Sending fewer summer campers home, and sending those who can't stay home with love

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The hardest part about being a summer camp director, and how we prepare for it

ZWhether we'd like to admit it or not, at some point this summer, someone is going to ask, "Should we just send this kid home?" Heck, they might even storm into our office, and demand, "WE HAVE TO SEND THIS KID HOME!" Long conversations will be had, tears will be shed, and no one will feel good afterward.

I recently attended a terrific session by Scott Arizala and Dan Weir at the ACA TriState conference about sending kids home (click on Dan's name and scroll down to see their slides), and feeling the pain in the room as people wrestled with the ideas presented made me realize that this was a topic that simply needed to be unpacked.

Because here's the thing - if we admit to ourselves that these painful moments are coming, and begin the process of preparing for them right now, they can be a whole lot less painful. We may even be able to avoid them at all. Let's dive in.

Why we send kids home

This is the very most important thing to decide, as a camp, before your summer camp season begins. What, in your mind, is the purpose of sending kids home before their session is over?

In general, kids go home early for one of two reasons: 1) They've broken some policy. 2) They've asked to go home (quite vociferously).

We're going to deal with number 1 today, and deal with number 2 at a different time.

Sending kids home for policy violations, for many, is a black and white decision. You smoke pot at camp? You're going home. You punch someone else? Sorry, but you can't stay.

But, as Scott & Dan pointed out in their session, sometimes it ISN'T so black and white. Say a camper punched someone in the face, but that camper had just called him a racial slur. In those moments, it's key to remember why we're sending kids home. As in, how does it benefit our community and the campers involved to send someone home early?

When we see this problem through the lens of how we can benefit the people we are serving, it casts a lot of traditional reasons for sending campers home in a whole new light.

For instance, we never send campers home "because they broke the rules." Even the really serious ones. In order for us to send a camper home, we must answer "yes" to one of the following questions:

1) Are other campers clearly scared of having this person around based on this camper threatening or harming others already? As in, has he harmed someone, and do others feel concerned that he'll harm them again? 2) Are we scared that we won't be able to prevent this camper from hurting others going forward? 3) Are we unable to keep a camper from endangering himself? 4) Does this camper seem unable or unwilling to refrain from bullying behavior, in spite of our best efforts? 5) Is the camper putting the camp in dire legal risk by staying here?

If we've tried our best to make a situation work at camp, but STILL find ourselves answering "yes" to any of the above questions, then we will grudgingly remove a camper from our community.

Being able to answer in the affirmative to one of the above questions makes the whole process of removing someone from the community a lot smoother. The phone call with that camper's parents is rarely antagonistic. It's fairly easy to get a camper to see that we've run out of options.

Notice that we will never send a camper home for the following reasons:

1) To "teach that camper a lesson." 2) Because "rules are rules."

The above reasons are signs of a "zero tolerance policy." Organizations as far reaching as the NEA and APA have gone to great lengths to show why zero tolerance policies have failed our schools, so it stands to reason that they won't work in our camps, either.

Everything is a case by case basis, and must be treated as such. And if we force ourselves to wade through every decision with the utmost care, we can make decisions that make sense to parents, campers, and our staff members alike.

So how do we send kids home with ethical consistency, and even love?

Clear expectations

unicornI don't suspect I'll get a lot of objections to this one, but it bears a little fleshing out.

I think a lot of camps have rather clear "pack your bags" offenses. Drug use. Persistence Violence. Sex. The problem? All of those other expectations. It's why, at our summer camp in New Jersey, we've pared our list of rules down to just three:

1) Don't physically endanger anybody. 2) Don't tease/put people down, even a little bit. 3) Don't do anything illegal, or that would horrify your parents.

We start with these three, and get all campers to buy in. We explain that we're affording them a different level of trust than they may have been afforded elsewhere. They spend their time doing what they want, with whom they want, as long as they want. We tackle tangled logistical webs to afford them this opportunity. And for the most part, they take it seriously.

How does this effect sending kids home? Well, when you have three rules, no one can claim to have forgotten them. When you have fewer rules, kids don't have to hold a thousand different expectations in their mind.

When camper expectations are clearly explained and consensual, campers understand why they should follow them, not only that they should follow them (or else!).

Consistent follow-through

So, even in environments with relatively few community standards, summer campers will test the limits. This happens at nearly every camp, FAR in advance of discussions of sending kids home for behavioral reasons. And when it does? Consistency is key.

We do not let a single instance of even the lightest teasing go by unnoticed. It doesn't matter if the other person "doesn't care," from the teaser's perspective. We're going a week without teasing, to see how it goes. We offer gentle reminders that we're trying something new at camp, and need the teasing to stop. We demonstrate empathy by saying, "We know you all might be used to interacting with each other this way elsewhere, but ask that you not do it here." Our staff are consistent with this idea as well, and are expressly forbidden from being sarcastic with campers in ways that could be construed as teasing.

Consistency erases confusion, and makes future conversations easier.

Communicate with parents

sandraIf a camper needs more than a couple of reminders to treat others with kindness, we contact his parents.

If you're in the habit of communicating with parents already, these sorts of early-stage phone calls will seem natural (check out this article on important phone calls you might not be making for reference).

How do these phone calls go? Well, they aren't doom and gloom. They're casual - informational.

"Hey, Mrs. Allison! Travis is doing great. He seems to be having a lot of fun with the friends that he's been making, and he's REALLY loving the evening games."

"Oh, that's great to hear!"

"Yeah, the only small concern is that we've had to remind him a few times to try and refrain from teasing - but we're not worried. A lot of kids take a little while to shake that habit when they come to camp."

These types of calls are the precursor for future calls. And they may seem unnecessary, but I've found they are a HUGE help. If the rest of the week goes well, Travis' mom will forget all about the little teasing mention. But, if things continue to escalate, we'll have a reference point, and she won't feel blindsided.

Early communication is the key to helping parents understand why their kids have to leave camp early.

No parent is going to respond well to an out of the blue call about their child needing to leave camp early, but frequent communication can make things a LOT easier.

Furthermore, early calls establish that we want to be allies with parents in helping children - and they'll take future calls of an even more serious nature from us as calls from a partner of theirs, not as calls from people who "just don't get" their children.

When the shit hits the fan.

But, sometimes, there's no preparing for some huge blow-up. Things escalate in a cabin - maybe a counselor wasn't monitoring things as closely as he could have - and there's a huge fight. The whole community is shaken up. What do we do, now?

Well, I'd first revisit why we're thinking about sending someone home. Are we worried that it will happen again? Are campers scared of a singular, violent camper? Or was this just tempers flaring that could have been de-escalated if our counseling staff was more present?

If it's the latter, I'm not sending anyone home. I'm calling parents to apologize that our counselors didn't meet my expectations, not to tell them to pick up their kids.

But let's assume that we are worried that it will happen again, or that someone is feeling particularly bullied and upset. What now?

Investigating what happened

alexsmilesHopefully, you have a counselor who was a witness to whatever incident occurred. If you do, simply ask them.

If you don't? I'd argue that the details of what happened don't matter. Why? You'll never know for sure. Kids will naturally want to paint themselves in what they perceive to be the least offensive way possible. It's not malicious, or manipulative - it's a survival mechanism, and totally understandable.

That's why I'd recommend just getting the facts that everybody agrees on, and moving on. Everybody agrees there was a fight, but they disagree as to who started it. In this case, you don't know who started it.

I don't recommend investigations that involve camper eye-witness testimony because parents won't care what other people's kids say happened, and kids won't feel listened to if you don't believe them.

And you'll never know for sure. Adult eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable, especially when people have a vested interest in what happened. Camper eye-witness testimony, when they have friends involved? Not usually going to be reliable. The one exception I'd make is for situations where 12 people agree and 1 disagrees, but two parties disagreeing with one another? Not going to happen.

And again, I don't care what happened, I care about what might happen next. I care about how people feel. I care about how safe they feel, how worried they are this will happen again, and how well equipped my staff is to handle the situation.

When it's clear someone has to go home

Even with all of the best preventative measures in place, we'll occasionally run into a circumstance where we feel like someone can not persist as a safe member of our community. What do we do?

The final parent phone call

In most cases, you'll have formed a relationship with parents whose kids are candidates to be sent home early. It's exceedingly rare that a camper will go from "no problems" to "going home" in one instance, so this call will be a follow-up, rather than a blind-siding.

We start by explaining that the camper is safe, physically, but that things have transpired that concern us.

We share the objective facts in the instance that everyone agrees on (or that a counselor observed).

And then we explain that the camper can not persist as a member of the community, and why this is the case.

"Jack's counselor observed him hitting James again, and at this point, we do not feel secure in the fact that Jack will not continue to hit others going forward."

"Laura continues to leave her cabin in the middle of the night, and we are not staffed to keep her safe and securely in her cabin while meeting the requirements of our fire code."

"Travis continues to seek out James and put him down, and in spite of our best efforts, we are not confident that we can keep James emotionally safe while Travis is here this week."

Phrasing things in these ways answers most of parents' objections before they can make them. If we are sending kids home based on things that have happened that they acknowledge or our counselors have observed, and for the reason that we fear these sorts of behaviors will continue, parents tend to be pretty understanding.

And sometimes they are scared, and upset. It's at these times that we can empathize with them in the same ways we do with the kids. If we've established with them that we are allies in raising their kids, and not people who "don't understand" their kids, they may turn to us for guidance or reassurance.

While parents are on their way

Scott and Dan talked quite a bit during their presentation about what to do with parents who are reluctant or unable to come get their kids, but I won't focus on that here, since this article is already quite long.

Instead, I want to focus on making the transition from camp to home as painless as possible. I'll explain to the camper that they are loved, and that our actions don't represent a belief that the camper is a bad person. And again - if I'm sending a camper home based on events that they acknowledge happened (or that a counselor observed), and for reasons that coincide with the few expectations I placed on them earlier in the week, they tend to raise fewer objections.

If they're not devastated, we'll have staff help them pack their bags, and just talk normally with them as though it were the last day of camp. What will you do when you get home? Is there anything you're looking forward to? We hope to see you next year!

If they are devastated, we'll talk with them in the same way we would if they were homesick. "I know this must be really hard. It's okay to cry." We don't have a policy that prevents campers from coming back in the future, so we'll let them know: "A year is a long time. If you want to come back next year, we'd love to see you again. We believe that you can overcome whatever caused you to act in these ways this year, and would love to help you do so back at camp next summer."

When the parents arrive

We'll wait with campers right up until the moment someone comes to get them, and greet the parents warmly. If we've handled things well to this point, they will understand that we also care about their children, and that we're taking these measures only as a final step, and not hastily.

We remind them of our policy that kids can always return the following summer, and remind them of all of the successes their child had during the week. We'll let them know that we believe in their child, and that we can't wait to see the learning that takes place as a result of what happened.

And parents appreciate it. Here's a testimonial we got from the parent of the only camper we sent home for disciplinary reasons in 2012:

"What a blessing [camp] has been for our family. I don’t know of any other place that would hear of three kids, one a little young for a typical camp and another with special needs, and open their arms as wide as they can get to welcome all three. The staff make an impact on everyone they come in contact with. From the bottom of our heart we thank you for giving our children a camp they can call home. A place to run to when school lets out. A place where they can be themselves because they know they are embraced regardless. The kids are already planning to return next year."

Camp is hard

If you're not a camp director, you don't know how hard camp can be. And sending kids home is the very hardest part. We don't get the fancy office at camp and a walkie-talkie (some rewards, I know) because we can do the easy stuff. It's because we're the best equipped to do the really hard stuff. I, for one, am glad we have people like you on the front lines doing this incredibly hard and important work every day.

If you ever want a little bit of extra support, or ideas, or inspiration - we'd love to see you inside Go Camp Pro. Membership costs less than any major camping conference, and we're supporting each other all year long. Check out this page for more information.

We actually have an editable document on our resources page in there that contains a pared down version of this post that you can use in your staff manuals, as well!

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