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Scouting and Special Needs
Credit: Scouting.us

If you’re like I was and have never been involved with scouting, you probably have the impression that scouting is all about camping and testosterone and that there is absolutely no place for children with special needs.

I’m here to tell you that this view is completely wrong, that scouting lays much of the crucial groundwork for life skills and that in many respects, it’s probably far more important than school for kids with invisible special needs such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and general social difficulties.

I didn’t arrive at this conclusion on my own and to be honest, never having been involved as a child, I initially had more than a little bias against the scouts. It’s watching my own kids progress and watching their self-esteem and life skills improve that has changed my mind. In fact, I’ve been so impressed by scouting that I became a parent helper, then a leader and finally, the section leader (of cubs) in our local group.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to help lots of children both with and without special needs through the system. I’m pleased to be doing my bit to help kids pick up the life skills that parenting alone cannot teach and I’m always surprised by how far they progress in such a short time.

What to Look for in a Scouting Group

Choosing a scout group is almost as important as choosing a school – except that it’s usually much easier to transfer if you need to.  Nevertheless, as with schools, the following rules apply:

1. The Attitude of the Highest Authority Dictates Everything

Just as a less effective or disinterested principal can make a school less suitable for kids with special needs, so too can a less effective group leader.  The group leader is often your first contact with a scout group. They may be cautious about a new special need but they need to also be accepting.

2. Your Child’s Leaders are Directly Responsible for Your Child’s Inclusion and Happiness

Scouts is a bit like a giant playground with guidance and supervision. Your child will often have two or three leaders who all work in one section. Not all of these leaders will understand your child’s special needs and not all will be able to relate to them, but usually at least one will. Your child should form enough of a bond with a leader to feel that he can talk to him. This is especially important in case bullying or exclusion occurs. If there’s no leader with whom your child can identify, then you’re in the wrong group. Don’t give up on scouts though – either “become” that leader yourself or find a group that works better for you.

3. Disclosure is Critical

Withholding information about your child’s “invisible” special needs isn’t doing anyone any favours and indeed may even seriously impact your child’s performance within the group.

Unlike schools, scouts doesn’t have “individualised education plans”  (IEP‘s) and yet their programme which focuses on “doing your best” is far better tailored for individual needs and abilities than anything that even the best schools can offer. Of course, the leaders can’t accommodate needs that they don’t know about, so if you don’t disclose, you are doing your child harm.

If all else fails and you just can’t seem to find a suitable group, remember that scouts has a special needs unit which can put you in touch with a suitable group. You should also feel free to talk to the special needs leaders about issues within your own group as often they can help teach local leaders the skills they need for particular children and circumstances.

Scouts and Critical Life Skills

One of the most critical components of the scouting movement is the credo “do your best”. It’s all about doing your personal best.  It recognises that some people have more developed skills than others while simply encouraging everyone to try as hard as they can.  Scouts isn’t about trying and failing, it’s about supporting your peers as they do their very best.

Social Skills and Life Skills

As kids progress through scouts, they are given greater and greater amounts of independence from the adult leaders while still retaining a leadership structure within the ranks. For this reason, it’s quite important that your child starts scouts as young as possible.  In the earliest years, the adult leaders are fully in control and they take the scouts through a programme which consists of cooking, general knowledge, safety skills and games. By about age eight or nine, the cubs level of scouting is taking the kids through in-depth life skills such as first aid, housework, looking after pets, camping and bush craft as well as fun skills like photography, computing, collecting, art, acting and science.  There’s also some emphasis on physical education and sports such as swimming and athletics but because cubs are simply encouraged to do their best and beat their own scores, it never becomes overly competitive.

Leadership Skills

At the same time, cub scouts are encouraged to take more of a leadership role. Leaders are chosen from their ranks on the basis of aptitude and experience. They are also sent off to specific “leader training courses” in which adult leaders put them in unexpected situations and prompt them to figure out the best way to resolve them.  Often, assigning leadership roles to special needs cubs who would never be given a chance on the school playground makes a huge difference to their social skills and self-esteem.  Youth leaders suggest games, resolve minor problems within their group and help the struggling members of their group to complete specific challenges.

In the years after cub scouting (after age 11), the youth leaders take a far more active role and increasingly they design and run the programme according to a general curriculum. Youth members can stay in the scouting movement up to the age of 24 by which time repeated exposure to general life skills will have overcome many of the weaknesses of their special needs and prepared them to face the world as capable and skilled individuals.

There’s no doubt about it, scouting makes a huge difference.