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When it's not on the forms: camper behavior - two case studies.

Have you ever resented that the information on camp forms did not prepare you for a camper's behavior? In reality, you can never get enough information about a camper, and frequently parents and guardians fear that their child will not be accepted into camp if they are honest. Some parents hope their children will be different at camp; others may be unsure how to describe behavioral issues.

If you encounter a difficult camper, there are strategies you can use to improve the situation.

* Be ready to ask for help; discuss camper behavior with the nurse and/or director.

* Brainstorm with other staff about what the behavior is trying to teach you. Remember: behavior is only one clue about the needs of the child.

* Reflect on what the behavior may be covering up or masking. Talk with staff, the director, or the nurse about your hypothesis.

* Reflect (perhaps in a journal or with other staff) on how the camper relates to other campers and staff.

* If you feel overwhelmed by a camper, so do his or her peers. Ask how you can get the group to help.

* Ask the camper if you can help him/her with a specific behavior.

* Pay attention to your own stereotypes and issues that may cloud your judgement.

* Use local community organizations for help and resources.

* Decide what your camp will do to follow up with the camper and family.

* Know your limits. Think about what you and the camp can and can't handle.

If you understand and practice these principles, you will have a chance to bring about real change in the lives of the children you serve. Your new insights may prove valuable even after the campers have gone home.

Following are two examples of difficult situations and how camp staff were able to use these strategies to work through them.

In one ear and out the other

Sara jumped out of her parents' minivan, bright-eyed and excited about camp. This was her third year, the year she would be a junior camper and participate in the "older camp" evening programs. The camp staff knew her well as an energetic girl with a stubbornness that was endearing on the soccer field, but annoying in some social situations.

Sara had clearly started puberty, and was at least seven inches taller than last summer. Now some of her formerly "cute" behavior was problematic. The staff who worked with the older groups did not expect to repeat directions four times to get a result; her peer group felt that they should not have to remind Sara about directions or allow her to intrude on conversations. Sometimes all the members of the cabin would arrive for the afternoon program except for Sara, who lost track of time while playing with younger children who did not mind her behavior.

The staff talked casually with Sara about these issues. One astute counselor asked Sara about her peer group at school and if she had problems following directions in class. Sara explained that in school she was in special education for part of the day; her teacher wrote a list referencing times, directions, and the events that would happen that day.

The counselor asked if they could make a list together each day, and if Sara would ask for directions and reminders from the cabin group. Sara told her cabin group what she needed from them and why; her peers felt great about helping her now that she acted out less often.

Sara had a learning disability in receptive language, which was not on the camp forms; it contributed to her inappropriate behavior when she did not understand directions and felt too embarrassed to ask for help. Sara's counselor, working with her director and camp nurse, came up with a strategy after she asked Sara if she could help.

Billy's just a bad kid

Billy was 11 and from a medium-sized town. He had been to seven summer camps in the last five years. He had been asked to leave by five of them. Then he came to camp number eight, an average summer camp with all the regular camp activities. His driver dropped him off and gave the director an unmarked bottle of solution with a note from Billy's mother explaining that it was "to help him concentrate and sleep." Because there was no prescription and no clear labeling from a pharmacy, camp staff did not give Billy the drug.

It was two days before he stopped acting drugged. The director and nurse found out later that it was phenobarbital, an old seizure medication with a sedative effect.

Billy had a huge stereo that he placed in the cabin next to his bed. He made a wall next to his bed with sheets and towels that he tucked under the mattress above him. He made it clear that the kid in the bed above should move, or he would "take care of him." Billy, though small in stature, was no slouch in the intimidation department. He could move kids with his eyes, which communicated more anger, hatred, and challenge than most adults could ever muster.

The counselors had tried to do all the right things, showing him around the camp to make him comfortable, helping him make his bed, and asking him about his interests and what he wanted out of camp.

He was easily frustrated and would curse immediately whenever one of his bunkmates challenged him in any way. One of his counselors confronted him about his behavior, and Billy came back swinging. The staff had to hold him in a safe restraint while he fought them for 20 minutes.

The staff had excellent training, but not for this extreme behavior. Despite this, they worked as a team to build a bridge of trust. The camp director and head counselor talked with Billy every morning and afternoon about his behavior and the director tried to locate his father. Finally, the father said that he would come to meet with the staff and see Billy; Billy seemed relieved to know his father was coming. At the appointed hour, his father did not arrive. Billy waited for three hours, well into the evening program, but his father never came.

Billy, finally convinced his father was not going to arrive, fell to the ground in full view of the camp, crying and beating his head on the ground. His counselors and the nurse spent the night holding him while he sobbed. He finally told them that the only way he got to see his father was by acting out and that he had been sexually abused by a teacher at his boarding school. The nurse and director carefully asked if they could help him, and Billy said "yes." He stayed at camp without further disruption and was attended to by experts in counseling and the state's child protection team. Billy was helped because the director, nurse, and staff saw that his behavior represented something more than being a "bad kid" or "unmanageable."

It is important that camps utilize community resources for specialized training and topics. By using these resources, camp leaders model and reinforce the idea that it's okay to ask others for help with a difficult issue. Also, having local resources present at staff training underscores how important it is to consider the widest ranges of responses. Further, the camp community will benefit because other professions will see camps reaching out and using appropriate professional resources.

RELATED ARTICLE: Behavior Agreements

by Rick Mason, director of Bearskin Meadow Camp, which serves children with diabetes

Administrators and supervisors can lighten counselors' burden of dealing with campers' difficult behavior by following these guidelines:

* Provide campers and parents with a set of written rules for behavior at camp before the camper arrives.

* Clearly map out steps for staff to take to support and supervise campers who have a hard time getting along or following the rules.

* Review camper applications and look for anything that sets off your alarm, including past experiences with a particular camper. Call parents and talk about the child with regard to your expectations. Build rapport right from the beginning.

* For each camper identified as needing special support, work out a plan with supervisors and counselors before the session begins. Discuss implementing, evaluating, and adjusting the plan.

* Ask supervisors to back up the plan 100 percent and to follow through consistently.

* Be a good teacher and model. People need to hear agreements many times, see the concepts in action in various situations, and discuss their implementation.

* Be open and available to staff, campers, and parents. Everyone is an integral part of a great camp experience.

Patrick McFarlane is the founder and president of ICARE/Chataqua Programs in Ann Arbor, Mich. He also has a private practice in therapy for adolescents.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Camping Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on behavior agreements
Author:McFarlane, Patrick S.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Los internacionales: working with international staff.
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