Backpack Basics: Packing the Essentials into Summer Staff Training

Many of us look forward to summer, especially in Wisconsin. It means longer days, warmer weather, and for some, summer camp! Whatever summer camp means to you - day or overnight camp, wilderness trips, school-based programs, etc., camp can be a positive and life-changing experience for campers and staff when designed and implemented with intentionality. 

Now you might be thinking, life-changing for staff? Aren’t they the ones in charge of making it life changing for children? While the answer is yes, many of our staff are often new or have limited experience in this space. Staff rarely come to us fully trained and well-versed in their job. To complicate matters even more, recent studies and polling suggest that “soft skills” (interpersonal skills, communication, relationship building, critical thinking, etc.) are more important now than ever in the workforce but employers are seeing large gaps in these skills in employees. Relationship building is just one core element to success when working with children. Knowing how to lead a craft activity is important, but getting your campers to listen, manage their behavior, and understand their needs are all a part of making that activity work. If staff had been coming in with a deficit in that area, imagine how the last few years have exacerbated that issue. The changing landscape of more opportunities for work/school from home, zoom calls, and limited daily interaction with actual humans, it’s no wonder our “soft skills” have taken a step back. Remember the first time you interacted with someone in a social setting after Covid restrictions started loosening? Woof. It was a little awkward and strange at best. So now consider how our campers and staff may have continued to be limited in their in-person interactions because, at times, it is easier, costs less, and is more convenient. In addition, I have been hearing that along with having a hard time interacting with others and building relationships, staff often do not have “basic” skills like how to clean, follow a schedule, or maintain healthy sleeping habits. That is a lot to think about. 

So, what do we do? Throw our hands up, declare everything is awful and we can’t possibly do all this? No…. (although tempting at times, please do not do this, we need you). What we can do is, take a step back and realize that our staff have changed, and we have to change along with them in the way we train. It is on us as administrative leadership staff to make sure they have the tools needed to succeed during the summer. We can’t run summer programs without staff, and we know they are looking to us to help get them where they need to be so they can do some life changing with campers - and themselves. 

Where do we start?

Assess where your staff have struggled in the past few years

  • Where do their struggles stem from?
  • Did your training address just the hard skills of that area? Could you have added hands- on training with “soft” skills within that training?

Evaluate your staff training

  • What can be done before the program starts? What must be done on site?
  • Can you use outside trainers to teach this skill?
  • Is there an opportunity to observe certain skills, activities, etc. to see good work in action?
  • Who has the leadership within your organization/team that you trust to lead training?
  • Consider different types of training to accommodate all learners (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, read/write)
  • How will you check that they are learning and progressing in their skills?
  • Ask the staff what they need guidance in to be successful this summer. Model asking for help.

Tap into a former staff member/alumni for mentorship opportunities

  • Can you set up a mentorship program within your staffing structure before camp starts? During and after summer?

Consider what training should be followed up on daily, weekly and monthly

  • Is there a time within your summer schedule for an in-service? What do you do to address midsummer challenges with staff that you trained on earlier in the summer?

Evaluate your training

  • What evaluation of your training do your staff complete to know that the training and feedback has been effective?
  • Be transparent about why this is important and what you do to build on their feedback.

Follow up with staff after summer is over

  • Retention of staff takes time and effort but can lead to big results
  • Following up with staff after summer can allow you to gauge if they have taken the skills that they have learned with you back into their world and what has been successful and what needs more improvement.
  • Offer mentoring, resume review, or references

There is a lot to consider when building a training program for your staff. Taking a few areas to address each summer, can make the process more manageable and less overwhelming. Consider investigating different resources to supplement your training from Wisconsin Afterschool Network, American Camp Association, YMCA, etc.  Gather with other youth development programs to tag team training as well as provide networking opportunities for staff. But no matter what or how you do it, make it intentional, fun, and accessible. The time you put into your staff, will not only help them, but will allow for better relationships with their campers and connection with their families. Thank you for making a difference.



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