For Juniors’ Sake

By Chris Thurber

First, the good news: Your youngest staff members possess a brand of exuberance, creativity, and playfulness that older employees do not. That positive energy is a tremendous asset to the camp.

When properly fed and watered, some of the junior staffers will eventually grow into unit leaders and administrative staff. That, too, is an asset. Second, the fact you employ junior staff members creates an incentive for the oldest campers to return. The prospect of being chosen to join these ranks is also a powerful motivator of good behavior.

By installing a thoughtful internal leadership-development program, you have ensured solid return rates, improved teenage manners, and invested in the future of the employees.

Pat yourself on the back for solving three vexing problems with one swift stroke. Then cringe at the monsters you’ve created.

OK, junior staff members are not monsters. But there is some bad news: The 16- or 17-year-old junior leaders, leader-corps members, LITs, or CITs (whatever the designation for the youngest personnel) are about a decade shy of having fully myelinated and efficiently pruned frontal lobes.

Huh?

That’s right. The area of their brains just behind the forehead--the area responsible for impulse control, wise planning, hypothetical thinking, and other so-called “executive functions”--will not mature until the mid-twenties. Until then, you can expect some neurological short-circuiting in the form of impetuous, puerile, egocentric behavior.

Said differently, young staff members do dumb things.

You knew that, of course, and now you know why. The honest answer (though you’ll never get it) to the post-disaster query, “What were you thinking?” is actually “I wasn’t. I can’t. I’m neurologically impaired.” Seriously.

But wait. There’s worse news: Campers are even more neurologically underdeveloped than the junior staff members. In essence, you have chosen to take one impulsive, immature group and put it in charge of an even more impulsive and immature group.

Oh, and did I mention the latter group would be running around in the woods, swimming in the lake, and shooting arrows? Yikes!

Of course, it can’t be that bad or directors wouldn’t work so hard to cultivate their internal leadership programs. Indeed, it isn’t. The benefits of exuberance, creativity, and playfulness far outweigh the liabilities of limited executive function skills.

And when you begin an internal leadership-development program with careful selection and loving mentoring, perilous problems disappear. What remain are typical pitfalls, each potentially corrosive, but none without a solution.

The Trouble With Teens
Here are the most common junior staff troubles:

Acting immaturely.
Junior staff members are young, so they may say or do things that seem immature compared to how you may act. For perspective, recall how you acted at that age. Remember gossiping, giving wedgies, using foul language, and pushing each other into the water? On the plus side, some of this immaturity is hilarious during skit night.

Befriending instead of leading.
Junior staffers are close in age to senior campers, and perhaps have friends who are still campers, so they may want to hang out instead of doing their jobs. Expect the regressive pull of peer interaction to eclipse their job description as instructors. Gently guide them back on track by pointing out that position, not age, defines responsibilities.

Over-sharing.
Junior team members are often impressed with staff privileges, and may want to share them--such as day-off exploits and staff-lounge goodies--but they really shouldn’t. It’s tempting to pull back the curtain, Oz-style, so urge young employees to use discretion. Instead of quickly but superficially impressing youngsters with camp secrets, teach junior staff members to impress them with sterling leadership-by-example.

Neglecting enforcement.
Junior staffers may have trouble enforcing rules and setting boundaries, especially with peers. Remind staffers that all leaders need to make unpopular decisions from time to time. Ultimately, the consistent enforcement of limits will earn them the deep respect of campers and colleagues.

Becoming bossy.
Junior employees are in a position of power for the first time at camp, and may abuse that role by becoming bossy or authoritarian. Control is intoxicating, but leadership loses its muscle quickly when applied or enforced with a heavy hand. Temper those tempers.

Taking little initiative.
Junior staff may become intimidated in the presence of older, wiser, more experienced personnel and so retreat into the background or fail to take the initiative. Reward initiative by telling junior employees you would rather see them try and fail than not try at all. Better yet, teach experienced team members to invite the cooperation of juniors in all they do.

Behaving unsafely.
Junior staff members may sometimes lack an appreciation for the magnitude of responsibility they have in taking care of other people’s children. In an effort to be liked by the campers, staffers may break rules or act in unsafe ways. They are also the most likely to be swayed by peer pressure during time off, making illegal activities such as substance abuse even more dangerous. Becoming a parent may be the only thing that instills profound feelings of responsibility, but serious staff training will certainly help. Reviewing close calls from the past few seasons may also motivate responsible behavior.

Getting defensive.
Junior staffers are not used to being supervised and hearing constructive criticism from senior workers, so the former may become angry or defensive. Indeed, the so-called “millennial generation” was raised with so much vapid praise that older-staff criticisms may be a first. Over time, the junior staff can become familiar with feedback, both positive and negative. And if the majority of what you offer is specific, authentic praise, no one will cringe when they see you coming. In a few weeks, defensive junior staff members can be transformed into young professionals committed to their own development.

Forming cliques.
Junior team members are often more uncomfortable in their new role than they let on. As a source of comfort, a sign of immaturity, or maybe as a byproduct of the competition they feel with other junior staffers, they may form cliques. Keep a close eye on exclusive groups, and thwart their formation by offering plenty of integrated leadership opportunities.

Repeating mistakes.
Junior personnel may continue to make mistakes, even after they’ve been corrected and coached. But everyone makes mistakes. If a supportive culture, where leaders are encouraged to take initiative and learn from their mistakes, is created, then all of the youthful honesty, optimism, energy, creativity, and their connection with campers can be harnessed successfully.

How To Help
Junior employees are not the only ones who make these mistakes, but they naturally make them more frequently than experienced staff members. It’s ironic that the youngest leaders are held to the same high standard as every other counselor and administrator, but keeping the professional bar high for all leaders is best for the campers … and best for the junior staff’s own growth.

Of course, supervisors should be exceptionally patient with junior staff members. They need a reliable mentor who sets a solid example for them to follow.

Anticipate the young staff’s needs.
Older employees are especially effective mentors when they can predict some of the problems their apprentices will make. For example, if junior staff members are likely to have trouble enforcing certain rules or taking criticism well, talk with them ahead of time about these challenges. Suggest specific solutions that you know from experience will work.

Keep the lines of communication open.
Observe, question, and reflect. Never stop asking, “What can I do to help you do your job better?”

Set a good example.
What you and the senior staff think and do--both during time on and time off--is what the young staffers will imitate. Lead the way with kindness, maturity, and discretion. Avoid the temptation to talk to junior staff members the same way they talk to each other. When experienced staffers try to “act cool,” it feels forced. Remember your role.

Provide real responsibility.
Help young leaders successfully navigate the transition from camper to counselor by giving them significant responsibilities. Most of their training is experiential. If junior leaders are only given manual labor, they won’t be having the types of experiences that actually train them. The most effective internal leadership-development programs offer junior staff members a supervised, structured apprenticeship that includes leading groups, supervising campers, co-running activity periods, and devising creative solutions to daily challenges.

See training as iterative.
The online pre-season training and customized on-site training are complements to the on-the-job training your junior staffers receive every day from their interactions with campers. Therefore, it’s best to conceptualize training as an ongoing process. Be sure the junior employees are receiving frequent, informal feedback in addition to scheduled, formal feedback. Make sure your training program is dynamic--adjusted and improvised as different needs arise. Expect to train junior personnel on the same issue in different ways, at different times. Simply put, their learning should never stop.

Talented camp staffers come from every part of the world, but those cultivated from the camper ranks are a unique asset because they understand the camp’s culture and mission. They lived it as campers.

However you select junior staff members--from the ranks of senior campers or by application and interview--those young leaders will face challenges transitioning to this new set of responsibilities.

The best news of all is that when you anticipate those challenges and train according to the principles outlined above, that young staff will infuse your camp with vitality and charisma.

“What were you thinking?” will turn to “Wow! That’s good thinking.”

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist and professional educator for camps, schools, and youth programs worldwide. He is the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, the host of the DVD-CD set, The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com. To learn more about Chris, visit CampSpirit.com .