Lessons from Summer 2016

Bob Ditter
November 2016

Camp professionals pride themselves on the social and emotional learning that a quality camp experience can help children master. From my travels to camps this summer in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, and New York, I have selected a few topics that may be useful to directors across the country.

Surprises Are for Birthdays

Things unfold quickly at camp. What is new in the morning is ancient history by the time the evening activity is underway. Add to this the notion that most directors use everything they know before giving up on a camper and you can see why parents might be upset when they first hear about an issue their child has been having at camp for several days. When a camper shows signs of challenging behavior at camp, most directors go through a kind of hierarchical set of responses to work it out. Let's take the example of a camper who consistently "disappears" during cleanup and is the last one out to activities, forcing a staff member to stay behind with him. As the days go by this young fellow may become increasingly defiant, which, in turn, may make his counselors increasingly exasperated and less patient. Typically, the counselor first has a talk with the boy, then later with the division head or boys' head counselor. This helps for two activity periods. The staff regroups and tries using an incentive card with the camper, rewarding him with a "sticker point" every time he complies with his counselor's directives. This works for a day and a half. Finally he goes missing at an activity he hates because he feels inept at it and wants to avoid the humiliation of his poor performance. Even at day camp, where directors typically have more ongoing contact with parents simply because they are local, most directors do not have as a routine part of their dialogue about challenging camper behavior the question as to when they should contact parents.

My advice: Make the question of when to contact parents a routine part of your thought process about challenging camper behavior. Also, err on the side of letting parents know you are working on an issue sooner than later ("we just want to keep you in the loop") so they aren't blindsided if you have to call them about a more serious response, like sending the child home.

Gaga Sportsmanship Bracelet

Gaga is an active game that many campers love. Because it is fast-paced and the winner is the "last kid standing," it evokes strong emotions in its young players. Bystanders will often hear kids accusing each other of not leaving when they are out, or of cheating or unfairly targeting them for elimination. Like any highly competitive, every-manor- woman-for him-or-herself game, the feelings in a game of gaga can become very intense. Most of the time those flare-ups are over just as quickly as they erupt. There is, however, a tremendous and essential learning opportunity here that camps could make more explicit.

Just as many camps issue colored bracelets for things like a "deep water test" at swimming, signifying a camper is "qualified" (and therefore safe) to swim in deep water, camps could also issue the "gaga good sportsmanship bracelet" (3G-SB) — something bright to wear on the wrist with the camp logo on it that signifies a camper is "qualified" to play. That means the camper is able to control and manage even very strong feelings of anger, disappointment, embarrassment, or sense of foul play that inevitably arise in a spirited game like gaga. If a camper does lose his or her temper and runs off, swears, or shows some other unsportsmanlike behavior, he or she loses the bracelet for a day. In that case the camper must earn back the 3G-SB by apologizing to anyone he or she offended and accepting the consequence of having to wait a day to play again.

The importance here is that kids need to know that strong feelings are inevitable and natural, but acting on them is not. It takes a big person to accept things like getting out in gaga, and to control the feelings that may come with getting out. This is, of course, a life lesson that will serve kids well anywhere they go. A key part of the gaga bracelet program is the understanding that if campers have a grievance, they can make their case in a way that is respectful to others. This is all part of the social-emotional learning that camps help kids master.

Anxious Campers

It seems to be increasingly common to find campers who are unusually anxious about things that most of us would regard as everyday challenges. Most of the time the anxiety is focused either on performance or the child's ability to cope with or manage a situation. While the causes of this vary (see "Staff Anxiety: The New Normal," Camping Magazine, September- October 2016), there is a formula that I have found can help counselors deal with campers like this. The response to an anxious camper has four steps, as follows:

  1. Connect before you redirect: Acknowledge the camper's affect simply by saying, "I can see how worried/upset/concerned you are . . . ."
  2. Normalize: "It's normal to be concerned about things that come up. It's like your brain's way of helping you get ready to do the best you can."
  3. Contain and encourage: "Remember that your brain is just trying to get you ready so that you are not taken by surprise. It's not trying to make you feel like you can't do it/handle it — you can."
  4. Validate: "You are stronger/better able than you're giving yourself credit for. You can do this!" (See if you can offer a real-time example of when the child has been competent in the recent past in response to a challenge).

Those of us who work with children in a therapeutic setting know that anxiety is often a largely healthy response system that has gone awry. Anxiety is, just as I say in my four-step response, a natural way of "putting us on alert" so we are ready for whatever challenge is heading our way. For many kids, this "alert system" gets over-triggered and needs to be both normalized ("The fact that you are alarmed means your brain is working.") and contained ("Your brain is working a little too well. Don't let your brain fool you. You can do this!").

Creating a "Device" for Camper Change

Changing behavior is a tough process. For many campers who either do not have enough good habits (cleaning up, helping out, letting go) or have a few too many bad habits (teasing or excluding others), getting them to change may take more than a simple conversation. It takes feedback and consequences. To strengthen the process of change I suggest using a "device," which is simply inventing a way of getting something done. In the case of a camper who is struggling to get his or her bed made during cleanup, for example, I tell counselors to keep a small index card in their pocket and every time the camper finishes a targeted task (that is, does what it is we are trying to get him or her to do more of, like be up and out of bed within ten minutes of a counselor waking her; being dressed and out of the cabin on time; getting his three cleanup chores done in the normal time allotted for cleanup; keeping his hands to himself; or talking in her indoor voice in the cabin), he or she gets a check, accompanied by praise from the counselor. Once the camper gets, say, five checks, that child gets to do something he or she considers truly special, like go water skiing an extra time, go to the dance studio an extra time, or play one-on-one basketball against a favorite staff member. The trick is to brainstorm with the camper a positive consequence that excites him or her that he or she will be motivated to earn as the counselor cheers the camper on.

I get two questions from people when I suggest this technique. The first is, "Isn't this bribery?" I would remind everyone that bribery is giving someone a payoff for doing something illegal. What we are doing here is establishing healthy, new habits.

The second question is, "Won't other campers be envious if this camper gets rewarded for doing what others are already doing?" My experience is that other campers in this child's group or cabin are so relieved he or she is actually cooperating that they are just happy something is working.

Creating a Device for Counselor Change

Change is not just challenging for campers. Counselors can struggle with this too. Take the case of the staff member who just can't stay off his or her phone during day camp, the counselor who does not play with campers at activities, or the well-intentioned staff member who puts his or her hands on campers way too much. After speaking with a staff member about such behavior, being careful to be both clear about what you are looking for and affirming his or her value to you as a member of the staff, try using a rating system I devised a couple of years ago.

Let's take the counselor who is on his phone during camp. Once you speak with him about keeping his phone in his pocket except on breaks in designated "phone safe" areas of camp, have him rate himself throughout the day on how well he is able to stay off his phone. Use a scale from one to ten, ten being perfect. Tell him that you will check in with him at the end of the day and ask him for his number. You may also share with him your rating for that same effort. It is important that he knows you will be checking in with him before he leaves for the day. What will also be useful is comparing your number to his, explaining what went into your rating, and then asking him how he can get to an even higher rating for that behavior the next day.

Or let's take the counselor who has not been interacting with the campers at activities. Again, have that staff member rate herself from one to ten on how well she did at interacting with the kids, then compare her rating with yours at the end of the day. By forcing her to rate herself, you make her more aware of what she is or is not doing. By setting a time to check back with her at the end of the day, you are setting a deadline — a time for reckoning — which focuses her on the behavior she is trying to change. I find that, just like going to a doctor who asks you to rate your pain on a scale from one to ten, having a rating system, while arbitrary, helps add some objectivity to what can otherwise seem to be a subjective perception of another person's performance. It is even important to share with your staff member what it was you saw him or her doing and saying that resulted in the rating you gave him or her.


Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.