SOS: Youth at Risk and Seven Survival Skills from Summer Camp

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
September 2015

Our Nation is at risk.

At least that was the opening salvo of an April 1983 report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The document, which covered everything from prosperity to security and civility, offered a decidedly gloomy view of our society's commitment to the advancement of young people, concluding, "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur — others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments" (U.S. Department of Education, 1983).

Of course, the dated nature of that report begs the question, "Are things any better now?"

In short, not really.

American youth do not fare well in global competition on education, according to Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg, PhD, author of Age of Opportunity. He contextualizes that fact by painting a picture of young people as leading the way on such risky behaviors as violence, sexual activity, and use of alcohol and other drugs (Steinberg, 2014).

Is Anyone Healthy?

While traditional definitions of "at-risk youth" focus on economic disadvantage, others seem to point to a broader swath of the American youth landscape. For example, At-risk.org, a resource for parents and other adults, states, "Many social critics argue that today's youth face more serious and critical risks than any previous generation. Parents are convinced that their children face a major crisis" (At-Risk.org, 2014).

And that crisis may be one of confidence.

Indeed, absent the grit and resiliency skills needed to successfully navigate the world's many stressors, young people — maybe particularly teens — succumb to life on the edge. And not in a good way.

But is all of this only so much hype? Here's what we know.

Another side of the "at-risk youth" paradigm is one that adequately and accurately captures youth at risk, with a growing call for better child, adolescent, and emerging — or young adult — screenings for such things as underage drinking; other drug use; early, intimate sexual behavior; and mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.

In a chapter of its guide "Identifying Mental Health and Substance Use Problems of Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Child-Serving Organizations," the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that children, adolescents, and young adults suffer from the same acute and chronic crises as do many adults. Arguing that lack of treatment may impair future learning, SAMHSA states, "Such problems — if not addressed — may interfere with learning and the ability to form and sustain friendships, contribute to disciplinary problems and family conflicts, and increase risky behaviors" (SAMHSA, 2011).

What's the Problem?

According to SAMHSA, almost 21 percent (more than one in five) children and young adults in the United States have a mental health or substance use disorder. Unfortunately, many of those go undiagnosed and untreated.

That rise in diagnoses was recently highlighted in a 2014 report from the American College Counseling Association. It states that 94 percent of counseling directors say they've seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances (Gallagher, 2014).

As schools, colleges, and universities scramble to understand the seemingly growing rate of mental health disorders, the stats prompt the question, "Is decreased stigmatization leading to increased reporting, or is it something more ingrained in societal parenting trends?"

Likely a little bit of both. But what real ly counts is the nexus between co-occurring mental health disorders and risk behaviors . . . and the timely delivery of services.

What Do the Bigwigs Say?

So important are prevention and intervention that top U.S. officials have weighed in on the nature of each.

The U.S. Public Health Service's Surgeon General, said, "Childhood is an important time to prevent mental disorders and to promote healthy development, because many adult mental disorders have related antecedent problems in childhood. Thus, it is logical to try to intervene early in children's lives before problems are established and become more refractory. The field of prevention has now developed to the point that reduction of risk, prevention of onset, and early intervention are realistic possibilities. Scientific methodologies in prevention are increasingly sophisticated, and the results from high-quality research trials are as credible as those in other areas of biomedical and psychosocial science. There is a growing recognition that prevention does work . . . ." (SAMHSA, 2011).

According to an administrator with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "The earlier we recognize a child's mental health needs, the sooner we can help. Early recognition and intervention can prevent years of disability and help children and families thrive. All parents should learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in early childhood; furthermore, they should seek help for their child's mental health problems with the same urgency as any other health condition" (SAMHSA, 2011).

Such powerful statements underscore the continuum of risk, in which mental health problems can result in substance use and vice versa.

What Makes a Difference?

What can't be left out of the equation is the powerful role that educational institutions (including summer camps) and educators (including camp staff) can play not only in red-flagging issues among youth, but also perhaps in preventing them in the first place.

A fundamental truth behind prevention, identification, and reduction of negative risk behaviors among young people is that the relationships they have with peers, parents, and other caring adults are particularly effective.

The Search Institute long ago identified a series of developmental assets which include, not insignificantly, a number of camp-laden constructs — for example, support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, achievement motivation, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity (Search Institute, 2006). It foreshadowed the institute's 2015 blog article "The Intervention Is a Relationship." Written by Kent Pekel, Ed D, and Peter C. Scales, the piece discusses new research at the institute that tells us something we likely already know but bears repeating nonetheless: Young people are positively motivated by relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults when five components define their interactions (2015).

  1. Expressing care (show me that you want the best for me)
  2. Challenging growth (insist that I try to continuously improve)
  3. Providing support (help me complete tasks and achieve goals)
  4. Sharing power (hear my voice and let me share in decisions)
  5. Expanding possibilities (expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities)

In many ways, these five components of important camp relationships mirror ones cited by young people as key ingredients of social enterprise, as reported in the January/ February Camping Magazine article "A Consequence of Character — How Summer Camp Promotes Character, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship" (Mischel and Wallace, 2015). It cited findings from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) that revealed young people who attended a summer camp, more so than those who did not, were inclined to express interest in social entrepreneurship (or doing something entrepreneurial to help others). Those young people spoke of camp counselors who helped them in these ways:

  • Mentoring them to develop both social and leadership skills
  • Assisting them to obtain the resources they needed to start projects
  • Leading them to other mentors

Further iteration of such influential factors in moving toward positive youth outcomes can be found in the work of Bonnie Benard, who also shines a spotlight on caring relationships as key to communicating confidence in a young person's ability to bounce back from adversity (2014).

That ability, also known as "grit," is a hallmark of resiliency and transcends into young adulthood — and likely beyond — and can be measured by a questionnaire, or scale, developed by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and her team (Duckworth et al, 2007). The importance of that work is noted in a brief of the American Psychological Association, "Grit: It's What Separates the Best from the Merely Good." Author E. Packard wrote, "Across six studies, Duckworth found that grit significantly contributed to successful outcomes: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more determined undergraduates garnered higher grade point averages than their peers." As analogs, Packard offers up "backbone, chutzpah, fortitude, guts, stick-to-it-iveness" (2007).

A recent National Geographic headline on the subject says it all: "Grit Trumps Talent and IQ: A Story Every Parent (and Educator) Should Read" (Del Giudice, 2014).

What's Next?

Alex Lickerman, MD, assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago, is advancing work on understanding the value of such research. In his innovative work, Lickerman has developed and tested a unique curriculum that, if used in the camp setting, could help campers in some pretty thought-provoking ways (The Resilience Project, 2014).

  1. Leverage the power of expectations
  2. Resist discouragement
  3. Use the power of habit to achieve individual goals
  4. Self-modulate in the face of adverse events
  5. Learn to accept unpleasant feelings/ outcomes and to move beyond losses
  6. Express gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities
  7. Define one's mission in life

Validating these steps in their totality, Madeleine McArdle, a student member of the CARE National Advisory Board and a sophomore at Dartmouth College, reflected on her experiences as a camper and junior counselor at Cape Cod Sea Camps. "Skills such as these go a long way toward helping a young person grow, mature, accept responsibility, and move on to the next stage in life. For me that was transitioning from high school in Chicago to a demanding yet fulfilling college life in New Hampshire" (see the sidebar).

Given that Lickerman's short-term research shows that the resilience training achieves reductions in anxiety and depression among youth of 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, these actions just might be considered seven survival skills from summer camp.

With so many of our children and adolescents in harm's way, it's not too soon to send out an SOS to camp professionals and counselors, giving them the information and tools they need to truly make a difference in working with youth at risk.

Thoughts on Learning Resilience at Camp from Madeline McArdle

1. Leveraging Expectactions

Having older campers and counselors as mentors was incredibly helpful, because I knew they understood exactly what I was going through when trying to balance all of my different responsibilities. I remember always feeling able to approach them when I needed advice, if I wanted to hear their experiences with a certain activity or project, or learn how much I could realistically accomplish during the summer. Additionally, as I grew older and moved through our teen leadership program, I greatly enjoyed being on the other side, where I was the older role model to whom campers and junior counselors came for advice.

2. Willpower

While camp fosters independence and self-discipline, it does so by administering a lot of rules that can have many adverse consequences if broken. It’s much easier to avoid punishment for breaking a rule by not letting yourself be in a situation that could lead to it. It’s harder to be the person who has to say, “Hey, this is against the rules.”
 
3. Self-Explanatory Style
Learn your own style of explaining unfavorable events and how the stories we tell ourselves affect resilience and opportunities for success. Although many of my peers and I had the same responsibilities and requirements, we also experienced completely
different summers. We were affected by different things, developed different relationships with others, and had different home lives. This disparity meant that although I might find sympathy and comfort in talking to them about what was getting me down, I also needed to learn how to be self-reliant after something went wrong. Camp was the best place for this to happen to me, because I knew I had so many people I could lean on if I needed extra support. It was also a place where I felt strong enough to be my own support system.
 

4. Acceptance

Learn to accept unpleasant feelings associated with unmet goals or experiences without becoming paralyzed or giving up
For me, camp was an incredibly supportive place that allowed me to recognize when I did not succeed in pursuing a goal, because there were opportunities to consider what I could do next time to succeed. The people I was surrounded by at camp never dwelled on the failure. Instead, they helped me look forward to other opportunities to achieve goals.
 

5. Letting Go

Learn how to get past losses. A key phrase that my friends and I used frequently was, “You can’t win them all.” While it seems a little hokey, it’s a completely valid motto to keep in mind. It allows campers to realize that, while they should always challenge themselves and go after ambitious opportunities, it’s incredibly important to be able to shrug off disappointment when they do not achieve as much as they had hoped to. Having friends who supported me at camp even when I failed helped me feel more comfortable with myself and even more confident in my abilities, because I was never afraid to keep trying.
 
6. Gratitude
 
Learn to be grateful for gifts and opportunities by imagining losing things you often take for granted. There are kids at camp from all over the world, often with diverse backgrounds and value systems. Because I met campers with lives and values different from mine, this diversity helped me to recognize things I took for granted in my life and never gave a second thought to. Additionally, camp teaches kids to place a higher significance on less-materialistic things, such as friendship or a handmade bracelet instead
of a computer or fancy clothes, because these are deeper,
 

7. Finding Your Mission

Develop a personal mission statement for your life and use it to stay strong, focused, and smart about decisions you make while moving toward your future. At camp, I was able to learn about myself in ways that other environments didn’t allow. School is tough because while adolescents are in their schooling years, they are going through big developments while also focusing on their
schoolwork and doing well. In contrast, camp allows you to really concentrate on yourself and what you love. It’s a place where campers get to make a lot of their own decisions, such as what they want to concentrate on and what they want to spend their free time doing. At camp, there isn’t the pressure to always be doing homework or getting ahead for the next class. Rather, you’re able to really focuson learning what you love to do and then doing it! Then that becomes your mission.

 

REFERENCES
At-Risk.org. (2014, January 31). Who is at-risk? Retrieved from http://at-risk.org/who-is-at-risk

Benard, B. (2014). The foundations of the resiliency framework: Resiliency in action. Resiliency. Retrieved from www.resiliency .com/free-articles-resources/the-foundationsof- the-resiliency-framework

Del Giudice, M. (2014, October 14). Grit triumphs talent and IQ: A story every parent (and educator) should read. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news .nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/ 141015-angela-duckworth-success-gritpsychology- self-control-science-nginnovators

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., and D.R. Kelly. (2007). 12-item grit scale. School of Arts and Sciences. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/12- item%20Grit%20Scale.05312011.pdf

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., and D.R. Kelly. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087–1101. Retrieved from www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/ images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2004, August 3). Issues A-Z: A Nation at Risk. Education Week. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/issues/a-nation-at-risk

Gallagher, R. (2014). National survey of college counseling centers. University of Pittsburgh and American College Counseling Association. Retrieved from www.collegecounseling.org/ wp-content/uploads/NCCCS2014_v2.pdf

Mischel, L. and S. Wallace. (2015). A consequence of character: How summer camp promotes character, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Camping Magazine. January/February 2015. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/ campmag/1501/how-summer-camp-promotescharacter- leadership-and-entrepreneurship

Packard, E. (2007, November). Grit: It's what separates the best from the merely good. Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from www.apa.org/ monitor/nov07/grit.aspx

Pekel, K. and Scales, P. (2015, May 4). Intervention is a relationship. Search Institute Connect. Retrieved from www.search-institute.org/blog/interventionis- a-relationship

Search Institute. (2006). 40 developmental assets for adolescents (ages 12–18). Retrieved from www.search-institute.org/research/ developmental-assets

Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity — lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Identifying mental health and substance use problems of children and adolescents: A guide for child-serving organizations. (HHS Publication No. SMA 12- 4670). Rockville, MD: Holt, Wendy. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content// SMA12-4700/SMA12-4700.pdf

The Resilience Project. (2014). Health promotion and wellness. The University of Chicago. Retrieved from https://wellness.uchicago.edu/ page/resilience-project-0

U.S. Department of Education. (1983, April). A Nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. The National Commission on Excellence in Education. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/ NatAtRisk/risk.html

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal's parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen's work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com. © Summit Communications Management Corporation 2015. All Rights Reserved