In the context of working with youths in the summer camp setting, staff members at all levels are often confronted with challenging situations. The cabin counselor is generally the person in the field who feels the pressure to respond with immediacy. The general approach to situations that cause discomfort is to identify the problem as quickly as possible and then try to solve it. However, there is an alternative, and more positive, way to approach challenging situations in the camp setting.
One of the roles of the effective counselor is helping youths connect with their ability to find their own solutions to difficult situations. By doing so, we help campers gain confidence in themselves and in their own abilities.
Here are some guidelines that can be helpful when the counselor identifies an unhappy camper or confronts conflict between campers:
- Focus on the camper. When a camper is upset, he should be the focus of the counselor's attention. It is important to show an interest in the person(s) "beyond the problem." Campers need to be listened to.
- Be on the camper's side. Campers have to know beyond a doubt that the counselor is on their side and have their best interests at heart.
- Be respectful. It is critical to be respectful of campers and to try and understand their view of what is going on.
- Identify what is working. It is important that the counselor help campers identify what is going well and what is working.
- Be hopeful. The counselor needs to remember that when things look bleak, they can and do get better.
- Determine what the camper wants. The counselor should help campers identify what they would like to see happen. When they know what it is they want, the counselor can help them figure out what needs to be done to get there.
- Identify strengths. It is important to focus on the camper's strengths, resources, and skills. If we look, we can always find situations in which the camper has succeeded.
- Determine what has worked before. The counselor should help campers identify the ways in which they've successfully handled situations in the past.
- Give positive feedback. It is important for the counselor to acknowledge when a camper cooperates with his/her attempts to help him/her.
It can be especially challenging for the counselor to help a camper identify his/her own inner resources when he/she has negative feelings about the situation the camper is in. The counselor may be feeling frustrated and pessimistic, and that "it's not worth the effort." However, this is often the best time to take a new approach and to view the situation through a "strengths-based lens."
By reframing from "problem" to "strength," the counselor may find that he/she is able to identify clues to making progress. And by thinking in a more constructive way, the counselor may find him/herself more understanding and accepting of the camper. When the counselor becomes more accepting, the camper will become more accepting of him/herself and better able to find the resources to move towards a solution. When we, as staff members, connect positively with campers, recognizing their potential and strengths, they feel more able to focus on goals and what they would like to change.
In the camp setting, we use the modality of the group to foster growth, and therefore it makes sense to recognize the conflicts that arise within the group as opportunities for both individual and group development. Opportunities motivate us and foster change; obstacles lead to stagnation and deterioration.
The following principles of solution-focused group work can be easily applied to our work in the camp setting:
Focus on change and possibilities.
Coming to camp is a change in all of our lives. Even if we return summer after summer, each summer is unique. And for all of us, leaving home and coming together in the camp setting involves a change in daily routine, interpersonal relationships, and personal space. We come together with different behaviors, expectations, value systems and norms, and create new groups. Each member of the cabin group impacts on every other member, and after the group has established itself, every change in a group member affects all of the others. In times of conflict, implementing change is critical. By focusing on change, we create possibilities. By focusing on possibilities, we enable change.
Creating goals and preferred futures.
It is important for us to remember that all problems can be transformed into goals. If what we're doing isn't working, we need to do something different. We can learn from what we've been doing that has been creating difficulties, and we can create preferred scenarios for ourselves. When campers articulate goals for their group, it is important to be supportive.
However, we need to be sure that the defined goals benefit the entire group. It is important to help the cabin group define itself in terms of shared goals and group strengths rather than the difficulties it may have caused in the past. Focusing on doing better energizes and empowers the group.
Building on strengths, skills, and resources.
In working with the cabin as a group, it is essential to focus on the strengths and resources of the group if we want it to succeed. Whatever we focus on as counselors is what we reinforce in the group. If we focus on deficits and weaknesses, we are undermining the ability of the group to function in positive ways. When campers solve problems together and create changes in response to difficulties they encounter in living and getting along together, it is because of their strengths, and not their weaknesses.
An important skill that helps us focus on strengths is "reframing." This is a skill which helps us generate new descriptions of situations and behaviors. Reframing helps us to perceive situations in a different way, highlighting the positive, and therefore generating ideas for possible solutions. Each cabin group has its own unique character and identity. It is important for us to identify and give feedback on the collective group strengths and skills. Constructive feed-back helps build group cohesion, as well as mobilize the unique resources within the group.
Looking for "what's right" and "what's working."
Too often counselors get caught up in "problems" and everything that's not going well. They find themselves overwhelmed by the camper who doesn't fit in, by conflicts that pop up in the cabin, and by camper resistance to counselor expectations. These are the moments when it is critical to remember that most of the time things are going well. If we look at difficult and uncomfortable situations as "bumps in the road" and don't define "problems" as the identity of the group, we will find ourselves coping in a much more effective manner. When campers begin to complain about everything that's not going their way, help them refocus on what is going their way. When they say they're bored with evening activities, help them focus on what they'd like to plan as a group that would be fun for everyone. When the counselor feels discouraged because campers are not listening, it is important to remember the times they do listen and identify what he/she did that encouraged them to listen.
|Becoming a Solution Detective: Identifying Your Clients’ Strengths in Practical Brief Therapy, John Sharry, Brendan Madden, Melissa Darmody, Haworth Press, 2003
|Solution-Focused Groupwork, John Sharry, SAGE Publications, 2001
Being respectfully curious.
When the cabin group is upset, it's important to listen and to validate campers' feelings. But it is also important to distinguish between feelings and judgments. It is useful to ask constructive questions that will help you understand what's going on. There are several kinds of questions that are especially effective:
- Goal-setting questions — What would they like to see happen?
- Miracle questions — If a miracle happened and the situation suddenly changed, what would it look like?
- Exception questions — When doesn't the problem/conflict occur?
- Coping questions — When a camper (or group of campers) feels overwhelmed by a difficult situation, is feeling pessimistic about the outcome, or is experiencing feelings of powerlessness, it is important to acknowledge the reality of the difficulty as well as attempting to help him/her see what he/she is already doing to deal with and manage the problem. Counselors can ask questions like: what kinds of things are you doing to help yourself feel better about what's going on; who is most helpful to you in dealing with this issue; even though the problem seems so tough you still manage to go to activities — what gives you the strength to keep on going; what have you tried to do so far that was helpful in lessening the problem; have you had problems like this before that you were able to solve and what helped you to solve them?
- Scaling questions — When goals that groups (or individuals) set for themselves seem far away and unreachable, it is helpful to break them down into manageable steps. This can make goals more achievable and also help campers identify when progress has been made and to give them the incentive to keep working towards the greater goal. One way of doing this is by asking where they are on a scale of one to ten, with one being the farthest possible distance from the goal, and ten being the full achievement of the goal. Or, one might be the worst things have been and ten the best they could possibly be.
Creating cooperation and collaboration.
It is most helpful if the counselor assumes that kids want to do well and get along with each other. It is important to recognize conflict is inherent in group processes, but that conflicts can be resolved in healthy and collaborative ways. It is up to the counselor to take the lead in creating an expectation of cooperation and assuming the best of kids and not the worst. To create an environment of cooperation and collaboration, we really have to be willing to listen to what kids are saying and not act as if we have all the answers. They're the experts about what they're feeling. Our role as counselors is to help facilitate positive change. Telling kids what they ought to be feeling or yelling at them to get their act together, doesn't work.
Using humor and creativity.
Counselors need to remember to have fun with their cabin — after all, that's why campers come to camp. A healthy sense of humor (never at anyone else's expense) engenders good feelings that open the way for creative energy.
|Norman, Elaine (2000). "The Strengths Perspective and Resiliency Enhancement: A Natural Partnership", in Elaine Norman (editor) Resiliency Enhancement: Putting the Strength Perspective Into Social Work Practice, Columbia University Press.
|Phillips, Michael H. and Cohen, Carol S. (2000). "Strength and Resiliency Themes in Social Work Practice with Groups", in Elaine Norman (editor) Resiliency Enhancement: Putting the Strength Perspective Into Social Work Practice, Columbia University Press.
|Sharry, J., Madden, B., & Darmody, M. (2003). Becoming a Solution Detective: Identifying Your Clients' Strengths in Practical Brief Therapy. Haworth Press.
|Sharry, J. (2001). Solution-Focused Groupwork. SAGE Publications.
Minda Garr, M.S.W., has been on the faculty of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1981 as a lecturer in social work practice courses and academic advisor of the school. Since 1979, Garr has spent her summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as camp social worker and staff trainer.
Originally published in the 2005 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.