The Importance Of Candid Feedback

By Tom Giggi

While the biggest worry for a camp counselor may be coping with a particularly difficult camper, the second-biggest worry is how to tell that camper’s parents—either at the child’s pick-up time after an especially trying day or at the end of a resident session.

Certainly a camp staff’s responsibility includes not only caring for campers, but also providing opportunities for growth. This is best accomplished when parents are drawn into a partnership with a key staff member, which occurs only through honest dialogue.

This, of course, is more easily spoken than accomplished, especially when the situation involves an inexperienced counselor.

After spending a week or two with a challenging boy or girl, too often the counselor takes the position of least resistance and—lacking the confidence necessary to be honest—makes the camper’s experience seem much more positive than will ever do the camper or the parents much good.

The Good News About Bad News
Selfishness, lack of cooperation with a counselor or the group, bullying, anti-social behavior, failure to follow directions, and laziness are among the impediments to a positive and memorable group experience at camp, and virtually all parents send their sons and daughters to camp with the expectation that they will have a good experience.

A camper who struggles to grow independently and interdependently within the group needs to have these struggles reported honestly to the parents for everyone’s benefit, and a counselor need not fear initiating such a conversation.

So what needs to be said to parents, what are likely to be their expectations, and how can a camp counselor-parent conversation best serve the child at the end of a camp experience and in the future?

Six basic principles should guide all post-camp conversations with parents about challenging campers.

1. Begin With The Positive
No matter how difficult a camper might have been during his or her stay, there is always something good to say. It’s helpful to remember that each parent has handed off to the camp their most prized possession, and parents want to know the counselor has seen the good in the camper, no matter what else there might be to report.

2. Be Specific
"Next, the leader must understand the importance of specifics in any behavioral report. “Samantha had difficulty fitting in” or “Eddie made a good group experience difficult for others” will not help a parent clearly understand the situation, and will not establish the counselor’s credibility.

The staff member must provide at least one specific example of the behavior which contributed to the problem, for instance, “Eddie too often resorted to picking on some of his quieter cabin mates.” And there should be no “piling on,” which obviously becomes counter-productive.

3. and 4. Show What Was Done And What Worked
Both of these principles show the parent that the counselor was proactive and had as a primary concern the health and welfare of the group. In addition to identifying the camper’s detrimental behavior, the staff member must also explain to the parents what he or she tried to do to help the camper improve in adjusting to the group situation.

It is vital in any conversation with parents that the counselor also is constructive, acknowledging any improvement shown by the camper over the course of the camp stay. Even if efforts to improve did not reach the levels that the counselor and camper hoped for, parents should know their son or daughter made an effort, as long as the counselor can say honestly that that happened.

5. Use A Supportive Tone
When communicating with parents, the counselor should come across as trying to be helpful, not only for short-term benefits at camp but also for long-range improvements at school and in other group experiences.

It is rare, indeed, when behavior detrimental to the group at camp is a first-time occurrence; parents will likely have heard of similar situations before from teachers, school administrators, coaches, or other group leaders. Most will appreciate your concern for their son’s or daughter’s future well-being.

6. Show You Know
Finally, all members of a camp staff must understand that, more than anything, parents want assurance that counselors truly know their son or daughter, and have made an effort to understand him or her.

Parents have every right to expect that all camp staff—especially those who spend the most time with the camper—can appreciate the positive contributions he or she brings to the group, acknowledge specific strengths, interests, and attributes, and can explain reasons why he or she may have had a difficult time. This is true no matter how long a camper’s stay might have been.

There is probably no greater responsibility that a camp staff member has—other than ensuring a safe physical and emotional environment for children—than knowing and understanding his or her charges.

This knowledge and understanding must come across clearly in any conversation with parents. Their willingness to listen will be diminished dramatically if they don’t have a strong sense that counselors have connected in some meaningful way with the camper and that he or she is important as an individual.

Putting It All Together
After describing the steps taken by the camper and leader together to correct the behavior, it’s important to note any progress the camper made toward becoming a more positive, inclusive member of the group.

This shows concern not only for what happened at camp but also for the camper’s anticipated growth outside of camp. Obviously, providing specific details without sounding impatient or frustrated will convince the parent that the staff member cares, wants to be helpful, and knows the child well.

Welcome Honesty
The good news that all camp staff members, whether experienced or new, should keep in mind as they anticipate a camp season is that the vast majority of campers are happy, well-adjusted, interesting, cooperative kids who bring much to the group and sincerely want to please.

There is good news about parents, too. Most of them understand their children and want to hear about their camp experience in the most honest terms possible. They will be excited to hear all of the positive things you have to say about their children, and will understand when you speak frankly about problems that may have occurred.

There is little reason to experience needless anxiety over a challenging camper or initiating an honest conversation with his or her parents.

Tom Giggi has served as the Leadership Director at YMCA Camp Belknap in Tuftonboro, N.H., since 1974. During the academic year, he teaches English at New Canaan Country Day School in Connecticut. He has also appeared in several videos for ExpertOnlineTraining.com , usually playing the part of a camp parent.