This article is reprinted from Abilities Digest, Summer 2016.
A good pack, troop, or other unit strives to include everyone wishing to join. The joining conference is an opportunity to talk with the parents of every new Scout, though it is especially valuable when a new scout has special needs. The tone should be relaxed and friendly, and the goal should be for unit leaders to understand the new Scout.
This conference is especially valuable if the Scout has disabilities or other special needs. Statistics show that about 15% of Scouting-age youth have some form of disability. However, family privacy or other reasons may pre-vent a parent from disclosing a disability outside of the privacy of a joining conference.
The joining conference builds trust and rapport with the parents as partners in delivering the Scouting program. It gives each Scout leader useful information about the unique attributes of the youth that will help them play to each youth’s strengths, provide for each youth’s special needs, and prevent conflict between unit members. Parents are the experts on their child and a source of valuable information and resources that leaders would not want to overlook.
The joining conference should take place as soon as practical after a youth joins the unit, typically within the first month. The conference isn’t in-tended to weed out “unsuitable” Scouts; Scouting is open to all youth. The youth has nothing to prove before joining the unit. The conference should happen after the youth has joined.
The conference is attended by one or both of the youth’s parents (or an appropriate guardian) and one or two adult leaders who will work with that youth. Ideally, one or both of the leaders should be trained in disability awareness. At the Cub Scout level, the Den Leader should be included and the youth is not typically included. At the upper levels of Scouting, the youth is often included in the meeting, but good sense should prevail when deciding whether or not to include the youth.
The conference is a candid and private conversation with the family, so the meeting should be out-of-earshot of others. It is okay to do this at a regular unit meeting, but you might have to hold the conference at a different place or time to ensure privacy.
The parent decides what to disclose to the unit leaders. Assume everything is confidential until the parent gives permission to share with other leaders. If the youth will benefit from other leaders knowing about his or her situa-tion, ask the parents for permission to share the information, and explain why the other leaders need to know. If the parent wants the information kept private, respect their instructions.
Here are some specific topics to cover in the conference:
- What are the youth’s unique strengths and struggles?
- What accommodations/adaptations are made at home and at school for special needs?
- Does anything in particular trigger emotional or behavioral struggles?
- How does he/she act when things are about to be overwhelming?
- What concerns do the parents have about putting their child in Scouting?
Never press for a diagnosis. Practically speaking, you don’t need to know what the condition is called as long as you know what to watch out for and what to do. Parents can provide valuable advice on how best to share such information with the troop as they have already introduced their child in other settings.
Here is a sample script to begin a joining conference:
Hi. I’m name and I’m the leader position of unit type ###. I’m glad you and youth name have joined our unit type. The other leaders and I want to give your child the best experience we can. I know we have told you what our unit is like, and it will help if you can tell us what makes your son/daughter unique. Can we have a few minutes? – To start with, is there anything you are concerned about? What are his/her strengths? Is anything harder for him/her than for others? Is there anything that helps him/her be suc-cessful at home or at school? Is there anything I need to watch out for or avoid doing with your son/daughter? Is there anything I need to make sure I do for your son/daughter? When he/she is struggling, how do you help him/her? ……..
While anything the parents say could be helpful, keep focused on helping the Scout succeed in a safe and meaningful way within the unit.