Problem Behavior at Camp

By Charles Rotman

Our contemporary culture interprets antisocial, incompatible and abrasive behavior from a different perspective than in the "good old days" when conformity and a clear differentiation between acceptable and unacceptable behavior was more clearly defined.


Some of the factors include the permissiveness and over-indulgence of some parents with their children in an affluent society, the possible use of drugs and alcohol, and other modern cultural problems.

The trick is determining the difference between destructive and constructive behavior, and when this behavior should be tolerated (overlooked and endured), treated (by competent and trained senior staff) or terminated (by removing the camper or staff member from the camp).

Pre-camp staff orientation must present the appropriate communication procedures for immediately reporting problematic behavior of both campers and colleagues to the administration.

Problematic behavior should be evaluated and discussed with those who have allegedly committed it as well as those who have knowledge of it in order to ensure that the phrase, "We didn't know about it," cannot compromise the health, safety and security of the camp.

Constructive discussion with those involved, incorporating the circumstances of the alleged behavior, must be reviewed and constructively acted upon by the camp administration.

If the problematic behavior of the camper or staff is not communicated to the administrators by the previously established procedures and dealt with appropriately, then parents, attorneys, insurance companies and official outside agencies may become directly involved with the camp administration.

Acting out or withdrawn behavior by some campers is not new. Some campers do demonstrate unconventional behavior, like suspect language, gestures, practical jokes, aggressive behavior and bullying.

Questionable behavior from the camper's previous 10 months at home may be in evidence before camp. Parents, though they may not readily admit it, are usually aware of their child's ability to function within a group situation, be it in an acceptable or unacceptable manner. Keep in mind that parents can love but not actually know about their children's behavior outside of the home.

Personality and social questionnaires completed by parents often do not objectively depict or reflect their children's behavior. Critical questions about atypical behavior are vaguely answered or left blank -- especially questions about physical, psychological, social and intellectual problems and the ongoing treatment of them.

Some children are sent to camp because their parents want to take a vacation or feel that the camp will provide some kind of instant behavioral cure.

Some parents have "rescue fantasies" about how their children's behavior will be significantly improved in four to eight weeks -- something which, unfortunately, has not been accomplished at home within the past 10 months, or 10 years for that matter.

As a former camp director and as a psychologist, it's been my experience that -- depending upon the degree of frequency, intensity and duration of unacceptable behavior -- it must be constantly reviewed and acted upon for the benefit of the camp community. Ignoring it or hoping it will take care of itself usually spells trouble.

The staff's availability to "treat" campers is difficult because of their ongoing responsibilities in supervising their campers and their own assignments in the daily program.

Allowing special considerations by excessive parental visits to camp and telephone calls to and from the camper may introduce additional problems for the camper and from peers and staff.

It is critical that if some type of constructive treatment plan is initiated by a competent senior staff member who has had formal training and supervision in appropriate counseling techniques, rather than a rescue fantasy-orientated novice. He or she must become therapeutically involved with the camper only after parental consent in writing is received.

Referral to a camp psychologist/consultant in order to evaluate a camper's behavior, with parental permission, is often helpful in assisting the camp director's options and final discussion.

Termination of a camper for the general welfare of the camp community may have to be implemented. Initially, this will have a painful and detrimental effect on campers and their parents.

Time and personnel limitations -- in conjunction with the camper's health, safety and security considerations -- may eliminate any treatment possibility at camp.

To effect some constructive change in a four- or eight-week period at camp may be wishful thinking and inappropriate for all concerned.

Referral, if needed, to a local home community mental health resource, may be initially rejected and resented by parents, yet this may be the best alternative for the camper whose behavior may have underlying pathology which is in need of professional evaluation and treatment.

This most important ingredient for a successful camp season is invested in a competent staff. However, their unique position as camp employees during their later adolescent/young adult years can be problematic.

The transition from their college or graduate school "self" orientation to the camp community -- where they have specific commitments and responsibilities for the health, safety and security of others -- may be a challenge for them.

Young adults in a collegiate environment do not have to concern themselves with curfews, a structured 14- to 16-hour day (with some time off), rules, regulations, dress codes, being informally evaluated, lack of privacy, limited days off, and so on.

Camp is a close, emotionally-intense experience for all members in this self-contained community. Staff members' freedom is realistically reduced by the conditions of employment.

Certain staff members may find it difficult to adjust or conform to the realistic and objective expectations of the camp administration.

Others test limits, acting out verbally or physically, and not favorably responding to constructive criticism by their supervisors. This is detrimental to the campers and their parents, peers and the camp's structure.

What are the appropriate alternatives available to camp directors, given the three Ts -- Tolerance, Treatment or Termination?

To tolerate a staff member whose behavior is actively or passively detrimental to the camp would be irresponsible. To treat a staff member by a competent senior staff member may be helpful, but the same realistic constraints must be considered (time, pressure and responsibility) -- as previously discussed in reference to campers.

Terminating the staff member may be most appropriate, with the same home referral procedure suggested after consultation with the camp's attorney.

If the terminated staff member is a minor the camp director has an obligation to notify his or her parents. In addition, if there is evidence, just as in the case of the camper of the possibility of underlying pathology, they may be in need of referral to professional mental health resources for evaluation and treatment. Parents must be informed. The liability of negligence by the staff member must also be introduced as the need of termination.

It is certainly difficult to differentiate between reasonable-acceptable and borderline-unacceptable behavior within the American culture in recent years.

Therefore, when suspect behavioral situations or events take place within the camp environment that are not compatible with the administration's policies, philosophy or goals, a resolution of the problematic behavior must be determined after careful review of the alternatives have been presented.

Charles B. Rotman is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., is the author of "Camp is Business, Customer Satisfaction" and "Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) in Camp Management" (1998. Babson College Press), and is president of CBR Associates Inc., a mental health consulting service for camps. For questions, he can be reached at (508) 651-1132 or