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Blindsided by Our Campers’ Anxiety (and Everything Else!) Issues

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Read Time: 5 minutes

Today’s post comes from New York music entrepreneur/educator Dan Emery. Two summers ago his guitar school campers were so anxious and out of control, his staff almost quit. Dan made a Hail Mary pass and called Let Grow. We’ll let him tell his tale.

The Summer My Staff Almost Quit — And I Couldn’t Blame Them

by Dan Emery

I’m the founder of New York City’s largest guitar school, including the city’s longest running rock band summer camp. Over the past 15 years I’ve loved watching the personal and musical growth of our mostly teenage campers, and seeing the positive learning environment built by our skilled and passionate coaches.

But in August 2022, I wasn’t feeling so good. In fact, I felt terrible.

That summer’s camp — after two years of Covid restrictions — was our roughest ever. Our campers were falling apart like never before. My team and I were blindsided and unprepared.

Campers anxious, angry, and out of control.

Some campers struggled with confidence and anxiety, like the girl who repeatedly left rehearsals for cell phone pep talks with her mom. Or the student who visited our director almost daily to complain of feeling judged and left out by her relatively normal bandmates.

Other campers literally weren’t playing well with others. One day a girl yelled at bandmates for not knowing their parts and stormed out. Another day, a boy threw an instrument against the wall and cursed at a coach.

Caught up in the moment, we tried to solve situation after situation on the fly. But it was so distressing!

One strike and you’re out!

When camp ended, my confidence was deeply shaken. Some campers hadn’t enjoyed their summer. Some coaches were vowing never to teach again.

After all, we’re not mental health professionals — we’re music coaches. I seriously considered ending the camp. But that didn’t feel right, because I love it! My own kids, nieces, and nephews had attended.

So next, I considered continuing the camp, but with draconian new controls to prevent conflict and hurt feelings: increased rules, constant supervision, not allowing students to choose their own songs — and a one-strike-and-you’re-out behavior policy.

Or was there a better way?

But that didn’t feel right either. After all, our mission is to help students grow. I needed help.

Who you gonna call?

I reached out to Let Grow. As readers here know, Let Grow is dedicated to promoting childhood independence and resilience. I’d helped them out once by producing a song for them. (Here it is.) In return, they were happy to set up a Zoom call. I poured my heart out to their team, and was thrilled to hear insights into my situation–and concrete, inexpensive solutions.

Let Grow’s insights on anxiety:

I learned: 

  • We were not alone! Many programs were seeing students with heightened anxiety and lowered resilience.
  • Anxiety is sometimes worse among top performers. We could make our camp less anxiety-provoking by encouraging campers to focus on supporting each other, and reminding them that their only job was to play their achievable part.
  • Anxiety is also increased by loneliness. Anything that encouraged connection between campers would also increase their resilience.
  • Empowering kids is more effective than controlling or protecting them. Asking young people how they think challenges can be resolved usually results in better outcomes than forcing them to comply with top-down standards.
  • It’s hard to alleviate anxiety or anti-social behaviors by focusing directly on those issues. Treating teenagers as fragile or broken and then trying to protect or fix them can even make issues worse!
  • Mixing age groups and giving older kids responsibilities for younger kids tends to reduce bullying and other antisocial behaviors by older kids–and increase maturity and confidence in younger kids. Our policy of isolating the 8-11 year-olds from the 12-14 and 15-17 year old teens needed to go.
  • Some unsupervised and unstructured time with other kids is associated with more fun and friends…and more focus in class or rehearsal time.
  • Cell phones in classrooms just don’t work. They make kids more anxious, isolated, and unfocused.

The secret sauce for happier campers:

We decided to embrace Let Grow’s suggestions. Here’s what we put in place:

  • We collected phones each morning to increase the campers’ attention available for each other — and to give them a chance to work out issues on their own before contacting parents or friends. Notably, we did not return phones even when teens left for lunch “off campus” in the city, because we believed a completely-phone-free day would be easier to maintain than a sometimes-phone-free day (and we hoped teens would make more friends during lunch without a phone).

This policy proved extremely popular with most parents and was even embraced by many teens, who jammed more at lunch, played more games, and made more friends.

  • Longer camp sessions. We eliminated one-week sessions so that campers had more time to get to know each other in our two-week sessions.
  • Mixed age programs. We started an all-ages open mic, organized and run by older teens. We began a “Sibling Band” program where younger or less experienced campers were paired with older and more experienced bands for rehearsal visits and song sharing. We also instituted all-ages, camper-led music clinics.
  • Free play and unstructured jams. We gave 8-11 year-olds a non-musical option for the last 90 minutes of camp — they could elect to play more music or they could spend unstructured time in a room full of art supplies, games, comics, and other kids. (Most opted for free play.) For the teens, we opened a teacher-free lunchtime jam room.
  • Democratic rule making. We asked teachers to share typical musical and inter-personal band conflicts and ask students to propose guidelines to avoid or handle them. Teens ended up handling most issues on their own.

As Lenore Skenazy (Let Grow’s president) told me, “Trusting kids to be decent problem-solvers usually results in more responsible and mature kids.”

Rave reviews!

Running our camp in line with that philosophy took work and focus. But was exponentially more fun and smoother running. At the end of the summer we received rave reviews from parents and campers — and from our coaches. And yes, the musical performances were top-notch, with more original songs than ever before.

Personally, my favorite part of the summer was noticing teens who had struggled in the past now playing positive roles as respected leaders. In a few weeks, we start up again. I’m looking forward to it! – D.E.

P.S. We got twice as many applications for this summer.

NYC Guitar School

Source: NYC Guitar School

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