So I have a friend who’s currently working camp for the summer. Which camp you ask, any camp, lots of different camps. It doesn’t really matter except that it’s a community-based camp for all children. Currently; however, a camper manages to end up in challenging situations. Safety-concerning situations: wandering away from the group, attempting to swim without supervision, playing in unsafe areas, you know, the usual reasons professionals find it challenging to work camp.
The child is verbally warned, and then told directly which behaviors are unacceptable; however, when my friend tries to apply a consequence, the child immediately states, “Am I in trouble? Am I being punished?” to which other adults (i.e, counselors, 1:1 paraprofessionals, mental health supports) respond, “Of course not. No you’re not being punished. You’re not in trouble. It’s okay.”
Because of this consistent behavior chain a few things are happening:
1. My friend is increasingly frustrated and having negative interactions with the camper, as well as other camp staff.
2. The camper continues to maintain negative behaviors.
3. Other staff refuse to enforce the rules, creating inconsistency.
4. Other staff are increasingly frustrated with my friend, citing the child’s disability as the reason for the behavior.
What to do?
Well, this all boils down to the fact that children (including campers) need boundaries. Consistent expectations. Reasonable follow-through. Natural consequences, as appropriate. This particular camper is treading into dangerous natural consequences territory (i.e., being lost in the woods), making logical consequences a better choice (i.e., “You left the group, so you need to sit where I can see you.”
How do you deal with professionals who are more concerned about upsetting a child in the short-term, than about maintaining a child’s safety and teaching skills? I understand these particular professionals (hopefully) do not see the situation that way and are attempting to thwart a massive tantrum, but essentially, that’s the issue. “I’d rather the child be happy than safe.” I’m sure most staff would recognize how absurd this sounds, but they may not realize their actions in the moment are supporting this very principle.
1. Determine what’s important. A team (parent, staff, nurse, mental health team, crisis team, etc) meeting might be helpful to discuss the camper’s behavior and assess the top priorities (i.e., safety-related behaviors). Try to limit concerns to no more than 3. One priority to focus on is even better.
2. Decide, as a team, what the rules and consequences (and possible rewards) are for these behaviors. All adults need to handle behaviors in the same manner, even if that means that my friend’s approach needs to change. Develop a script if necessary- the more consistent the response the better.
3. Brief the camper or invite them to the team meeting, if appropriate. State clearly the expectations. “I know that sometimes you don’t like camp rules. You worry you’re in trouble. If you leave the safe area, you will need to sit with a counselor for safety. You might be in trouble for a few minutes. We will still like you and you can still come to camp. You cannot be unsafe at camp and you need to follow the rules.” This may be too much information for a child, so develop a brief script to meet your camper’s specific needs.
4. Implement the new, unified plan. Support staff implementation with consistency. Support camper compliance with visuals, if necessary, or review of the rules prior to tempting situations. Monitor progress and revisit as necessary.
Some of the most successful professionals I know do an excellent job of creating a team that truly feels responsible as a group. To the point that other students in the group can identify the rule, a crisis response plan, or support their peers. Nothing makes me as excited as hearing a child or camper say (appropriately), “Let’s all stay as a group so we’re safe.” Consistency in expectations does that and it’s a wonderful thing!
How do you address other professionals who may have different expectations or use a diagnosis as an excuse?