Let the Counselors Make Parent Phone Calls: A Plea by Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

Oftentimes, I hear directors say that they are stretched too thin.  I felt that way a lot, too, when I was a camp director.  There always seemed to be someone or something (no, about 45 someones and somethings!) needing my attention.

As I got older and a little better at being a camp director, I learned more about the art of delegation.  It truly is an art.  We are all protective of our programs, sometimes treating them like they themselves are our children.  At the same time, the best camps and the best camp directors have depth in their staff—other people the camp director can trust beyond himself or herself.

So, today I am going to talk a little bit about a topic that can take significant pressure off of the camp director: In my opinion, staff members should be making most parent phone calls.  These phone calls include basic homesickness, bullying issues, friendship drama, to grant permission for trips, to add money to store accounts, and the good phone calls as well

In doing trainings this spring, I have been rather surprised to see how many directors do not allow counselors (and even in some cases, unit leaders or village directors) to make parent phone calls.  My experience was the opposite, and I found that it worked very, very well for us, and here’s why:

For the director, having a staff that can make even the most basic of phone calls home saves you some major time, as parent phone calls are time-consuming and often require a message or a call back.  If the director is doing every one of those calls, he or she will be stuck in the office and not out and about really participating in and supervising the realities of camp.  The in-the-office mentality creates a reactive camp director, and not a proactive one.

This also creates a true partnership between parents and staff.  The counselors are the folks working directly with campers: after all, the counselors are in loco parentis after the parents leave.  Rather than the director hearing the information from the counselor, talking with the parent, talking with the counselor (it’s like a game of telephone!) the counselor can hear advice and reactions straight from the parent, and ask the right questions.  A parent might give some information that the person who is most directly working with the camper knows exactly how to process or how to follow-up on it.

We also oftentimes talk about how our staff members want “more” in order to return to camp for another summer.  With the temptations of internships and travel, millennial staff members largely want to feel challenged and that there is room for progression.  Allowing counselors to interact with parents in this way gives them not just the satisfaction of higher-level problem solving: it gives them critical professional skills that they can put to use in any future workplace.  And, with the proliferation of technologies (even basic ones like texting), many of our counselors could use the training and practice in these direct forms of communication.

This practice also sends the message that you as the director are proud of and trust your staff members!  When trained and supported correctly, a counselor should be more than capable of calling a parent to ask for advice about mild homesickness or describe a bullying situation in the cabin (on either side of things).  I always loved it when I witnessed my staff members kill it on the phone: they are informed, professional, compassionate and smart.  By and large, parents were impressed with their interactions. 

Finally, this practice will increase the amount of parent communication that you have, which is always a good thing.  If you are even a mid-size camp, there is no way just a couple of staff members can keep up with all of the phone calls that should be happening on any given day.  Sharing this responsibility will ensure top-notch customer service and care of your kids.

So, if you are a camp that has not yet tried, this model, i am sure you have a big and obvious question, which is HOW DO YOU DO THIS?  My answer?  Now is the time!  Save a little bit of your staff training to work on parent interactions, and include phone techniques.  Then, provide the proper support and care throughout the summer to empower your staff to have positive parent communications:

Charles Fahlsing, the new AGQ director (my successor!), got his start making parent phone calls as a 16-year-old junior counselor at camp.  Now those skills are second-nature!

Charles Fahlsing, the new AGQ director (my successor!), got his start making parent phone calls as a 16-year-old junior counselor at camp.  Now those skills are second-nature!

TRAIN

The key to positive parent communications by staff is confidence.  Run through your camp’s policies and practices with your staff, and model how these parent communications should go.  Explain to the staff how these conversations can seem high-stakes but are completely manageable. 

Give some examples of phone calls you expect each level of staff to be able to make (the list might be different for a cabin counselor vs. a village leader, for example).  Emphasize honestly and planning.  Many staff members will want to write out a few notes or even a practice script before making a call.

Discuss the importance of patience, as it can be scary for parents to have their kids be so far away from home.  Emphasize the flip side of the coin, which is the apathetic or disinterested parent.  Remind staff members that raising a child is difficult and personal.  And complicated!  Take time to listen and beware of jargon and assumptions about families.

NOTE:

Some camps advise the caller to say “Hi, this is Sarah from Camp Al-Gon-Quian, this is NOT an emergency, BUT….” and that just drives me crazy!  Cut to the chase.  Most times this is easy.  Do NOT spend time with the “how are yous”.  That is nice, but the parent is on the other side of the phone and imagining a disaster that has taken place.  Just say right away, quickly and concisely, who you are and WHY you are calling.  Here are some examples of how to do it:

    “I am the camp store manager at Camp Campbell; my name is Claire!”

    “I am calling to ask permission for your camper to go on a day trip!  My name is Kyle, and I am the trip director here at Camp Fitch.  We are headed to the State Park for a day of hiking on Tuesday.”

    Rip off the band-aid: “My name is Jessa, and I’m the health officer.  I’m calling because Noah slipped on the dock and injured his wrist.  We are calling to let you know we are headed to the doctor to have it checked out.”

PRACTICE

After you discuss your expectations about parent phone calls, it’s great to do some practice sessions.  I’m a big fan of role-play, and I think the parent phone call practice can be done with partners first (private practice) and then a few examples in front of the group.  Critique the whole-group examples afterward.

The best examples I have ever done are when we call an actual parent on speaker phone with a made up problem.  It’s great to have a parent give feedback and advice after the scenario plays out, and always is hilarious to watch for the other staff members.

During the summer, remind counselors that if they are nervous to make a parent phone call, they can write out some notes of what they are going to say.  They also can practice the call with you or another camp leader first.

Role-Play Scenarios:

  1. You would like to take the camper on a cabin overnight hiking trip and their off-camp permission was not signed.  You need verbal permission.
  2. You are the cabin counselor, and you had a rough night with homesickness on the first night.  You are seeking some tips.
  3. You are the cabin counselor, and friendship troubles are happening in the cabin and the child is being excluded.  You thought the parent should know.
  4. Parent calls to inform you that she got a text last night that the child is being bullied in the cabin (this one is a higher-level, because it’s more reactionary!).  
  5. Child is headed to the hospital with a broken leg.  She fell off of a picnic table.

TAG-TEAM

Last year at camp, we had a wonderful counselor who built a relationship with a camper.  The camper felt close enough to this counselor to disclose a struggle she had with disordered eating.  The counselor came to me (the director) to share this information so we could determine how to handle it.  We decided the best course of action was to inform the parents of what we knew so they could properly support their daughter.

Since this was a more intense situation, I offered to make the phone call.  The counselor said she wanted to make the phone call herself because she had heard the information first-hand from the camper and thought it was the right thing to do. I agreed that was OK, but we decided to plan the phone call together and then sit together to make the call.  “Hi, this is Natalie from Camp AGQ, I’m calling to share some information with you that Melissa shared with me.  I am here with the camp director, Sarah.”

We put this call on speakerphone so I could also hear what was going on and could jump in if necessary (it wasn’t, in this case), and so I could make sure that all of the important points were covered and not sugar-coated.  Was this easy for the parents to hear?  No.  We did not lie nor did we make it more of a scary situation for them then it already was.  We were honest and clear.  Was this easy for the counselor?  No.  It was emotionally taxing and sad to have to tell parents something upsetting about their child.  However, it was rewarding for the counselor.  She grew a lot professionally thorough the entire process and also knew that her breakthrough with this camper was for a reason.  The conversation with the parents assured us that the camper was going to get the help that she needed.

SUPPORT

Remind counselors that you and your administrative team are going to handle the big phone calls.  Establish a phone log system so you know which calls are going out and coming in to the office.  Make sure you remain available for questions and support when the counselors are just getting started making calls.  Finally, encourage them and thank them for making these calls.  

In my first summer as a camp counselor, and my second session as a camp counselor ever, I had a very difficult camper.  She was the youngest camper at camp (barely eight years old), there for a full two weeks and horribly homesick.  Her homesickness manifested itself in an interesting way: She would constantly try to run away from camp.  And she was FAST…much faster than me!

Our director at the time asked my co-counselor and I to call home to talk with the camper’s mother to get advice.  This to me was terrifying.  There is no way I could talk to a parent, especially when I felt like I was failing miserably with her kid.  My co-counselor Kate, who was only 18 years old at the time, handled the call like a pro.  And the next call.  And the next call. It helped the situation and the camper made it through the session.  She came back for eight subsequent summers and even became a CIT during high school.  Witnessing this taught me two things as a young counselor: One, we don’t have all the answers.  Parents know their kids WAY better than we do, so sometimes we need to ask them for advice and support.  Second, we are awesome youth development professionals, and we don’t have anything to be afraid of!  We could have very easily shipped this difficult camper home on the next bus out of Indian River.  However, we were willing to take some mature and sometimes intimidating steps to make it camp happen for her.  And I’m so glad that we did.

Kate, aka "KTF" and me during Harry Potter Day when we were counselors at AGQ.  And yes, we were also capable of making phone calls home!!

Kate, aka "KTF" and me during Harry Potter Day when we were counselors at AGQ.  And yes, we were also capable of making phone calls home!!