Bullying at Camp

Summer camp was a big part of my childhood. When I think back to my experiences at sleep-away camp, I remember a clear line between the camp with an atmosphere of safety and kindness and the camp with an atmosphere of recklessness and cruelty. At the first camp, the counselors knew us and related to us with warmth and care. At the other, the counselors were distracted and distanced from us. At the first, camp life was full of engaging activities that emphasized working together. At the other, activities were mostly competitive and there were large swaths of time when we could wander in the woods and stir up trouble. One place felt safe and inclusive. At the other, bullying thrived.

Yesterday, while rock climbing at a local crag, I listened in as some girls, climbing with their summer camp group, chatted about bullying. “I don’t bully,” said one girl. “Neither do I,” said the other. “I wouldn’t have called her those names if she’d said she didn’t like it,” continued the first. “Obviously,” they said in unison, rolling their eyes.

The implication, “It’s her fault because she didn’t speak up,” encapsulates so much about bullying behaviors. Children with social power use mean words to belittle and exclude. The child who is targeted is pushed to the bottom of the social pecking order. It’s hard to speak up when you’re at the bottom. Meanwhile, the children who are bullying feel blameless.

My guess is that the girls were talking about bullying because their counselors had been working on bullying prevention. Perhaps they’d had a bullying prevention program at camp the night before. A program about bullying prevention may be a helpful part of a coordinated bullying prevention effort, but it’s not enough to stop bullying.

What it takes to prevent bullying at camp is not much different than what’s involved in bullyproofing elementary classrooms and schools. It’s still a job for adults. We adults who work with children must build relationships with the children we work with. We can and must create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance. We must also provide lots of activities for children to engage in, activities that build a sense of collaboration.

Earlier this summer I read an article in the Ontario Globe and Mail by Joann Kates, director of Camp Arowhon in the beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park. In the article, Ms. Kates describes the way the staff at Arowhon pays, “daily attention to kids’ relationships in a structured and planned way.” Ms. Kates talks with the whole camp about the importance of a sense of safety at camp. Cabins have bedtime circles where children share experiences. Counselors map the social landscape of the camp by surveying children once every two weeks to find out who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Counselors act to bring the children who appear to be “out” into the social web of the camp.  The staff at Arowhon is collaborating to keep camp safe. What a powerful example of how to prevent bullying!

Caltha Crowe’s new book, How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, offers a practical, proactive approach to bullying prevention. Learn how to create a positive classroom environment and how to respond to mean behavior before it escalates into bullying.

“Teacher-friendly from start to finish!”  —Martha Hanley, Grafton, MA

Caltha Crowe is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher with nearly forty years of experience teaching elementary school students and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. She is the author of three books: Sammy and His Behavior Problems (NEFC 2010), Solving Thorny Behavior Problems (NEFC 2009), and How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.

Tags: Bullying, Summer