Plan for the 80% and work with the 20%

The puzzle of accommodating scouts with different abilities.

Within any Scout troop there is usually a protocol created by leadership to achieve success in rank advancement. It is designed to efficiently get a beginner scout from the first rank of Scout all the way to the coveted Eagle Scout rank, often called the “trail to Eagle”. It’s a cookie-cutter approach that, for the most part works for about 80% of the troop.  It is often a puzzle that takes time, consideration and testing to prove successful for each Scout.

But what happens when that typical protocol doesn’t work for the other 20%?

Seasoned, well-trained Scoutmasters can recognize and adjust the “trail to eagle” plan for those particular scouts. Scoutmasters know which scouts who, at a particular time in their lives, aren’t ready for certain challenges, including those related to earning merit badges.

For example, a younger Scout may not be physically able to meet the rigorous requirements for the swimming merit badge at the same time as his/her same-age peers.  He/she can still achieve this with time, the right guidance, and different means of achievement.  Different scouts can be given different paths to choose from and still be challenged to earn rank advancement.

So, how do we solve the “puzzle” of rank advancement for this 20%?  In other words, how do you create the best “trail to eagle” protocol for this group of scouts?

There are 4 main parts to the new puzzle that has to be solved:

  1. Understand how the scout learns
  2. Establish a communication plan between the scout, parent(s) and scoutmaster
  3. Understand the abilities of the scout (at that time in the scout’s life)
  4. Make sure the scout “owns” the plan

#1. There are many learning stylesbut there are four primary ones that are generally accepted. 

I’ll use a specific example—learning to tie a square knot—to demonstrate how to creatively teach this skill understandable to an individual scout.

  • Visual (pictures)– Show what a square knot looks like. Show different stages of tying a square knot. Show the scout the movement of tying a square knot.
  • Auditory (hearing)– Say as you are demonstrating: “The square knot is called the first aid knot. It’s used to tie all bandaging and slings. It’s as easy as right over left and then left over right.”
  • Reading/writing (manuals, text instructions)– Have them read the purpose of the square knot, its uses, and then a series of pictures of the stages of tying a square knot. Then have a fill-in-the-blank questionnaire on the most important pieces of information to test how much was retained.
  • Kinesthetic (touching)– Allow the scout to physically tie the square knot while repeating the instructions.

The more you can integrate multiple ways of learning the faster the scout will grasp the skill.  We must be able to integrate each part of the scouting EDGE method (explain, demonstrate, guide, enable) with these ways of learning:

  • Some scouts do well with reading the book and looking at the pictures.
  • Some scouts need to have auditory feedback from the instructor or have trouble with auditory instructions all together.
  • Some scouts need to be physically touching the material.

The important thing to note is that everyone uses different styles for even learning different skill sets.  Sometimes a scout can learn a certain skill by watching it but another skill by using his/her hands. We as instructors have to recognize and understand when that happens, often by trial-and-error.

#2. Communication plans are vital for success and building trust when adjustments must be made. 

These would typically be activated through a scoutmaster conference between the scout, scoutmaster and parents (which can happen any time or multiple times in any given rank). At first, there will be a lot of questions from all sides. The scoutmaster must learn to identify the scout’s abilities by asking the parents for suggestions on different teaching methods that may be better suited for their son or daughter.

Getting input from the scout is key. The scout must understand that tasks still need to get done.  With a little ingenuity and hard work, the task can be completed.

The troop must understand that there are differences with everyone and are coached on how to accommodate for the scout. It is important that you do not share anything with the troop that the parents or the scout does not wish to be shared with the rest of the troop. There are privacy issues. For cases such as these, it is best to seek district commissioner advice because they are trained in such matters.

#3. Determine Abilities.

Many might assume that when “abilities” are discussed that we are speaking about mental handicaps.  But having different abilities means much more. This piece of the puzzle carries a lot of weight in determining best course of action. While a lot can be said about this, let’s stick to three main areas of focus:

  • Physical ability: The scout’s ability to perform a physical act. For example, the scout may need to wait a year to attempt swimming merit badge until he can build up some strength and endurance while you focus the scout on merit badges that play towards his/her interests.
  • Mental ability: The scout’s power to learn and retain knowledge and using different learning styles. For example, the scout can learn and comprehend with visual aids but cannot perform well with only verbal requests or verbal request with multiple steps. 
  • Maturity: Where the scout finds him/her-self at a given time and how the scout reacts to peer influences. Typically, the concept of budgeting is hard for an 11- year-old to master but much easier for a 15-year-old.  Scheduling the Personal Management merit badge is typically one of the last merit badges to do for Eagle Scout.

Depending on the circumstances the adult leader may need to turn to council-level accommodations to get authorization to change a requirement. If the Youth has special needs that require modifications or accommodations-The Council Level Disability Awareness Committee needs to be contacted. Councils should have a disabilities committee or a person to contact who has an understanding of the scout needs and provide alternative requirements to match the ability of the scout. This makes earning rank challenging enough while maintaining high standards of success.

Sometimes it may be simply waiting a certain amount of time until the scout matures a bit and then is ready. In other cases, scoutmaster meetings are necessary to dive deeper to figuring out strategies for success.  This could mean learning that that scout as some special needs. They are involved with special education through their schools. These generally involves youth having an IEP. (Individualized  Education Plan); again, make sure that the privacy of the scout is of the utmost importance. If this youth does have special needs and requires assistance, the council level disability committee with help from the unit, the parents, and the generally the scout to make the necessary changes.

#4. Scout Owned, not scouter owned. In the end, after all the previous considerations, the scout signs off on the plan. The adult leader, scout and the parents agree to it, then assist and encourage the scout to stick with it. Remember, the scout must be challenged and prove he or she can successfully master each task or merit badge requirement in order to go through the next step with a higher degree of difficulty.

Doing it for them doesn’t help the scout!

Above all else, seek advice from your district/council when going through this the first time around. They have been trained in how to work through these adventures.

For each scout, you want to establish an environment that protects privacy, provide challenging opportunities, as well as determine the right path of success.


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The author, Tony Zizak, is a long time scouter, Eagle Scout, and the scoutmaster of Troop 119 Ellettsville, IN. He has been to scout camps across the country and was a certified Program Director, Aquatics Director and a Scoutcraft Director. As a youth Tony received his Vigil Honor and served as a Lodge Chief for Tseyedin Lodge #65. Reach out to him for any questions you may have on this article.