Camp Articles


What’s The Problem Now?

Camp Is Connection

Relationships form the heart of the camp experience. Dynamic programs, beautiful settings and lofty missions have little value without sterling leadership (staff/camper relationships) and warm friendships (camper/camper relationships). For this reason, a well-trained staff that promotes camper connections is the lifeblood sustaining your camp. In turn, having happy campers in healthy relationships augments retention rates, enrollment and parental satisfaction, all of which strengthen the overall business and pleasure of running a camp.

Today’s Training Angles

Contemporary approaches to staff training include designing a curriculum around the following tactics:

1.Accreditation standards

2.Staff-training manuals and camp-management books

3.Camper and parent satisfaction questionnaires and exit surveys

4.Camp mission and stated outcomes

5.Professional development of the camp director

6.An internal leadership program

7.Pre-camp and Web-based staff training

Each training approach has merit, and two or more can be combined to produce excellent results. To this master list, we recommend an eighth tactic--focus on emerging issues. This approach uses data from the American Camp Association’s Emerging Issues Survey in November 2007.

A brief selection of results below summarizes the most pressing camper and staff behavior problems, as well as the newest additions directors are adding to staff-training curricula. Taken together, this information will help reshape or refine your existing approach to staff training. Reducing the frequency of problematic camper and staff behaviors requires a direct, honest, intentional approach. If you think “not at my camp” in response to some items in Tables 1-3, we encourage you to take a proactive training stance to reduce the likelihood that these problems do not become your own.

Camper Behavior Problems

Two questions on the survey explored directors’ perceptions of camper and staff behaviors:

· During the past three years, what are the two most serious problem behaviors of CAMPERS?

· During the past three years, what are the two most serious problem behaviors of STAFF?

A glance at Table 1 shows externalizing behaviors (violent, aggressive, antisocial) topping the list. If these data are one source for designing your staff-training syllabus for the 2009 summer, you must include some workshops on bullying prevention and conflict resolution. It is also wise to review your policies on major rule violations. For example, what are the consequences for physical fighting, destruction of camp property and cell phone use? Although use among campers is rare, what is your policy about drug, alcohol and tobacco possession?

One advantage of using these data for staff training is the assurance you’re addressing the most pernicious camper behavior problems. But don’t simply focus on the items ranked here according to percentage. Any seasoned staff member will tell you that a single case of severe homesickness or severe ADHD can ruin a child’s stay, and taint the camp experience for the rest of the group. The best training program will endow staff with tools for dealing with both common and uncommon problems. Training in CPR is the obvious medical analogy of this principle.

We recommend role-playing as one of the best ways to give staff practice in dealing with all types of camper behavior problems. Staff members will hone skills, generate discussion, and gain confidence prior to opening day. Online modules can give staff excellent preparation prior to training week, thus allowing you to cover core topics in depth once all the staff has gathered at camp.

Table 1: Most Frequently Identified Camper Behavior Problems

Top Camper Behavior Problems in 2007 Season

% of Camp Directors Identifying Problem (n=275 responses)

Bullying / fighting / physical aggression -- 32%

Disrespectful behavior or language / tantrums / anger -- 20%

Rule violations (antisocial behavior, destroying property, sneaking cell phone) -- 12%

Inappropriate intimate behavior or sexual talk -- 7%

Cutting / self-injurious behavior / para-suicidal behavior -- 4%

Parents withholding critical information about campers -- 4%

Cliques / social aggression -- 3%

Homesickness -- 3%

Use of drugs, such as marijuana -- 2%

Special needs, especially autistic spectrum behaviors -- 2%

PTSD or history of abuse -- 2%

Eating disorders -- 2%

Medication-related complications -- 2%

Malingering / not wanting to participate -- 2%

ADHD / ADD -- 1%

Mood disorders, such as depression -- 1%

Tobacco use/ alcohol use/ hazing/ anxiety disorders (e.g., social phobias) --

Staff Behavior Problems

Table 2 presents findings related to staff orientation and training. Most obvious is that training needs to be a priority. For camp directors who thought hiring “nice college kids” was the starting and ending point of staff training, Table 2 gives them reason to rethink that approach. Violating policies related to substance use, technology and personal boundaries accounted for more than one-third of the staff behavior problems. Clearly, more careful hiring and training practices are in order if simple policy violations and inappropriate behavior (both online and in person) account for 45 percent of what camp directors identified as the top staff behavior problems.

Enhanced hiring and training practices may also help camp directors sidestep the third most frequently cited staff behavior problem: low energy/ initiative. The survey was peppered with comments such as, “I can’t get my staff moving,” “They’re not doing the job they were hired to do,” “The energy is gone after just a few weeks,” and “Burnout is a huge problem.” Yes, promoting stamina requires careful selection of staff, but too often camp directors don’t have any way of knowing whether the person being interviewed is capable of maintaining the same exuberance all summer as displayed in the interview. And, unfortunately, many camp directors believe staff training ends on opening day. Staff needs on-the-job training to maintain personal energy levels and to stay healthy. It’s impossible for stressed, sick and run-down staff to give 100 percent.

Two solutions to these vexing problems are internal leadership development (ILD) and in-service training. The ILD structure uses a progressive, apprenticeship model that draws junior leaders from the senior camper ranks, leaders-in-training from the junior leader ranks and full-fledged counselors or cabin leaders from the leader-in-training ranks. ILD programs can take a decade or more to grow to the point where most full-time staff members are drawn from the camper ranks, but the advantages are many. First, directors are intimately familiar with the counselors or cabin leaders they hire because each one has spent weeks at camp completing the ranks of camper, junior leader and leader-in-training. Second, instead of five or six days of pre-season training, staff from an ILD program receives at least 12 weeks of training, most of it on the job.

Whatever leadership training model your camp espouses, ongoing, regularly scheduled in-service training is a must. No staff--whether new to camp or brought up through an ILD program--has all the skills and support necessary to skillfully handle every camper behavior problem or staff conflict. Weekly training meetings and workshops--especially those where the toughest camper cases are reviewed--refine leadership skills and prevent burnout simultaneously. Staff members who struggle and learn leadership together, throughout the summer, will approach their work with poise, hope and enthusiasm.

Table 2: Most Frequently Identified CampStaff Behavior Problems

Top Staff Behavior Problems in 2007 Season

% of Camp Directors Identifying Problem (n=277 responses)

Violating substance use policies -- 22%

Unskilled work with campers -- 19%

Low energy/ low initiative -- 17%

Violating camp policies (other than substance use) -- 11%

Disrespect of colleagues (gossip, cliques) -- 10%

Inappropriate sexual behavior with staff or campers -- 8%

Quitting or absenteeism -- 4%

Inappropriate online behavior -- 3%

Staff's mental-health problems -- 1%

Hazing or harassment -- 1%

Off-duty misbehavior (other than online or substance use) -- 1%

Family issues -- 1%

Poor communication with parents -- 1%

Recruitment/ hiring -- 1%

Directors’ Additions

Compare the list of topics in your current staff orientation and training program with those in Table 3. What differences do you notice between the two lists? The attention that camp directors place on developing staff members’ skills in a range of areas is evident by its number-one ranking. Having appropriately trained staff members who are prepared to demonstrate both hard skills (content expertise and program abilities) and soft skills (communication and social interaction) is critical to the provision of a quality camp experience. Given the attention that issues such as bullying and social networking have received over the past few years, it’s not surprising to see that these training topics are among the most common additions.

Are you in line with changes that other camp directors have made to their staff-training programs? Perhaps you added many of these topics years ago. Or, you might find that your staff-training program could use an upgrade. In this case, you might select a few topics from this list to incorporate into your staff-training syllabus next year. Do you have the internal expertise to address these issues or do outside resources need to be identified? Consider how guest speakers, print resources and Web-based courses might be used to enhance next year’s training program.

Table 3: Most Frequent Topics Added to CampStaff Orientation and Training (2004-2007)

Topics In Order of Frequency

# of Directors Who Identified Each Topic (n=275 responses)

Skills -- 58

Bullying -- 48

On-line communication/ social networking -- 47

Electronics/ technology -- 40

Camp health care/ wellness/ mental-health care -- 36

Camper behavior management -- 31

Diversity -- 23

Parents -- 20

Managing campers’ sensitive issues -- 20

Staff and camper boundaries -- 19

Child abuse -- 19

Activities/ programs -- 15

Emergency training -- 12

Staff health -- 11

Role playing/ scenario training -- 11

Sexual harassment/ discrimination -- 10

Child and youth development -- 9

Risk management -- 8

Hiring policies/ procedures -- 8

Campers with special needs -- 8

Security/ safety -- 7

Outcomes -- 6

Customer service -- 6

Staff interactions/ appropriate staff relationships/ inter-staff issues -- 5

Alcohol/ drug use/ drug-free workplace -- 5

Environmental education/ awareness -- 5

Camp history/ mission -- 4

Professionalism -- 4

Planning For 2009

Using new and emerging information about the camp experience, such as the data presented here, can invigorate camp planning efforts with urgency and relevance. As you prepare for next summer, remember the essentials--such as role-playing, skillful discipline and discussing camper and staff policies--to be sure you’re keeping up with the times. Make staff leadership development a priority, and consider if your systems of internal leadership development and in-service training need an overhaul. Addressing these issues now will make a difference in your camp later, resulting in an experience that’s more fun for everyone, less stressful for you, and ultimately good business for your camp.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D ., ABPP is the creator of Leadership Essentials, a library of online video training modules for camp staff. An internationally recognized educator, consultant and staff trainer, Chris designed the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new campers, titled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success. Chris can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com

Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., is the national Director of Research Application with the American Camp Association and a former Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in youth development at Virginia Tech. Barry’s background includes programming and administrative experience as a municipal day-camp manager, a wilderness mental health counselor, and a residential camp and conference center director. Barry can be reached via e-mail at bgarst@acacamps.org

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