Summer Camp and Social and Emotional Learning: Tips for Building the Summer Camp Staff Everyone Expects (or at least one you can talk to)

Screenshot: Ramah Day Camp.

By Josh Sterling Friedman

[The following is part of an essay series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Jewish education presenting low-barrier methods for infusing SEL into the work of Jewish educators. These ideas are stepping stones on the path to creating a more comprehensive and coordinated SEL approach. If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance your work with SEL in your educational setting, congregation, organization, etc., we encourage you to contact the authors. The series is edited by Joey Eisman (Teachers College, Columbia) and Dr. Jeffrey Kress (William Davidson School – JTS).]

Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL, refers to learning about ‘the things that make us human.’ How to connect and work with others, how to regulate our own internal mental and emotional lives, and how to leverage our ‘soft skills’ to get the ‘real work’ done. Social and Emotional competencies are expressed and needed in the hevrutah as well as in the hallway. The following article provides an SEL approach to the process of staffing summer camp in order to bring staff members to camp with appropriate expectations and grounded intentions for community building and the improvement of self-regulation and conflict resolution at camp. Like many areas of SEL, the power in this technique is in building an entirely different foundation from the beginning on which to rely throughout the summer.

Throughout the years, I have been staffed, requested staff of certain kinds, and helped to hire staff. It occurred to me at one point that after the interview with the prospective staff member, typically, the staff member thinks no more about their role, and the hiring manager no more about that staff member, until the time for ‘placement’ occurs: to a bunk, to co-counselor’s, to activities, to committees, etc. After this point, it is often too late to appropriately frame expectations for the staff member and their supervisor, and harmful assumptions consequently proliferate quickly. I would like to suggest an SEL technology that could help both parties avoid assumptions and generate not only expectations but purposeful intentions: The Specific Growth Interview.

What is a Specific Growth Interview?

A Specific Growth Interview (SGI) is an intentionally designed structure for interviewing prospective staff members that focuses the conversation on three areas: 1) an ideal candidate for the job, 2) the differences between the prospective staff member and the ideal candidate, and 3) the road to minimizing those differences. Throughout, the focus is on the staff member’s own social and emotional growth and their role of promoting growth among campers. The SGI should help answer the essential question: What does this person need to be successful at camp this summer? In order to answer this question in an SGI, two tools are needed ahead of time: Job Descriptions, and Growth Statements.

The Social and Emotional Job Description

Job Descriptions are statements written by the professional, director level staff that describe the qualities and behaviors of the ideal candidate for the position. For example, a job description for a gymnastics specialist might read something like:

The gymnastics specialist is kind, responsible, and dedicated to providing a safe space for campers to explore their physical abilities. The ideal candidate for this position assists all campers when they require it, spots all campers appropriately and with their consent, and takes advantage of ‘Jewish Teachable Moments’ in the gym to connect Torah to campers’ daily lives.

Job descriptions can be broad or focused, so those without time to create an individual description for every position (i.e. gymnastics specialist) are encouraged to make use of a more general description (i.e. specialists, counselors, or staff). It is important to know that the more specific the description, the stronger its impact in the mind[1], but the overall goal is to make clear the social and emotional developmental elements of the work.

The Growth Statement

This statement is similar to the job description, but differs in two ways: 1) it is written by the prospective staff member themselves and 2) it is written in future, growth-oriented language instead of present, ideals-focused language. Consider the following prompt: “Write a 3-5 sentence statement that describes the best qualities and behaviors of a (insert role here) that you want to be this summer.” The point is to give the staff member an opportunity to outline their own goals for the summer in relation to their specific role at camp. The prompt should be given out in preparation for the SGI, and the statement should be completed by the staff member and brought to the SGI. An example:

As the gymnastics specialist this summer I want to be patient, kind, and helpful to all campers that want to learn gymnastics. I want to focus on modelling appropriate physical AND mental techniques for campers that will enable them to be successful gymnasts. I will…

The Specific Growth Interview

Once all of the statements have been written, you are ready for the interview! Use the following the steps below to achieve three specific outcomes: managing expectations, directing attention towards metrics for success, and making a plan to achieve those metrics.

  1. The staff member shares their Growth Statement, the director asks any clarifying questions for understanding (but not refuting).
  2. The director shares the Job Description, and then asks the staff member to identify similarities & differences between the two statements (manages expectations and assumptions).
  3. The director asks the staff member to identify differences between either statement and the candidate as they are now, or were last summer.
  4. The director then asks the staff member to share what they think would be observable behaviors or actions that exemplify the Job Description and/or the Growth Statement (direct attention towards success metrics).
  5. They work together brainstorming strategies to accomplish these behaviors in the camp environment, and staff member agrees to come to camp prepared with a Challenge Plan for adopting those strategies (make a plan to achieve those metrics). An example of a challenge plan that follows from above might mention how the staff member will work to include ‘Jewish Teachable Moments’ through inviting visiting faculty members to gymnastics class.

For the greatest impact, I suggest creating an SGI template for your camp that includes the Job Description, Growth Statement, and Challenge Plan on one page.

Why All the Statements?

In a Jewish camp, all staff can and should come to be seen as part of the common mission of promoting Jewish community, values, and learning. This process moves this key aspect of the job to the forefront and sends the message that those in charge care about this. Having a Challenge Plan in mind can itself, through a process referred to as the “incubation effect,” help us focus, even on a subconscious level, on achieving goals[2]. The SGI also sets an expectation for staff growth and sends the message that social and emotional growth – of campers and staff – takes time and is not a linear process[3].

Finally, the Challenge Plan that emerges from the interview is intended to be an active and evolving document. While the challenges of staff supervision at camp are well known, this tool can lay the foundation for ongoing reflection, whether through quick check-ins or more extensive conversations with a supervisor or mentor (who themselves will also be working on their own Challenge Plan!)[4,5,6]. In this way, social and emotional growth can find a central place at camp and become everyone’s responsibility … to themselves and to their campers.

Josh Sterling Friedman is currently a PhD student in Cognitive Science in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also an active educator and consultant in the fields of Jewish summer camp, Birthright Israel, and SEL through challenge-based group facilitation. He can be reached at

  1. Schunk, D. H. (1990). Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning. Educational psychologist, 25(1), 71-86.
  2. Helie, S. and Son, R. (2010). Incubation, insight and creative problem solving: a unified theory and a connectionist model. Psychological Review, 117, 994-1024
  3. Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Chapter 3: Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of research in education, 24(1), 61-100.
  4. Bar?Tal, D. (2000). From intractable conflict through conflict resolution to reconciliation: Psychological analysis. Political Psychology, 21(2), 351-365.
  5. Westaby, J. D., Pfaff, D. L., & Redding, N. (2014). Psychology and social networks: A dynamic network theory perspective. American Psychologist, 69(3), 269.
  6. Schwartz, D. L., & Lin, X. (2001). Computers, productive agency, and the effort after shared meaning. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 12(2), 3-33.