Tips for Camp Counselors: Sage Advice from a Veteran Camp Director

by Bob McKinlay

As a camp counselor, your job is among the most important responsibilities anywhere - parents have entrusted their children to you. You have the charge of not only making sure they are safe, but of nurturing their development.

Nurturing campers' development includes having clear ideas of the kinds of behaviors you want to encourage. Some positive behaviors that can be taught at camp are:

  • Getting along with others by doing one's part, supporting others, developing relationships, accepting others, being part of a community,  sharing, and being a team player.
  • Being part of a group, cooperating, group decision making, and comparing self-interest in relationship to the best interests of others.
  • Increasing self-sufficiency and self-reliance - the more self-sufficient  campers are the better they relate to others, develop confidence, and learn skills with minimal direction, all of which build self-esteem.
  • Just being a kid, experiencing new things, exploring, observing nature, and participating in worthwhile activities.
  • Increasing the concern about natural surroundings through outdoor living experiences and improving campers' conservation attitude and practices.

How You Can Nurture Campers' Development

So, what are the first things you do to influence these potential areas of development and bring about these behaviors in your campers? You need to become a super person! Enter that phone booth and exit with a cape! You will never regret it; it will be the best decision of your life.

When you exit that phone booth, offer campers your undivided attention all the time (any non-attention times should be specifically arranged for other coverage). Your attention should be positive, encouraging, friendly, individualized, fair, understanding, and accepting. When interacting with campers, say "we," let's," "us," and be inclusive, receptive, and nonjudgmental. Listen (and hear), understand, accept, and respond. Set limits (in campers' interests, not yours); show integrity by always being depended on to follow through on what's expected of you.

Show respect and you will receive respect
Treat your campers with respect. "The children who are best behaved are those who are treated with respect," says Benjamin Spock, noted pediatrician. Respect is probably the best form of positive reinforcement. How do we show respect? Talk back and forth on a child's agenda; listen, really listen, and respond; have a conversation with an open mind; and find areas of mutual interest to discuss. Show campers you like and care about them by enjoying being with them and having fun - let the kid in you out but in appropriate ways.

When showing respect, you are giving yourself to the camper, and depending on many other circumstances, that giving will be returned. Respect becomes mutual and therein lie the rewards. Smiles, greetings, sincerity/realness, equal treatment, being nonjudgmental, being fair, appropriate pats and touches (well-defined by camp policy), and simply doing things together are all part of creating a respectful camp environment.

Reinforce the positive
Reinforce your campers' good behavior, and those positive behaviors will be repeated. Avoid, or give as little attention as possible, to lousy behavior, and redirect it to something good so you can give it positive attention. (Defiant behavior can be a reaction to lack of attention.) Some positive reinforcements include smiling, saying something nice, giving a pat on the back, or identifying a specific achievement. Be genuine and don't overdo it. If one technique doesn't work, try another.

Give of yourself and you'll be rewarded
Give, give, and give some more! And what happens? You like it, you receive even more than you give. You don't do it because you receive, you do it because that's why you're there, and then you realize it's all because you went into that phone booth to start with! And, you give because it's right - the rewards come in various ways. Often the overt rewards are lacking or come too seldom, but you continue your efforts and gain in your own self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

Give of yourself because then you realize it's really the only way that works, and you discover that the degree of your success as a counselor correlates, in large measure, with the degree you get outside of yourself. Giving, then, becomes a marvelous experience. A great case can be made for this business of getting outside of selfish desires - probably the mission of a lifetime. There is no greater opportunity to grow and develop in this manner than at camp.

Lead campers to their own answers
Don't try to have all the answers. You will be expected to have answers beyond your capacity! But, remember that who you are is fine so function from there. Campers must find their own answers - your role is to provide appropriate information - consistent with camp policies regarding relationships, religion, politics, natural environment, nonviolent problem solving, etc. Provide sources for help, advice, and aid that fit the situation of the moment, but stay off of your personal soapbox.

Take good care of yourself
Take care of yourself, health and sleep wise. You're a staff team member, but you can only behave for yourself. This is tricky - you contribute through your own efforts, and you can be an example for others; however, you cannot behave for others. Everybody grows as a result. This is great and who would have it any other way?

Guiding Positive Behavior

Camp provides an environment where all kids can do well at something and have some degree of success and enjoyment. In a real sense, you are the main provider of creating these circumstances and reinforcing good behavior. You need a plan of attack and methods in mind. (Your particular camp will have its system of putting this into effect, and you should have major input into the system.)

Some simple statements will help you guide campers to the desired behavior by creating circumstances where kids individually and/or as a group determine their own fate. Some examples:

  • "If you do well at our own campfire tonight, we can invite another group next week . . ."
  • "When you're quiet, I'll start reading the story . . ."
  • "Before we eat we need to wash hands, so meet at the washhouse at waiter's call . . ."
  • "To use the swimming area, we need to follow certain rules . . ."
  • "We'll meet at the cabin and when everyone has arrived, we'll walk to the campfire . . ."

Telling Campers What You Expect

Setting expectancies for campers helps them take responsibility for their own actions and lets them determine their own fate. Together, counselors and campers should agree on what is appropriate behavior and what they should expect of others and themselves. Choices should be geared to age level, and you need to be constantly guiding this process. It should be clear to the campers that coming through on expectancies leads to a response of positive reinforcement, while not coming through on these expectancies will lead to consequences such as sitting out of an activity, stopping the activity, or not planning an activity until agreed upon criteria are met.

Enforce the consequences
Don't overreact to minor misbehavior, which is a common goof that can actually reinforce the negative behavior and sidetrack us from focusing on bringing about and reinforcing the good behavior that we do want. However, be sure to follow through when campers don't meet the agreed upon expectations. Avoid indulgence, or you'll lose control. (Usually indulgent leadership is simply the easy way out due to lack of courage to follow through on previous statements/agreements; and it unfailingly leads to further complications.)

The better you get at setting up situations so that campers determine their own fate, the less discipline you'll be doling out. Campers will know, understand, and appreciate how their behavior affects others. They will increasingly take responsibility for their own actions. Therefore, know what you want, make a plan, and actively pursue it. Have clear understandings and agreement, be consistent, follow through, reinforce the good behaviors, and you'll be great.

Congratulations! You are on your way to becoming a super person. Maybe none of us will really get there, but we will all have the fun and benefit of trying. You've got what some of us think is the best job in the world - working with kids at camp - and you've got the opportunity to help them experience and identify with the earth in unusual ways. The better you do at this, the more likely you will develop youth who will influence life-saving, earth-care practices.

Put yourself into it, and live up to what's expected of you. You'll have the most fun and beneficial summer of your life.

Originally published in the 1999 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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