Counselor Judgment-Camper Risk-Taking (July-August, 2001)

One of the tasks of caring for campers is learning to balance fun with safety.  This balancing act is a central, though often subtle part of what counselors do, and it can be a formidable one.  There are many times when you as a staff person must make judgments that affect the well-being of your campers.  The call you make can be the difference between someone getting hurt and everyone having a great time and staying healthy.  Having good judgment is therefore key to maintaining the safety of your group, both physically and emotionally.
Acquiring a good sense of judgment takes time and experience.  It is not something you can learn from a book or lecture.  In addition, some of the situations you face take place during off-camp trips or happen out of the range of your supervisors.  That is why it is important to have some guidelines to help you make sound judgment calls on your own.
The following checklist is designed to cultivate sound, consistent judgment in yourself as a staff member:
Counselor Judgment Checklist
1.    What are the physical risks involved in this activity/this decision?
2.    Are there any risks (emotional or physical) I might not be able to see?
3.    If something were to go wrong and someone got hurt (physically/emotionally), how would I feel?
4.    Who is this activity/decision really for me or the kids?
5.    How much am I getting caught up in this how activated are my emotions and how might that be clouding my judgment?
6.    What would I do if the kids’ parents were watching?
7.    What would I decide if my director were watching?
8.    How will I think about or look back on this decision tomorrow?

If you pause before making a decision that affects your campers and run-through the checklist, it can help you make a call that is healthiest for you and your group.
In addition to the checklist, there are “truths” about working with children that you as a counselor should know about, since they can affect the safety of your campers.  These three concepts are as follows:
• the tendency for campers (and, sometimes, counselors!) to become over-stimulated;
• the effect campers can have on us as adults, known as regressive pull;
• and the situation some people call “player-umpire.”

Let’s take a look at each of these concepts and see how they might affect your judgment.
“Over-stimulation” occurs when children become so caught up in the excitement of the moment that they get swept away by their feelings and lose their sense of judgment.  Activities that are highly stimulating, like mud sliding, water fights, splashing in the pool, wrestling, going on an organized “raid” and so on, while fun, can cause children to lose perspective or self-control.  When children become over-stimulated, it is very difficult to calm them down.  First, they aren’t always sure whether to take your appeals to quiet down seriously (children may think your urgings are just another part of the game).  Second, they can’t always see what harm might come as a consequence of their behavior.  Because highly stimulating activities are also attractive to counselors, and because children often beg counselors to let them engage in activities like this, counselors can end up making a judgment call based on doing what is popular and not on what is necessarily safe.
This does not mean that camp should be devoid of things like snow ball fights in July, or mud sliding on rainy days.  It does mean, however, that decisions to engage in such activities must be made carefully, followed by especially watchful supervision.  As a counselor overseeing an activity that is particularly stimulating, you must take special care to look for signs that the children are not becoming so agitated or excited that they are beginning to lose their own sense of judgment and fair play.  If you do see indications that things are escalating or that the risk-taking is becoming dangerous, the sooner you intercede to cool things off, the easier it will be to keep things within safe bounds.  Indeed, knowing when to intercede is itself a judgment call, and too many counselors make the mistake of waiting too long to slow the pace of a game or activity down, only to have someone get hurt or injured.
The second concept, “regressive pull,” is when adults, after spending a lot of time with children, and begin to look and act just like the kids.  That is, they become more impulsive, more easily excited, more sarcastic in their verbal interactions or more easily ruled by their feelings.  In other words, adults can become over-stimulated, too!  Once a counselor has regressed, there is a loss of perspective and sense of consequences that may result in unsound judgment calls.
Regressive pull is natural phenomenon, though there are several things that you as a counselor can do to minimize its effects.  Being well rested, getting away from your campers from time to time, maintaining outlets for your own personal emotional and psychological needs and developing working partnerships with fellow staff members are examples of the kinds of things you can do maintain your equilibrium.  Likewise, referring to the checklist above may save you from making a decision that leads to trouble.
“Player-umpire” refers to the conflict inherent in playing or taking part in a game while supervising it at the same time.  When you as a staff member participate in the game yourself, you may observe the group less critically, you may miss important safety considerations or you may forget to take steps to avoid accidents or mishaps that you normally would take were you on the sidelines supervising.  Obviously, campers often love it when counselors play with them; but as Department of Public Health Officials in both New York and California have pointed out to me, most accidents at camp happen when counselors get so involved in a game that they drop their duties as good supervisors of children.  Playing a game can never be at the expense of good supervision, keen observation and sound judgment.  When a lifeguard is in the water splashing and swimming, they do not have the vantage point or perspective they would have were they in their lifeguard chair or standing on a float or pool deck keeping an eye on the children.  If you play in a game to the point where you get so absorbed in it that you let go of your responsibility to monitor the group and maintain emotional and physical safety, you are risking the safety or yourself and the campers.
This does not mean that counselors can not have fun and join in with children.  As I have mentioned before, campers love it when adults play with them.  However, whenever you play with campers you must remember that you are not playing at the same level you would be with peers.  You must learn to participate with a reserve or restraint that allows you to keep an eye on how the children are doing and not so much on how the game is going.  You may also want to establish a kind of “tag team” with other staff members where you each take a turn playing while others supervise.
As staff what you want is to have as fun and trouble free a summer as possible.  There is no fun in the guilt or anxiety you will ultimately experience if you make a judgment call that results in anyone getting hurt.  Using the checklist provided here and following the advice about balancing your work will help you have a healthy, happy summer and will provide your campers with the “envelop of safety” they need to thrive.

One Response to “Counselor Judgment-Camper Risk-Taking (July-August, 2001)”

  1. Sarah Ning says:

    This is the third year with Camp Firefly in Las Vegas that I have reviewed this section and others with Bob Ditter and they are always a great refresher for camp.

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