By Bob Ditter
I remember when it occurred to me that working as a camp counselor was more than just having fun with campers. I was a first-year counselor at a boys' resident sailing camp on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. One of the boys in my cabin had the unfortunate luck of being both impulsive and having a temper. I say "unfortunate" because whenever "TJ" got into trouble-and because of his impulsivity that was much of the time-he had an outburst. Certainly TJ, the other boys and I were having a lot of fun learning new skills in sailing and other areas. I soon realized, however, that in addition to teaching TJ how to be a better sailor, there were things I could teach him about being a better person. Maybe I could help him get a better handle on both his impulsivity and his temper.
Ever since that summer, I have looked at camp as not only fun, but as an opportunity for children to do a lot of growing up - both socially and emotionally. I have also come to view being a camp counselor as a craft or set of skills, no different in some ways than knowing how to build a camp fire, climb a rock face, put "English" on a tennis ball, or do a lay-up on the basketball court. The more you practice talking with campers, learning how to communicate with them, and understanding them, the better you get at it-just like most other endeavors in life. To help you make the most of your time with campers, I have put together my tips for working with them.
1. Get to know each one of your campers.
Many campers today are used to receiving a lot of attention from their parents. When children who are raised this way face a problem, they expect mom or dad to swoop in and make it all better. What this means for you is that your campers may need more praise and recognition, since they have been raised to count on more support from their parents. Consider making a List of Firsts chart. Take time each day to record in a brief meeting with your campers what new thing each of them has done that day at camp. This could be a new skill they've learned or a new activity they've tried or a new friend they've made and so on.
2. Get into routines right away.
For most children, routines provide security because they are predictable, and they help campers know what is expected of them. Routines are also good for caregivers in that they allow you to plan ahead and put consistency and self-discipline into your interactions with your kids. For example, try using the "five-minute warning" routinely before the end of every activity period. Announce to campers: "Okay, we have five minutes before we have to clean up!" Transitions are hard for children because they involve a small loss - a letting go - of what they have just invested their pride and energy into doing.
3. Keep your directions simple!
Giving campers too many things to do at once is confusing and often results in not too much getting done, especially for younger children who have shorter attention spans and for children who are easily distracted.
4. Get on their train before you try to get them on yours.
My friend and colleague, Jay Frankel, has an expression he calls "getting on a camper's train." When a camper is doing something other than what she should be - like looking at a photo album or listening to her iPod® instead of cleaning up - rather than get into a struggle, Jay and his True-to-Life team suggest that you join with your camper in whatever she is doing. In other words, take a moment to look at the photo album with her or ask about the music before coaxing her away from it and onto the task at hand.
5. The human brain can't hold a negative.
When you tell a camper at the swimming pool, "Don't run!" what his brain hears is "Run!" When you tell a camper, "Don't talk while I'm talking!" his brain hears, "Talk while I'm talking!" It is impossible to tell someone not to do something without suggesting the very thing you don't want them to do. More effective is telling campers what we want them to do. For example, at the pool, say, "Walk!" In a meeting say, "Listen while I'm speaking. You'll get your turn when I am finished!" Turning negatives into positives is more than just a subtle rephrasing of words. Children today are visual learners, meaning they get a picture in their brains of what behavior we are suggesting when we talk. Giving them a clear picture of what we want, rather than what we don't want helps steer their behavior in a more constructive direction. "Keep your hands to yourself," or, "Use your words when you are upset," are examples of telling campers what we want from them that help them behave more appropriately.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally printed in Camping Magazine, reprinted and excerpted by permission of the American Camp Association © 2008 American Camping Association, Inc.
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