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Dealing with discipline.

One of the keys to a positive, enriching experience for both campers and staff alike is a proper perspective on discipline. When discipline is approached purposefully, all members of the camp community have more chance to benefit from the camp expericence.

Discipline as a Positive Process

It is not unlikely that both campers and staff may come to camp with a perspective on discipline that is at least somewhat negative. They may view it as something that is done to people rather than for and with them (White, 1982). They may view submission to authority as a weakness and not as a positive, powerful act which meets a basic need. Rules may be viewed as a confinement rather than as a means of protection, bringing order and security to our lives. There may also be a tendency to view discipline as a series of unconnected events or experiences rather than as a growth process.

When discipline is viewed as a process, one grows and learns from one's previous experiences. One of the keys to effective behavior management in camp is to help all members of the camp community understand the positive nature of discipline. When used correctly, it helps people to develop character and self-respect and learn to be positive influences in society (White, 1982).

In order for discipline to be effective, it should be goal-oriented. By understanding that discipline is a way to show love for others, one can then base the use of discipline on a desire to help others learn and grow. The broad goal for this process is to help the individual learn behavioral self-control (as opposed to authority-controlled behavior) both for her own good as well as for the good of others.

More specifically, camp staff members should understand their purpose in exercising authority is two-fold: to meet basic needs and to set limits. By setting limits and letting campers know where the boundaries are, staff members help to meet the campers' need for security. They also protect campers from endangering themselves or others and protect the rights and privileges of others in the camp community.

This goal-oriented approach to discipline allows staff to relate to campers in a proactive rather than a reactive way. Instead of concentrating on how to respond to camper behavior, staff can focus on helping campers learn the appropriate behavior for various situations in which they find themselves at camp. Thus the behavior management process becomes an integral part of the planned learning experience at camp.

Laying the Groundwork

According to Wright (1980), campers often resort to inappropriate behavior when basic needs are not met. Clearly defined and communicated behavioral standards, privileges, and consequences can help to meet this need for security. People are happier and feel more secure when they know what is expected of them. These expectations should be reasonable for the age group of the campers and for the camp situation. There should be a range of consequences that are logical - not punitive - and connected to the behavior (Saphier and Gower, 1987).

Children are intelligent and fair-minded and are much more likely to follow rules if they know the reasons behind them. Staff members should discuss reasons for rules with them in a respectful, non-defensive manner. It may be necessary to include an explanation of how to do the expected behavior in this discussion as well. Not all campers come to camp knowing how to make a bed, and some may never have learned appropriate table manners. It is also essential for staff members to model the behavior they expect to see in campers.

Rules should be few in number, short, and stated positively. Involving campers in developing rules, where possible, can help give them a sense of control, influence, and ownership. Staff members can help campers to strengthen self-control by reminding them of the appropriate behavior before entering the situation in which that behavior will be required.

Developing good relationships with campers is important to the discipline process. First, it is one way to help campers feel good about themselves, and as Grant (1984) points out, "Helping children feel good about themselves is a key to getting good behavior from them."

Rapport is developed by treating campers with fairness, courtesy, and respect. Staff should not be afraid to allow campers to see them as "real people." They are more approachable when the authority-figure image is tempered with the image of them as real people (Saphier and Gower, 1987).

Staff members should take the time to get to know their campers' individual needs and interests. By showing that they care about each camper, they may experience fewer behavioral problems. It is also helpful to recognize age-group characteristics, to get a feel for what behaviors they can expect for all campers in a particular age-group.

Campers have a need for success and approval, recognition, and the opportunity to excel. The camp program can help campers develop a positive self-image by giving them opportunities for success and praise for that success when it occurs.

Grant (1984) encourages staff members to use what she calls the "one minute counselor" model: catch campers doing something right as often as possible, praise the camper for a specific behavior or accomplishment, and tell the camper how good you feel about that behavior or accomplishment. Campers will live up to your expectations, so expect good behavior and look for the best in each child. Remember to keep your expectations reasonable and to reward small improvements. Encourage campers by letting them know you think they can do it and you will not give up on them (Sapbier and Gower, 1987).

Group Management Techniques

Effective program planning and group management techniques help to prevent behavioral problems. As Nagel (1986) points out, "The real secret to good discipline is not to learn how to keep kids from being bad or even how to make them want to be good, but how to keep them so involved in what they are doing that they don't even think in terms of being bad or good." Activities should be pre-planned, and campers should be involved in the planning process as much as possible.

In planning activities, it is important to strike a balance between an over-demanding program and one in which campers have too much time on their hands. Behavioral problems can arise both when campers are overtired and when they are bored and restless. The balance needed between active and reflective kinds of activities will change with the age group and possibly with the gender of the campers.

A "cool-down" or transition period after very vigorous physical activity helps to prepare campers both physically and mentally to behave appropriately during periods of quiet activity that may follow (Nagel, 1986). These transition times are especially helpful between evening activity time and bedtime. In order to ensure their effectiveness, transition times should also be planned. It is helpful to let campers know a few minutes ahead of time what is coming next and what you expect of them in the next situation.

Behavioral problems are often a product of camper frustration. Campers become frustrated and bored when activities are either too hard or too easy. Staff should plan developmentally appropriate activities that challenge campers' abilities while providing reasonable chances for success.

Campers may also have trouble behaving appropriately when facility conditions are poor. If campers are uncomfortable, or crowded together in an area that is too small for the group, or unable to see or hear, it becomes difficult for them to participate appropriately in the program or activity (Wright, 1980).

Young and inexperienced staff members may make light of camp rules in an effort to appear on the side of campers, mistakenly believing that this kind of behavior will cause campers to like them (Keiser, 1989). In reality, this practice is one of the quickest ways to lose camper respect. Campers expect, want, and need the staff member to be an adult leader and role model. Campers will respond positively to staff members who are friendly, firm, fair, and consistent in enforcing behavioral standards.

The effective cabin group leader will gain control of her group from the beginning, using a task-focused rather than an approval-focused approach. The leader can then relax control when campers are ready to assume responsibility. It is easier to relax control of a group than to regain it after it has been lost.

Campers also need to be given opportunities to learn leadership skills. When campers are given opportunities to exercise leadership, they may begin to gain a new perspective on the discipline process. They will be more able to appreciate the difficulty of leadership and the importance of cooperative followers.

Correcting Inappropriate Behavior

No matter how well you plan or how clearly you communicate behavioral expectations, there will be times when it is necessary to correct inappropriate behavior. Before taking corrective action, it is helpful to consider whether the behavior is really unacceptable (according to the camp's behavioral standards), whether it is just typical age-related behavior (albeit annoying), or whether it is attention-getting behavior. In situations in which standards are not being violated, and the physical or psychological well-being of the camper or others is not being threatened, it may be more effective to ignore the behavior.

If the behavior is such that it cannot be ignored, the staff member may try using non-verbal methods such as: meaningful eye contact, shaking the head "no" while looking at the camper, and moving closer to the camper. If the behavior does not stop, the staff member should be firm and courteous in asking the camper to change her behavior. Give the camper time to stop the unacceptable behavior. Do not argue with the camper. State the inappropriate behavior that you are observing and restate the expectation (or get the camper to tell you what she should be doing) and the reason, if necessary. This exchange should be done in a matter-of-fact, non-threatening way.

Avoid embarrassing campers in front of their peer group. This will only aggravate the situation and may cause them to react with additional negative behavior. Depending on the nature and the cause of the unacceptable behavior, it may be helpful to remove the camper from the activity to a less reinforcing environment. The "time-out" spot should be within view of the staff member, and the camper should be permitted to return to the activity when he feels that he can once again demonstrate acceptable behavior.

If the camper persists in the unacceptable behavior, the counselor should pull the camper aside and discuss the misbehavior privately. In this discussion the staff member should identify the unacceptable behavior and explain why this behavior is unacceptable. Tell the camper how you feel about her actions. Help the camper identify an acceptable behavior that will replace the unacceptable behavior. It is helpful to use the question and answer rather than the lecture method for this type of conference.

It is important for the staff member to be a good listener and to try to help the camper identify the cause of the behavior. The discussion should focus on the camper's responsibility, stressing that each individual has a choice in how he behaves, and that we are all responsible for our own thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. Discuss the consequences of the unacceptable behavior. The camper should clearly understand that in choosing the particular behavior he has also chosen the consequences of that behavior. It is also helpful to remind the camper of the benefits of acceptable behavior.

Depending on the extent of the behavioral problem, you may want to help the camper formulate an action plan for correcting the behavior. Remind the camper that she is a valuable and worthwhile person. Do not withdraw affection from a camper who misbehaves. It is important that the camper understands that you are displeased with her behavior, not with her as a person.

After the discussion is over, the camper should start with a clean slate. A positive contact from the staff member - a smile, a praise, or a supportive touch - soon after the discussion will help to reassure the camper that the staff member still accepts him and that the offense has been dealt with and forgotten.

Although campers should be allowed to experience the consequences of their behaviors (except where the consequences put them or others in danger), punishment should be a last resort. It is never acceptable to use physical punishment (including exercise and work). It is also inadvisable to touch a camper when you are correcting unless the situation is such that you must intervene in order to protect her or others from harm.

The staff member should be careful in correcting behavior when angry. If anger is present, the staff member should do what needs to be done to correct the immediate situation in a positive way and arrange to meet with the camper to discuss the behavior at a later time.

This procedure should also be followed if the camper is angry and out of control. The staff member should allow time for the camper to regain composure and then discuss the behavior. If two campers are having a disagreement, remove them from the activity to a "time-out" place and have them discuss the situation with each other. They should not be permitted to return to the activity until they have worked out their differences and can participate together in an appropriate manner.

It is important for staff members to recognize that they are human beings and that as such, they make mistakes and have limitations. Situations in which a staff member has made a mistake, admits that mistake, and apologizes to campers can be very powerful learning experiences for campers. The result usually will be a stronger bond between staff member and campers and increased respect for that staff member.

Increasing numbers of campers are coming to camp these days with heavy emotional baggage which may be the cause of behavioral problems in camp. Staff members need to recognize their limitations and should not hesitate to ask for help from their supervisors. There may be times when the behavior patterns of a camper are so consistently inappropriate and disruptive that the camp director needs to decide whether to tolerate the behavior, treat the behavior, or send the camper home.

Toleration involves patiently working with a problem camper to help him make the needed behavioral changes. Treatment is not a realistic option in most camp situations due to the time, specially qualified personnel, and parental involvement needed to make such an option successful. Thoughtful consideration of the time and personnel limitations as well as the needs of the other members of the camp community may indeed lead the director to send a seriously maladjusted problem camper home (Kraus & Scanlin, 1983). Although this is not a desirable outcome, it is less disturbing than allowing a problem camper to ruin the camp experience for the rest of the members of the camp community.

Camp has tremendous potential to be an enriching growth experience for all members of the camp community. The extent to which this potential is realized is dependent on many factors. A carefully planned behavior management program is one of those factors. With a thoughtful, caring approach to discipline, the benefits of camp can be maximized for both staff and campers alike.


Grant, S.N. (1984, November/December). The one-minute counselor. Camping magazine, 57, (2), pp. 16-17, 24.

Keiser, S. (1989, January). Discipline at camp. Camping Magazine, 6, (3), pp. 36-38.

Kraus, R.G. and Scanfin, M.M. (1983). Introduction to camp counseling. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hail, Inc.

Nagel, M. (1986,January). Camp discipline begins with an ounce of prevention. Camping Magazine, 58, (3), pp. 27-28.

Saphier, J. and Gower, R. (1987). The skillful teacher. Carlisle, Mass. :Research for Better Teaching. Inc.

White, S. (1982). The counselor's robe in camper discipline. (Christian Cam ping International Focus Series No. 5). Wheaton, Ill.: Christian Camping International

Wright, H.N. (1980). Help...I'm a camp counselor. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

Nancy Halliday, Ph.D., CCD, is an associate professor and chairman of the department of physical education at The King's College in Briarcliff Manor, New York. She has been director of Camp Cherith in the Adirondacks since 1979, and has served on staff there since 1970.
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Title Annotation:camp counselors and rules
Author:Halliday, Nancy
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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