Summer camp offers children a chance to explore and experience freedom. While that sense of independence is one of the best parts of camp, it can also lead to misbehavior. That’s why every summer camp must have a clearly defined behavior policy.
Setting behavior guidelines
Your guidelines for behavior and discipline should be spelled out clearly for campers, staff, and parents and guardians. Keep in mind that children like to test limits, and with the sense of freedom they feel at camp, they may try to push those limits further than they do at home. But rules and limits are essential for the smooth running of your camp as well as for campers themselves. Children want and need ground rules to feel secure. So you should make your expectations clear at the outset.
Elements of a good behavior management policy
Here’s how to develop a policy that respects the freedom campers feel at camp and treats them fairly, while promoting better behavior for all campers.
A camp behavior policy isn’t so different from what children are used to in school. For example, campers should be respectful of other campers and staff, follow staff instructions, participate in planned activities, maintain good hygiene, and clean up after themselves.
A good policy will also typically forbid certain behaviors, such as
- Threatening others
- Using profanity
- Stealing or damaging camp property or the property of others
- Leaving a program or activity without permission
- Endangering anyone’s health or safety
- Smoking tobacco products or using e-cigarettes
- Using alcohol or drugs
- Sexual conduct
- Bringing weapons onto camp property
Fighting and bullying
Physical fights need special attention. You may need to take immediate action, such as separating the combatants and getting a nurse to see to minor injuries. One way or another you’ll need to enforce a cool-down period.
After that, talk to each camper separately about what caused the fight. Don’t rush to blame anyone; get all sides of the issue, try to find and resolve the underlying cause, and when things have settled down, work with the campers together to help them put their differences aside and make up. Your calm, rational example should help.
Campers also have the right to feel safe from bullying. When you observe or hear about bullying, address it as soon as you can. Believe the reports. Remind the perpetrator of your camp’s anti-bullying policy and explain in no uncertain terms that you’ll enforce it.
The disciplinary process
You policy should also include a disciplinary process. Usually this begins with a verbal warning, preferably on a one-to-one basis so you don’t embarrass the camper. Stay calm and clearly explain that the camper has broken a rule and acted inappropriately. Allow a response; there’s usually a reason behind the misbehavior. Learning the cause may help you keep it from recurring.
If the behavior continues, you might then proceed to a mild punishment. This could be a time-out (time away from the group), a withholding of privileges, or removal from a group activity for a day.
If misbehavior continues, sending a report to the parent or guardian might be the logical next step. Beyond that, a conference with the parent or guardian and counselor might be needed, and if all else fails, there is suspension or expulsion from camp.
Remember to be impartial. Apply the rules consistently and fairly.
Along the way, remember that positive reinforcement can be more powerful than punishment. When you observe campers behaving well, getting along, and having fun responsibly, point it out and praise them for it.
Counselors are often very young themselves and may have little or no experience leading groups or maintaining discipline. So you need to have a behavior policy for staff too.
You may want to set forth in writing rules against certain behaviors (for example, raids, sexual activity, smoking, alcohol, and drugs). Counselors and counselors-in-training should also be clear that they may not discipline campers with corporal punishment, physical restraint, forced physical exercise, shaming, or deprivation of a basic necessity like food, sleep, or use of the restroom.
Before you register any campers, carefully develop your behavior policy, write it down, and communicate it to anyone who is interested in registering. Train your staff so they fully understand the policy. Then, when campers arrive, make sure you clearly explain all aspects of the policy so campers know the ground rules from the start.
A good behavior policy is key to a fun and rewarding experience for all campers. Be sure to make it part of your planning.