Smart Counselors (July-August, 2006)

Maybe you’ve seen her on TV. She’s the no-nonsense, matronly woman with that “don’t-even-think-about messing with me” look on her face. She is the person desperate parents call when their children become unmanageable. She’s “Nanny 911” and she knows a thing or two about working with children that any savvy camp counselor can apply to campers.
For starters, “Nanny” knows not to lose her cool. In fact, she knows that children often do or say things just to throw adults off balance so they react emotionally in ways that actually make them less effective. As soon as you lose your temper, even when campers may give you good cause to do so, you give away your power. At that point campers focus on your upset and not on your message. I call this the “emotional tug of war.” Your job is not to pick up that emotional rope! Maintaining your calm gives you the emotional advantage you need to be successful with campers. More specifically, the less emotional and more focused you are, the more effective you will be in getting your “message” across to your campers!
Likewise, Nanny knows that most adults talk too much when disciplining children. Campers today are like little lawyers. They have ten reasons why, in their opinion, they should be able to raid another cabin, stay up late, not go to an activity, wander away from their group, not get up in the morning, and have someone else clean up their mess, and get “even” with another camper and so on. Children today are articulate, persuasive and full of words. They have also been encouraged to question authority! While you may feel like you are asserting your say-so by arguing your point, you are simply inviting kids to argue back.
So what do you do in place of arguing your point? First, be clear about what you expect. Use fewer words, chosen carefully to state what you expect as matter-of-factly and clearly as you can. Focus on one or two behaviors, not three, four or more. Stay out of the arguments. They are clever “traps” set by campers to derail you. When campers come at you with something like, “Well, our counselor last year let us do it,” you will not respond! The following dialogue illustrates how this might go:
You (As the counselor): “Johnny, I need you to help clean up now!”
Johnny: “I can’t! I’m not finished playing my video game!”
You: “I know, it’s hard stopping when you’re right in the middle of a game! Right now, everyone is cleaning up and I need you to help, too! You can play later”
Johnny ignores you.
You: (After giving Johnny some time to comply by momentarily turning your attention to someone else, you return to him. You lower yourself to Johnny’s eye level and state calmly, but seriously in an even voice): “Johnny, everybody knows it’s time to clean up, and I expect you to help out, too.” (You hold your gaze for a few seconds, not saying anything more!)

The above example illustrates both a business-like even handedness, calm voice and a few well chosen words. You were even able to acknowledge Johnny’s feelings while asking him to help out with clean-up.
What’s missing, of course, is that at camp you spend long hours with campers. It does happen that your patience can wear thin! Knowing when to take breath, take a mini-time out or get help are key to doing your job well, too.
Stop, Start, Continue
When you think about camper behavior I think you will agree that most all of it can be put into three categories. Campers are either doing something we don’t want them to do—things we want them to stop; or they are not doing things we want them to start doing; or they are doing things we want them to continue doing. “Start, stop, continue” is a phrase I first heard from a friend of mine, Jay Frankel, who does a lot of corporate and camp training regarding adult staff. As I thought about it, I realized the phrase applies equally well to camper behavior.
What is useful about thinking this way? It turns out that we use very different strategies with campers depending on whether we want them to start, stop or continue doing something. What you would use to have a camper stop teasing another camper is very different, for example, from what you use to get them to start cleaning up or go to an activity.
Start Strategies
There are several start strategies. Like anything we do with children, they need to be adjusted to fit the age group you are working with at the time. Getting campers to start doing what they are not is best addressed by building momentum. In other words, get the least resistant, most cooperative campers to start first, then, one by one, focus your attention on the remaining campers who still need to brush their teeth, get out of bed, go to an activity, etc. Another start strategy is to make a challenge out of something, like campers racing against counselors, as in who can get it done or get there first. Another is to play personal best, where you keep a chart or simple log of the time it takes for everyone to have their clothes picked up, or get in line or get to the next activity. Campers then try to “beat the clock” and come up with their personal best time. Other strategies include doing “countdowns,” where you count down from, say, 10 to 1, by which time everyone one needs to be in compliance. Or giving special privileges or surprises as motivation, or handing out “fuzzies” or similar tokens (stickers work well with younger children).
The key to all start strategies is the energy level and participation of counselors. If you are attempting to get campers to clean up their cabin while directing them from your bed, they will listen to your “prone body language” and not your words! If you are helping out in an up beat, fun way, your enthusiasm will be contagious.
Threatening campers is not an acceptable start strategy. It is simply an act of desperation that shows you have lost the upper hand with your campers. If you find yourself resorting to threats, get help either from fellow staff or your Unit Director or Head Counselor.
Another “start” strategy involves a different kind of persuasion or influence, which my friend, Jay Frankel, calls “getting on your camper’s train.” I call it “putting money in the bank with your campers.” Take the example above where Johnny is playing his video game and refusing to clean up. If the counselor were to sit with Johnny for 90 seconds and ask him about his game—in other words, enter his world momentarily—the counselor can join Johnny in his enthusiasm, giving him a better vantage point for then persuading the boy to help out. It might go something like this:
You (As the counselor): “Johnny, I need you to help clean up now!”
Johnny: “I can’t! I’m not finished playing my video game!”
You: “Oh, cool! What game are you playing?”
Johnny: “Planet Defenders!”
You: “Cool! I’ve never heard of that one. How does it go?”
Johnny: “It’s complicated. I can’t explain it right now, I’m in the middle of a game!”
You: “Well it looks pretty cool. Maybe after clean-up, if we have enough time, you can show me. I have an X-box at home and it’s pretty cool!”
Johnny: “But I’m playing now!”
You: “I know, and it is hard stopping in the middle of a game. And there will be plenty of time for that. In fact, if you get started now, I can help you and then if we get done fast enough, you can show it to me. I’d love for you to show me how it works. And there’s always time at rest hour!”
Johnny (Reluctantly): “Oh, okay.”

As Johnny’s counselor, you were reasonable, you were “on message,” you were calm, but you also took a few moments to enter his reality, which allowed him to give up his game and join you. Smart counselor!

Stop Strategies
Getting campers to stop an undesirable behavior requires qualitatively different strategies. I have already described the first line of action, which is to state clearly, calmly and firmly what you expect, focus only on one or two requests at a time, stay out of arguments, repeat your request once if you need to, then let go. It is the “let go” part most counselors have trouble with. Hovering over a child only makes them feel you do not trust them and elicits resistance. It may help make you feel like you are more in charge, but it is not what smart counselors do. State what you expect and then detach. Turn your attention to someone or something else for a moment or two. Give your camper a chance to comply.
“State what you expect, then detach” is one of the few stop strategies that is also a start strategy. In other words you can us it in both instances. From there things diverge. If a child does not comply and stop an unwanted behavior, the rule of thumb is to separate them from their audience. That either means having the camper step aside with you away from the group, or having your co-counselor or other adult move the group onto their next activity, etc. Once a camper can no longer “play to the audience,” you get better listening and better compliance. All smart counselors know to do this—they just forget, sometimes, in the heat of the moment.
Another stop strategy is to give your camper a momentary time out. I use time-outs not so much as punishment, but as a way of allowing a camper to regain self-control when they have gotten too agitated or need to calm down. There are two rules: Always prompt a camper first by giving them the choice. It sounds like this:
You: “So, Sally, are you telling me you need a time out?”
Sally: “No!”
You: “That’s great! So then that means to you can stop yelling at your friends.”
Sally: “But they’re being mean to me!”
You: “There are other ways to get people to listen to you, and I can help you with that, but not yelling. So are you telling me you can try something else and you don’t need a time out?”
Sally (complaining, but complying): “YES!”
You: “Great! So let’s work this out. I’ll help you.”
Once a camper does need a time out, the rule of thumb is one minute for each year old they are. At camp, ten minutes for a ten year old is a long time. Simply make it long enough whether you feel a camper has calmed down and is willing to try something else. By the way, smart counselors know that for campers to stop doing one thing they need to have something else that is acceptable to do in it’s place. A child who is hitting may need to use his words. Sally may need to learn how to say something in place of swears what she feels other girls are being mean to her.
Having a lot of strategies is something that comes with experience. One thing that is clear is that smart counselors know that it takes no skill and no work to be rude, to be defensive or to be emotional with campers. To be thoughtful, have self-control and make a difference takes time, effort and practice. Smart counselors make camp the powerful growing experience that it can be for children. And that makes all the difference!

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