Supporting the Socially Awkward Camper

Emily Golinsky, MS
May 2021
stock photo of a kid's playhouse

Singer Jimmy Buffett famously said, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” Working with children in challenging situations can be difficult, stressful, frustrating, and yes, extremely rewarding. But we have to (camp song alert!) “stay on the sunny side” of it or we risk burning out, and that’s no help to anyone at all. We have to strike the right balance of honesty, compassion, and humor for ourselves and our campers. So keep a few things in mind:

  1. It’s OK to acknowledge that some campers have a harder time fitting in than others.
  2. All campers are valued and valuable people who deserve our care and support. 
  3. Sometimes the hardest situations create the best memories — or, to quote the movie Mulan, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rarest and beautiful of all” (Cook & Bancroft, 1998).

Meeting That Camper

The camp brochure is full of smiling, laughing kids who are thrilled to be at camp. Why wouldn’t the kids you’re working with at camp be awesome 24/7? They’re playing, making friends, and enjoying absolutely everything camp has to offer. Right?

Yes, some campers truly are a walking example of the “brochure camper.” They want to try everything. They listen respectfully to adults. They make friends easily, and other kids want to be with them. They are nuggets of joy and a big part of the reason you wake up each day and look forward to being at camp.

Other campers — not so much. Those campers don’t seem to be on the same wavelength as everyone else. They may say things out of turn and out of context. Their peers can’t figure out how to include them comfortably in group games. They alienate others without understanding how or why.

But let me tell you a secret. There is no more rewarding moment, no more well-earned triumph, and no purer joy than when you help that camper find happiness too. They may not be on the front page of the brochure. But they are front and center in your camper group, and they deserve a positive experience at camp just like those campers for whom it seems to come effortlessly.

Fortunately, camp is a fantastic place to teach social skills. Camp can also represent an opportunity for socially awkward children who have been labeled “strange” by the other kids at school to have a fresh start. With direct support from you and other camp staff, they may be able to reinvent how they are perceived by others.

The Why Behind Social Skills Deficits

To understand the campers who struggle in a group of their peers, we first need to agree on a common tenet about children with challenges in general: kids will do well if they can (Greene, 1998). This concept, put forth by Ross Greene, PhD, and now widely shared as a behavior management jumping-off point, is key to working successfully with challenging youth. Humans are born with an innate desire to succeed, to make their caregivers happy, and to be part of a community. So, if a camper is not succeeding, instead of assuming the child is doing it on purpose or to be our own personal nightmare, we should first ask, “Is this child capable of succeeding?” and “Why might this child not be succeeding?” In other words, assume that the child wants to do well, and if they aren’t, something else must be going on.

In the case of many socially awkward kids, that something else is lagging social skills. Stuart Ablon, PhD, and the team at Think:Kids, who study challenging behaviors and their solutions, explains that lagging skills are often the “reasons that a child is having difficulty meeting expectations or responding adaptively to triggers” (Pollastri, Epstein, Heath, & Ablon, 2013). When a situation presents itself (let’s say Carrie asks Jameson to share the crayons), the brain is supposed to act a certain way based on what it has learned about societal expectations (Brain: “Sharing is something we should do. It can’t hurt us. It’s the right thing in a social situation.” Mouth: “Sure, Carrie, here you go!”).

However, for children whose social development is lagging, their brains don’t respond in the expected way, and this causes them to act differently (Brain: “Why should they get my crayons? No way! These are mine. Carrie is trying to steal from me.” Mouth: “Go away, loser!”). Jameson didn’t respond the way Carrie would expect. Anytime Carrie has asked any of the other campers to share crayons, they have done so willingly. Carrie concludes that Jameson is a weirdo.

In and of themselves, these deficits can lead to antisocial behaviors, social isolation, cognitive deficits, low self-confidence, and anxiety or stress. And each of those concerns further fuels the others. Carrie thinks Jameson is weird and tells other campers as much. Jameson sees that others don’t ask to play with him, so he doesn’t offer to share or to join in, further reinforcing that he’s the odd one out.

What You'll See

When a child is struggling in a social setting, it can be subtle, or it can be very obvious. The more obvious signs to look for are those who play alone, who are isolated from the group, or who are shunned or made fun of by other campers. They may be tolerated by others when staff are clearly watching, but they are rarely invited to join in if other campers can make that choice.

Many socially awkward youths will use “placeholder strategies” that help them assimilate or just “get through.” For example, they’ll attach themselves to one nice kid in the group who is too polite to refuse their advances. They may profess a love of reading, carry a book at all times, and choose to read under a tree during sports activities or at the lunch table. And while they may truly enjoy reading, it’s more likely that they are using reading as a way to avoid social interactions. Watching them do these things can make your heart hurt.

Less clear is how lagging skills may affect campers emotionally and developmentally. For example, they may believe that a “friend” is anyone who doesn’t actively pick on them, or who is willing to talk to them on the playground. If asked, they may not be able to truly define friendship or understand what peers are.

Helping campers in the first category — the obvious odd ones out — in some ways seems easier, because you feel successful when you physically connect them with the group (“Hey, Acorns, Jim would like to join in. Let’s make space for Jim in the circle.”) Mission accomplished, right? Partially, at least. It’s no small feat to just get them into the same space to play together, so pat yourself on the back for noticing and doing something about it. But you still need to keep an eye out for that second category of socially challenged campers. Those children who don’t understand friendship or the steps to build connections will soon wander away again and reengage in solitary pursuits. Or they may be overly aggressive in their efforts to cement a friendship once they get a foot in the door, and in doing so, actually push others away.

You’ll need to scaffold their social interactions — that is, help them with the actual work of appropriate social interactions and making friends. Picture actual scaffolding — the temporary wood and metal pole structures that surround a building when repairs are being made. It’s used to support workers and help them access parts of the building not usually available to them. Once they can get the work done on their own, the external support is taken down. Scaffolding for kids is the same idea.

Scaffolding Social Prediction

Social prediction is the ability to predict and understand how others will respond to certain behaviors. For example, we know a joke is not funny because nobody laughs when we tell it. This kind of understanding is key to interacting appropriately with those around us, and unfortunately, it’s one of the lagging skills that children with social challenges face. That’s why socially awkward children often tell inappropriate or unfunny jokes repeatedly; their brains don’t make the connection that not laughing equals not funny. Nor do their brains make the prediction that next time, people will still not laugh.

As a staff member, you can help campers develop their social prediction skill by scaffolding their efforts. One easy-to-implement scaffolding technique involves four basic steps: 

  1. Identify the problem, with the camper’s help if possible.
  2. Honestly explain why it’s a problem.
  3. Teach a replacement behavior.
  4. Check for understanding.

In some ways, scaffolding is you making up for the part of the camper’s brain that isn’t developed enough yet to know this stuff on its own. Identifying the issue and being honest with the camper about why it’s a problem helps train their brain to recognize this situation if it comes up again. The conversation might go something like this: “Tom, do you know why no one laughed today or yesterday when you told that joke?” Give them a chance to come up with the answer, and if they can’t, tell them why. “I know you think it’s funny, but actually, that joke hurts people’s feelings. It makes other campers feel sad.”

In this case, teaching the camper a replacement behavior might be offering a joke that is actually funny and appropriate, which you can encourage them to share instead.

Then check that the camper understands. For example, “Tom, can you remind me why I taught you this new joke?” 

You’re checking here to make sure the reply isn’t “Because you thought my joke was stupid,” or something along those lines. That kind of response will clue you in that the camper is feeling down about themselves, has missed the point, and will require you to do some additional explaining. Don't get discouraged if you have to repeat this process more than once.

The message you want the camper to hear is that you’re trying to help them achieve what they already want — to tell a funny joke. More broadly, you want them to understand that you’re trying to help them be socially appropriate. Ideally, when you check for understanding, you want to hear something like, “Because you want others to think my jokes are as funny as I think they are.” Anything, really, that implies they won’t keep repeating the horribly inappropriate joke you heard them tell seven times already that morning.

Do They Know They're Awkward?

Some campers will have minimal awareness that their social awkwardness is affecting others around them. Some campers diagnosed with autism, for example, may be developmentally less interested in making friends or being part of a group. They will benefit from the camp experience by being part of an accepting and welcoming community that allows them to participate in their own unique way. Often those campers may have individual aides to support them when they are not able to follow the group plan.

Other campers, whether on the autism spectrum or not, who have some social difficulties but also have some social awareness may realize that they are not well liked or voluntarily included by others and may be upset by that. In that case, the best thing you can do is validate their feelings (“It’s hard to feel different.”) instead of trying to convince them they’re imagining things. A child who is having difficulty with social interactions at that level in your group at camp is likely to have experienced this before at school or elsewhere. Telling them to ignore it, or that it isn’t a big deal, is not the way to go.

In addition to validating their feelings, you can also acknowledge their unique strengths and gifts, and give them guidance on how to be a successful part of the group. All together, for example, you might say: “Casey, it sounds like you’re upset because the others didn’t ask you to join their soccer game. I know that you’re really good at building things, though, and they’ve been wanting to go to the LEGO station all day. So let’s head that way and we can all build something together.” Once at the LEGO area it’s your job to help Casey participate with — not down the table from — the rest of the group. Bonus points if you can get Casey to be seen as the expert who is able to shine for a change.

If your awkward camper is upset because the slight is more significant — such as another child saying something very mean to them — it’s important both to validate and support the camper and to address the issue with the offender. Politely but firmly let group members know that everyone in the group deserves to be treated with respect. That’s a message that you should be giving at all times anyway.

Everyone Else Knows They're Awkward!

You don’t have to ignore or cover up when a camper makes a social faux pas or is struggling. Instead, consider addressing that honestly and acknowledging that they learn or perceive things differently because of how their brain works right now. For example, you might say to Shaun, “I know you’re upset that Kevin yelled at you when you got too close in line. Your brain makes it really easy to learn cool things like dinosaur facts. And your brain makes it harder to remember that people need personal space.” Then patiently re-explain personal space, practice examples with Shaun, and most importantly, catch and praise Shaun for doing it well.

Social skills practice builds on itself, and time and patience are required to both teach and learn individual social skills. If others in the group are consistently frustrated with Shaun’s lack of awareness about a particular thing (i.e., Shaun’s gotten too close in line multiple times), you can also speak to individuals in the group to help them understand Shaun’s actions.

Being honest about challenges they can clearly see happening is not throwing Shaun under the bus. You’re saying, “I think we can both see that Shaun has a hard time remembering to leave space in line. How do you think we can help him with that?” You’re not telling others in the group anything they don’t already know, or anything that you didn’t also say right to Shaun himself. More importantly, you’re including the others in the solution, which will help mitigate some of their (legitimate) frustration.

Other Ways to Scaffold and Support 

Camp is a fantastic place to teach social skills, and as frontline staff, you have the ability to make a real difference in helping campers build their abilities in this area. To be at the top of your social-skill-building game, in addition to incorporating the preceding strategies, try following these five tips:

  1. Be aware, encourage inclusive interactions, prevent harm. Keep an eye out for the kids who aren’t connecting or making friends. Let it be known from day one that your expectations for your group are that everyone is included and welcomed in games and activities — that you’re not the kind of counselor who is going to look the other way if kids aren’t being nice to all.
  2. Pre-cue prior to experiences at camp that might be difficult for a camper. If you know that a camper seems to get in arguments when your group goes to arts and crafts, check in with them on the way to that activity. “I noticed that it’s hard when other campers sit too close to you or try to use supplies you want to use. If that happens today, what do you think we should do?” Previewing options and giving suggestions helps remind them of expectations and preplan solutions, minimizing risk of a blow-up in the moment. 
  3. Facilitate social opportunity by setting up “play dates” within the group. When your group has board games, playground time, rest hour, or other less-structured activities coming up, have something ready that you know your socially awkward camper and others in the group will be excited about. “Who’s in to build a fort later? I snagged some cardboard and yarn so we can really get a good one going.” After a few of the other kids have already committed to participating, casually invite your more awkward kid. “Pete, I know you’re in, you’re awesome at forts.” Only the bravest of campers will openly back out because they don’t want to play with Pete. And a firm, friendly smile and small shake of the head before they open their mouths to object will usually take care of that, silently reminding them of your expectations that everyone plays together nicely in your sandbox. 
  4. Keep supervisors informed of difficulties and efforts being made to support the camper. It’s your job to help your campers have fun and successfully navigate camp. It’s the job of your supervisors and directors to: 
    1. Have a good understanding of the challenges you may have with a particular camper
    2. Help devise strategies and plans to support your work with that camper
    3. Communicate with parents/guardians or other caregivers about that child’s camp experience

​The only way they can properly support you is if you keep them informed about what’s going on in your group.

  1. Ask for help when you need it. If you’re feeling frustrated or having a hard time, tell someone. Don’t worry that anyone will think you don’t know what you’re doing or be upset with you. Realizing that you aren’t always sure what you’re doing is a key part of being a good counselor — because it shows that you’re someone who is willing to learn. Awkward campers are awkward. It’s tiring and hard to help them be successful —. but you have support on this journey. So keep your eye on the goal and get help in the field when you need it. 

In Closing

Your job this summer is going to be awesome. Amazing. Incredible. Tiring. Stressful sometimes. But awesome. Along the way some of your campers will be a challenge. Just know that regardless of their difficulties or struggles, kids are still kids. They want to do well, and you want to help them do well. Good luck this summer. Remember to laugh and to “stay on the sunny side.” 

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about a child you know who seems different from their peers. What are the differences? Which of these differences appear as strengths and which as challenges? How would you help this child reframe those challenges into strengths?
  2. At what point in social conflict should an adult step in? Where is the line between letting children practice navigating social difficulty and failing to provide active support?
  3. Think back to a time when you were involved in a socially uncomfortable situation. What would have made it better for you? For others? What can you take away from that and utilize to benefit your campers this summer?

References

  • Cook, B. & Bancroft, T. (1998). Mulan [Film]. Walt Disney Pictures.
  • Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Pollastri, A. R., Epstein, L. D., Heath, G. H., & Ablon, J. S. (2013). The collaborative problem solving approach: Outcomes across settings. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved from thinkkids.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/CPS-Outcomes-7-2013.pdf

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