This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Abilities Digest.
Special needs and disabilities are all around us. There are many of us who have disabilities, but by looking at us, one cannot tell. In the next few months, we all will be either recruiting or joining a new unit. With that in mind, one of your personal goals shoud be getting to know each Scout, each family and the leadership better. You especially need to better understand, from either side of the table, when a Scout has a disability that presents the need for extra support. If so, after a Scout joins a unit, follow up with a joining conference!
Joining conferences are at the crux of a successful tenure in the Scouting program.
Here’s how it works:
Rationale: A joining conference builds trust and rapport among the leadership and the parents as partners in delivering the Scouting program. Every Scout has unique attributes. The joining conference can help the unit play to the strengths of the youth, provide for his/her special needs, and help prevent conflicts with other members of the unit. The joining conference should take place within the first month after the Scout joins the unit. Keep in mind this conference is not a “job interview.” Each young person has nothing to prove before joining a unit.
Attendees: One or both parents, preferably someone who is disabilities awareness trained who will have direct contact with the youth; in Cub Scouting the den leader should be included; in Scouts BSA, the youth could be included—but let common sense prevail.
Where: This is a candid, private conversation, so it should be held out of earshot of others. It is OK to do this at a regular unit meeting, but you might have to hold the conference at a different place or time in order to insure privacy.
Confidentiality: Parents decide what the leaders need to know. Assume confidentiality unless a parent gives permission for you to share with other key leadership. Ask if you are not sure what the parent wants. If you believe the youth will benefit from other key adult and youth leaders being brought into the loop, ask for permission.
Topics: The joining conference should be a friendly, informative, get-to-know you meeting. While listening and asking questions, it is critical to understand what is being said. The expertise of someone who has worked in the field of special needs can be very beneficial. Your council’s Disabilities Awareness Committee could be a resource for you at the time of the conference. Generally, parents want the leadership to know and understand the youth. Listen and ask questions. The parents will tell you what you need to know. Ultimately, the goal is to form a team with the parents, in order to provide a growth oriented program for the young person. Keeping the lines of communication open should definitely be another goal. Begin with asking about strengths and then the struggles. Find out how the youth manages them. As a parent, find out how the leadership could help in specific circumstances. As a leader, find out how the parents handle and work with the youth. Work together to come up with doable solutions. Understanding a specific diagnosis can be helpful, but not a necessary component. The main goal should be for the leadership and the parents to work together for the success of the youth with special needs and disabilities.
Ask questions such as:
- What are the youth’s unique strengths? Struggles?
- How are the struggles managed at home? At school?
- Does anything trigger emotional outbursts? How can this be prevented? What strategies can be used to deescalate?
- Are there warning signals for overwhelming situations? Meltdowns? Anxiety?
- Are there any concerns with reading, writing, comprehension?
- What strategies can be used within small or large groups to help the youth participate?
- What different strategies are used at school or at home to facilitate learning?
- What could the parent/leadership need to work out in order to ensure success?
Don’t stop with just this one conference. Keep an open door policy. Building relationships with the Scout and his/her family is critical. Communication is paramount. Scouting is for everyone. Together we can all be successful!