, which I took several years ago (when the cost was $10), but I do not have as much experience with the Gallup tools as with the VIA surveys.

Gallup offers the Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer (ages ten–14) and Strengths Spotting (for children under age ten), which are both described in-depth in the book Strengths Based Parenting. The book includes two codes (one for the Strengthsfinder and one for the Youth Strengths Explorer), or the assessments can be purchased online ($9.99 for Youth Strengths Explorer, $19.99 for StrengthsFinder). I recommend trying out the Gallup survey yourself and with one child to see if it’s something you want to purchase and use at your camp.

Personality Surveys

Personality surveys also serve to identify strengths and can be helpful in a camp setting. Many popular surveys are shared on social media, including surveys that sort users into their Hogwarts house, Disney characters, spirit animals, and more. Some of these may be scientifically valid, but it’s unlikely. Even so, they are fun and could prove useful in games to get to know one another and discuss strengths at camp. At my camp, we once used a short quiz about communication styles that sorted us into dolphins, peacocks, owls, and panthers. It was fun to get grouped, read the descriptions of each group, and see which groups were most highly represented in our setting.

For more official personality testing, you can explore the following:

Myers Briggs, 16personalities.com: identifies the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator 16Personalities, identified by letters that indicate (16Personalities, 2017):

  • E/I: Extroversion/Introversion
  • N/S: Intuition/Sensing
  • T/F: Thinking/Feeling
  • J/P: Judging/Perceiving

Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI), enneagraminstitute.com: identifies nine Enneagram basic personality types (Enneagram Institute, 2017):

  • The reformer
  • The helper
  • The achiever
  • The individualist
  • The investigator
  • The loyalist
  • The enthusiast
  • The challenger
  • The peacemaker (Enneagram Institute, 2017)

RHETI costs $12.

Learning the Language

Regardless of how you choose to go about it, learning the language of positively identifying strengths is an asset for camp professionals. Bringing the language of strengths to your camp can have a positive impact on your entire camp community.

For More Information

Check out these additional resources to learn more about approaching your campers and staff from a strengths-based perspective:
  • Book: Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman
  • Article: “VIA Survey or StrengthsFinder?” by Ryan M. Niemiec, PsyD, psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201312/survey-or-strengthsfinder
  • Article: “Finding Students’ Hidden Strengths and Passions,” by Maurice Elias, edutopia.org/blog/students-strengths-passions-maurice-elias

Photo courtesy of Camp Common Ground, Oakland, California.

References

16Personalities. (2017). Personality types. Retrieved from 16personalities.com/personality-types

Enneagram Institute. (2017). The nine Enneagram type descriptions. Retrieved from enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions

Gallup Strengths Center. (2017). Your success starts with StrengthsFinder. Retrieved from gallupstrengthscenter.com/

Lerner, R.M., & Geldhof, J.G. (2011, November 1). Positive youth development: A relational developmental systems approach. Institute of Applied Research in Youth Development, Tufts University. Retrieved from http://hhd.psu.edu/media/dsg/conferenceDocs/LernerPositiveYouthDevelopme...

Peters, D. (2015, April 7). A strength-based approach helps children: Learn to ask “what’s right” instead of “what’s wrong.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/blog/worrier-warrior/201504/strength-based-approach-helps-children

VIA Institute on Character. (2017). The VIA survey. Retrieved from viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey

Zimmerman, M.A. (2013, July 17). Resiliency theory: A strengths-based approach to research and practice for adolescent health. Health Education & Behavior. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1090198113493782


Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, MA, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, CA) for the past 30 years. She has been a member of ACA since 1989 and was president of the Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC) from 2007–2010. Audrey writes about camp and parenting at sunshine-parenting.com.