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Mark Shinar
Coach, Consultant, Author: Practicing Authentic Living and Leadership

Training camp counselors to choose kind

Being in camp for the summer, I train older teens to be counselors for younger children, ages 8-14. Training staff is most effective here because the counselors have immediate opportunities to implement strategies and ideas, seeing them play out in real time. Take, for example, when we encourage teens to give their campers choices, thereby giving the children agency over their experiences which isn’t always the case in camp where kids have to follow a preset schedule and travel by bunk from location to location. 

When we do our case scenarios, I present a young camper who, despite being woken up several times, will not get out of bed, even though davening starts in 5 minutes. In some places, it wouldn’t be unheard of for counselors to try to wake him up by using a string of unkind and disrespectful tactics. At best, we might see counselors yelling at or threatening the child with the loss of certain activities or privileges. At worst, we could imagine teens pouring cold water on his head or flipping his mattress over while he’s still on it. What we know, of course, and what we clearly teach our young leaders is that strategies like these are not just unacceptable and dangerous, they are also entirely counterproductive. 

That’s why we talk to our counselors about the power of choices and how providing them to children creates a healthier, more cooperative culture. Let’s take a look at our camper again. We ask our counselors to approach each child with a great deal of empathy, kindness and respect. Most teens can empathize with not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, so we encourage them to take on the perspectives and needs of their campers, staying far away from judgment. Ideally, the camper would get out of bed when asked, but when that doesn’t happen, the counselors now have the opportunity to flex some new hadrakha skills by giving him some choices. 

Imagine, I tell the counselors, entrusting the camper with your personal watch and saying to him, “I am going to davening now because I need to be with the children who are in the right place at the right time. I understand it’s hard for you. Here, take my watch. You have 10 minutes. Bring it back to me by then; I will be so happy to see you. You can also choose not to come at all, and although I’ll still be happy to see you later, there will also be a consequence. I leave the choice entirely up to you.”

In my experience, the child, having been given the autonomy of choice without being cornered into a power struggle, will usually choose to comply. Simultaneously, the counselor has built an even more trusting relationship with the child while letting him save face and take some control over the situation. Sometimes, a child chooses to stay in bed. That’s when I encourage the counselor not to get angry or discouraged, despite the disappointment. We can’t give children choices and then get upset because they “chose wrong.” 

Recently, a counselor came up to me and told me that she had tried my “choices thing,” and it didn’t work at all. I asked her to explain. “Well,” she said, “I had a camper who wouldn’t wake up in the morning, so I did exactly what you told me to do.

“I told the girl,” she continued, “that she had two choices. She could either come with me now, or she could stay in bed and sleep. And the kid just stayed in bed! Can you believe it?” 

I could believe it. The teen and I spent some time unpacking the situation and how she might sharpen the choices she offers her young camper the next time around. The whole thing was very sweet, and although she was met with better results the following morning, that wasn’t really the goal. When it comes to the work that we do with children, whether they are 8 or 18, it’s kindness and compassion that rule the day. On that, there really is no choice.

About the Author
Dr. Mark Shinar is an educational coach, consultant, speaker and author. He earned his BA from Yeshiva University with an English Literature and Theater degree and completed a Masters degree in Private School Administration from Columbia University Teachers’ College. He taught General Studies and English Literature in SAR Academy’s elementary and middle schools before becoming Head of School at Oakland Hebrew Day School in Oakland, CA. There, he earned an Ed. D in School Leadership from Mills College. Mark returned to NY in 2009 to serve as the Director of General Studies at SAR High School for eight years, before making Aliyah with his family in the summer of 2017. Mark was the founding principal of an independent, bilingual school located in the center of Israel and most recently, he was the Head of School at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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