Having the Right Stuff: Hiring High-Quality Summer Camp Staff

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Chenine PeloquinCamping can have lasting impact on the youth participating, and it is therefore critical that those interested in working in the field and the managers responsible for bringing counselors on board are clear on what it takes to make camp a positive and engaging experience for children and youth.

It is helpful to distinguish between trait and skill when thinking about employment characteristics. We often mistake the two. A trait is something connected to the person themselves, a part of personality that has developed through a lifetime of experience such as being extroverted, hard-working or conscientious. Traits are difficult to change.

Skills, on the other hand, are what a person can be taught to do. For example, camp counselors can be taught to lead group games, model respectful communication, encourage participation and do accurate head-counts. Some of these skills can be taught and developed during the course of the summer, and others are critical on day one.

There is broad agreement on a set of traits that contribute to being a good camp counselor. Good counselors show high levels of leadership (will take a stand for something that is right, even if it’s unpopular); extraversion (sociable, outgoing and expressive); creativity (can improvise when an activity falls apart) and agreeableness (cooperative, helpful, generally interact with others in a positive manner). High-quality counselors are nurturing (put the needs of others ahead of one’s own, in addition to providing warmth and encouragement) and have a strong work drive (follow through on commitments and are willing to do the work, even when conditions are less than ideal).

With these traits in mind, in order to target the highest-quality camp counseling staff, camp managers can create competency-based interview questions that will help assess these qualities in their candidates during the interview process. In addition, validated personality tests have been suggested for use as a part of the hiring process as a way to take some of the subjectivity out of interviewing and selection.

Before any recruitment effort, organizations must be clear about the traits and skills required for staff to be successful in their program, fully versed in the tasks of the job itself and then communicate those to the people who screen and hire applicants.

[Related: In Rural America, High Poverty, High Need for After-school Programs]

Managers must start by taking a critical look at their program: What are the goals? What are the required skills? Which can be included in orientation training, and which should staff be expected to already possess? Taking some time to think carefully about counselors from the previous season can be a helpful exercise.

Which traits have consistently been critical to success of the program, and which have been a struggle to work with or around? Which traits make this a better experience for everyone involved: administrators, other staff, parents and the youth themselves? What are the daily expectations for staff? Tasks such as getting in the pool every day, singing songs in front of groups and engaging in activities with the youth can become points of contention later. These expectations have to be clear and perhaps even signed off by the staff.

Adopting a set of standards is critical for camp leaders to develop an objective hiring process, and tremendous resources already exist. The National Afterschool Association (NAA) published a comprehensive set of Core Knowledge and Competencies for after-school and youth development professionals that clearly outlines these skills and more, for entry-level through seasoned professionals.

The level-one competencies in each of 10 content areas can greatly inform the process of hiring new counselors (and certainly the higher levels for additional staff positions as needed). In addition, the NAA assessment tools based on these competencies can help staff identify areas for professional development, both for orientation and as the summer progresses.

The American Camp Association has also defined 13 core competencies for camp staff. These competencies or standards help take the subjectivity out of the process, and can help guide recruitment and hiring. Hiring managers must be made aware of these identified traits and skills, and committed to finding the best people available at that time to match the program’s goals and needs.

As a field, we have to do better at taking a more resourceful approach to hiring, utilize the research on core knowledge and competencies that has already been collected and organized, make use of tools that help to identify key traits that link with success in a particular program, and be explicit in communicating roles, expectations and responsibilities to potential staff. By taking a planful approach to the recruitment and hiring process, camp leaders can improve program quality overall, quality our youth deserve.

Chenine Peloquin, CTRS, is a graduate intern at the National Institute on Out-Of-School Time who is pursuing her master’s degree in the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Her work centers around access to quality play experiences for all youth.