Collaborative Problem Solving: Counselors Learn New Approaches to Managing Camper Conflict

The camp experience offers youngsters a broad range of benefits. Campers make friends, live in Maine’s natural beauty, and both learn new skills and advance the abilities they bring to camp. Teambuilding, collaboration, and developing independence are all part of the equation. But as camp leaders, counselors, and campers all know, camp can also involve conflict. Whether it’s sharing living space, feeling bullied or teased, or dealing with hurt feelings, campers don’t always get along.

It’s often the job of counselors to address these disagreements, to help campers not only feel heard, but to achieve a satisfying resolution.

On July 9, more than 60 counselors and counselor candidates from seven Maine youth camps benefited from the expertise of renowned camp consultant and Phillips Exeter Academy faculty member Chris Thurber, Ph.D. Thurber’s credentials include more than three decades of service at New Hampshire’s Camp Belknap, co-founder of the online camp instructional program Expert Online Training, and many years of teaching and supporting youngsters at Phillips Exeter. In an afternoon workshop at girls’ Camp Wawenock in Raymond, Thurber presented an interactive workshop entitled “Collaborative Problem Solving: Overcoming Skills Deficits to Durably Prevent Problem Behavior.”

Counselors from Camp Runoia, Camp Wawenock, Winona Camps, Camp OATKA, Camp Timanous, Wohelo Camps, and Wyonegonic Camps had the chance to work together to discuss and practice the problem solving strategies that Thurber presented.

“We’re giving you practice with skills or endowing you with a new set of skills to add to your repertoire,” Thurber said.

As Thurber explained to the young men and women gathered in Ussher Lodge, collaborative problem solving differs from approaches that use rewards and punishments in addressing behavior. It promotes “durable change” in problem solving abilities. And it does so, Thurber explained, by teaching essential skills.

In groups of three and four, the workshop participants worked together to identify the conflicts campers sometimes face. And in role-playing exercises, Thurber helped the participants work through the problem solving steps, perhaps different from the conflict resolution strategies with which they were familiar.

The top priority, Thurber shared with participants, is to keep kids safe – through some form of intervention. But youngsters’ needs demand other behaviors by counselors, he said. Counselors need to speak calmly and must “provide genuine empathy.” Youngsters may not be accustomed to this approach, Thurber said. The extension of empathy by leadership in the context of conflict may seem unusual.

In their first role-play, group members enacted a scene of conflict, and one member approached them expressing empathy. Thurber said the simple statement of empathy, without the offer of any advice or solution, helps to lay the initial groundwork for effective problem solving.

“No one wants advice until they feel understood,” Thurber told the group. Statements such as “I can understand that you’re frustrated,” or “I understand you’re upset,” can set the tone for effective resolution, he said.

“Kids aren’t expecting empathy,” Thurber said. In fact, he said, youngsters’ default responses are often that if a grown-up wants to spend time with them, they assume they are “in trouble.”

Empathy is neither a lecture nor a consequence, he said.

The problem solving strategy then prompts the counselor to ask the campers what they want and need. Identifying such wants and needs is best achieved by simply posing the question to all campers involved, Thurber said.

It is also important to note the potential trigger for campers’ behavior, as well as any skills deficits. As the creators of the Collaborative Problem Solving model – Harvard’s Ross W. Greene and J. Stuart Ablon – have asserted, campers may have difficulty regulating emotions, labeling their emotions, or making thoughtful decisions.

Counselors should also state what they want and need, Thurber said, as well as propose a “win-win” solution to the conflict. Finally, it is appropriate to consider skills deficits, he said.

This model of resolving conflict is effective for a variety of reasons, Thurber said. A major factor is the fact that it provides the individuals in conflict with a “sense of agency and ownership.”

Rather than telling youngsters that they’ll face punishment or consequence, Thurber said “It is more attractive to say to kid, ‘what you want is reasonable and we will work hard to be sure you get it.’”

And while collaborative problem solving takes time, it has long-term benefits that other strategies might lack.

“What you’re teaching them about conflict resolution is going to stick – there won’t always be a staff member there,” Thurber said.

Conflict at camp – just like that at home or school – is an inevitable outcome of living in community. Whether it arises on the sports field, in the cabin or dining hall, or during unstructured play time, conflict among campers can serve as an opportunity to learn new skills and grow emotionally and intellectually. Thurber’s presentation gave participants a different look at approaching camper conflict. He taught them how to collaborate with youngsters to achieve a satisfactory resolution to immediate conflict, but Thurber also shared the value of teaching youngsters range of skills that can minimize future disagreements.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.