Unit Leaders and ADD

Effectively defusing problems caused by a behavioral disability like attention deficit disorder (ADD) requires specialized knowledge, flexibility, and lots of patience.

This is the true story of two Boy Scouts, “Donnie” and “Danny.” It has two strikingly different endings, one happy and hopeful, the other scarred and sad. And with minor variations, the story will be repeated, ending one way or the other, in hundreds of similar situations across the nation.

Donnie: a troublesome problem

Donnie was a bright youngster who did well in school. In Scouting, he advanced steadily in rank, and at age 14, he was a Life Scout working on his Eagle Scout requirements.

But Donnie’s behavior was a troublesome problem. His Scoutmaster and other troop leaders were stumped for a solution. The harder they tried to come to grips with his behavior, the more irritating and frustrating it became.

At troop meetings, Donnie couldn’t seem to contain himself. He was always interrupting and doing something silly. Sometimes he’d take off his shoes and throw them against the wall (and occasionally at someone). Then he’d yell “Oops” and go chasing after them.

Other times, he’d storm angrily out of the room for no apparent reason. Or he might wander off by himself in the middle of an activity.

The Scoutmaster repeatedly called Donnie aside to ask the same puzzled questions: “What’s the matter with you, Donnie? Why can’t you act right?”

Donnie’s response was always the same: “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you’d better cut it out,” the Scoutmaster warned. “I don’t want to have to tell you again.”

But eventually Donnie would repeat his disruptive behavior, and the scene with his Scoutmaster would be replayed.

Donnie loved camp-outs, but outdoors, his behavior caused even more trouble. He might show up barefoot to start a five-mile hike or jump into the lake for an unauthorized swim while the troop was eating lunch. When time came to break camp and head for home, he would be found a half-mile away, sitting in a tree doing birdcalls.

Eventually, the Scoutmaster’s patience ran out. “I’ve had it,” he told Donnie after one particularly trying weekend. “You’re banned from any more camp-outs until you learn to behave.”

The ban stretched over the next three months. Donnie turned 15 during that time, but his tendency to act like an unruly 5-year-old only intensified. The Scoutmaster had an urgent talk with Donnie’s parents, but the boy’s father shrugged off the matter.

“Boys will be boys,” Donnie’s dad said. “There’s nothing wrong with my son. He’s no different than I was when I was his age.”

The Scoutmaster finally told the troop committee that he couldn’t take it any l onger. “Either Donnie goes or I do,” he declared.

The following week, Donnie was removed from the troop and told not to come back. Not long afterward, his life began a downward spiral. Months later, he was arrested for marijuana possession and placed on probation. Within a year, he dropped out of school. Then he was caught burglarizing a house and sent to a juvenile detention home.

Danny: a positive understanding

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in rural Maryland, a boy named Danny was going through experiences that closely paralleled Donnie’s. Fortunately, though, Danny’s story was destined to have a much more positive outcome. The difference can be summed up in a single word: understanding.

Danny was also a 14-year-old Life Scout who was trying hard to earn his Eagle Award when behavior problems interfered. In this case, however, Danny’s father, longtime Scouting volunteer and former Scoutmaster Mike Adelson, realized something was wrong.

“At first, we tried to convince ourselves that Danny’s problem was just being 14 years old,” Mike recalls. “He had some difficulty with language that we attributed to persistent ear infections that affected his hearing when he was young. But he had an unusually hard time staying focused on anything, too, and he also had a short fuse and lost his temper very easily. We took him to a counselor who recommended that we have him tested.”

The tests showed that Danny suffered from attention deficit disorder, or ADD, a neurological disturbance that affects a vast number of American youngsters, but which often goes unrecognized—as it had in Donnie’s case.

For Danny, the diagnosis of ADD may have been the most important breakthrough of his life. Medication brought his most pronounced symptoms under control, and with help from his teachers, he was able to make major improvements in his schoolwork. And when his troop leaders learned of the diagnosis, they arranged to make slight alterations in the standard procedures in qualifying for Eagle to allow Danny to compete “on a level field” with other Eagle candidates.

“All he needed was a little extra time to answer the questions at his board of review,” Mike explains. “And instead of bombarding him with questions from all directions at once, the board members asked them one at a time.”

In April 1999, Danny passed his Eagle board of review with flying colors, and at a court of honor in June, he was awarded Scouting’s highest rank.

Needed: a multifaceted approach

Nobody can say for certain how many American youngsters—much less how many Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts—have ADD and a closely related condition known as hyperactivity disorder (HD). But most researchers estimate that these two biochemical neurological conditions affect from 5 to 7 percent of children and adolescents, striking roughly twice as many boys as girls.

ADD and HD were first diagnosed more than a century ago, notes Sarah R. Lilja, a licensed social worker and St. Paul-based authority with many years of experience with ADD/HD and behavior disorders. As early as the late 1800s, Dexedrene and other stimulants were used with some success to treat the conditions, but only within the past decade or so have the disorders been linked to brain chemistry.

“Stimulants like Ritalin and Dexedrene are still widely used to treat ADD/HD,” Lilja says, “but we now know that the problem is far more complex than originally thought.

“It’s often an inherited condition,” she said, “so when a child has trouble and his father says, ‘He’s just like I was at that age,’ he’s often right.”

Medication alone is never the complete answer, however, and overmedication can do more harm than good, Lilja says. “A multifaceted approach is needed to build survival and coping skills in the child and those around him,” she emphasizes. “It takes understanding and cooperation among parents, teachers, and other major figures in the child’s life.”

The disorders are being spotted more frequently today among first- and second-graders, mainly because of increased awareness among educators. But symptoms tend to grow more noticeable and acute as schoolwork gets more difficult in the middle and upper grades.

Some youngsters may “outgrow” ADD/HD as they mature, but more likely, they simply learn to adjust. “About a third of these kids say their symptoms no longer bother them by the time they reach their early 20s,” says Lilja, “but the other two-thirds continue to struggle as adults.”

While nearly all children are at one time or another disruptive, boisterous, or inattentive, Lilja notes, the ADD/HD sufferer can usually be identified by some or all of the following characteristics:

    (1) Being profoundly “out of sync” with surroundings and companions. (2) Behaving very impulsively; not thinking ahead. (3) Living for “right now” with no concept of future consequences. (4) Blurting out random thoughts, no matter how inappropriate. (5) Showing frequent aggressiveness or anger toward others. (6) Wandering aimlessly, climbing on furniture, being unable to sit still. (7) Becoming fixated on a single objective; being unable to shift from one activity to another.

“Imagine yourself sitting in a room with 20 different TVs playing on 20 different channels all at once,” explains Lilja, “and you’ll get an idea of what’s happening with an ADD/HD child. All the TVs are screaming for the child’s attention, but he or she can’t tell which one to watch and doesn’t know how to tone down the others. Instead of having too little attention, these children actually have too much.”

Help for leaders

It’s not unusual for a pack or troop to have at least one disruptive member. But identifying boys with diagnosable ADD/HD is no easy task, and effectively defusing the problems that can result requires specialized knowledge, a flexible approach, and, usually, lots of patience.

Equipping adult leaders for these challenges is a primary focus of “Working With Scouts With Disabilities,” the training conference held every summer since 1996 at the BSA’s Philmont Training Center in New Mexico. The weeklong conference covers a wide range of mental and physical disabilities, but the 1999 session was the first with special emphasis on recognizing and dealing with ADD/ HD.

Scouters from 16 councils in 13 states, from New York to Hawaii, were urged by course director Walter M. (Buster) Brown III to take the lead in organizing and/or strengthening special-needs committees in their local councils and districts. “A small group like us can have a major impact,” he told them. “We can become models for all the other councils.”

Scouting’s awareness of “nonvisible” disabilities such as ADD/HD is increasing greatly, said Brown, who is a 40-year Scouting volunteer in North Carolina’s Old North State Council and former chairman of a national BSA committee on Scouts with disabilities. He noted that the first BSA literature specifically addressing ADD/HD has been developed, and information about the disorder is included for the first time in The Scoutmaster Handbook.

“Now we need to go further,” he said. “Ideally, every council in the country should have its own committee on disabilities or special needs. And ideally, boys with ADD/ HD should be in mainstream troops and packs, not in segregated ones. But many adult leaders of regular units are scared to take on kids with disabilities—I would’ve been, too, when I first started out as a Scoutmaster—so a big part of our job is convincing them to try.”

Learning ‘how to cope’

The message to leaders of traditional units—which is where most boys with behavioral disorders show up—is that they can handle kids with these problems, says Jane Grossman. A volunteer Scouter who serves as commissioner for special needs in the Greater St. Louis Area Council, she taught the 1999 Philmont course.

“It’s just a matter of learning how to cope,” Grossman says. “‘Special’ boys and ‘normal’ boys are really more alike than different. If you focus on the sameness and figure out how to reduce the differences, you can help each boy create his own success story.”

A former speech therapist who began her career as a Scout leader 17 years ago when her son was a Tiger Cub, Grossman worked with a professional behavioral scientist to develop one of the nation’s first comprehensive programs to train other volunteer leaders in dealing with ADD/HD. The three-hour program has been used extensively and with wide success among Scoutmasters and Cub Scout leaders in her council.

“We’re not medical people, and we can’t deal with the basic medical disability,” she says, “but wecan deal with the symptoms and the problems it causes. It’s vital for us to recognize the difference. Then our first goal should be involving both the boy and his parents in finding the solution.”

Working with parents

Unfortunately, some parents are resistant to the idea that their son has a special need or disability, she says, noting that some “are so hungry for their child to be normal” that they avoid acknowledging a condition, even after diagnosis.

It’s never easy to tell parents that their child is a constant source of disruption, says Grossman. “My approach is to turn it around and say, ‘I have a problem in knowing how to deal with your son.’ You don’t want to antagonize parents; you want their help.

“When you talk about the problem, be specific: He hit another kid. He was late, etc. And have the boy sit in when you talk to the parents. This eliminates all the ‘he said-she said’ third-party stuff.”

As the father of a son with ADD and chairman of a local group called Scouting Unlimited for Scouts With Disabilities, in the National Capital Area Council, Mike Adelson sees the need for flexibility in dealing with boys with behavioral disorders. At the same time, he firmly opposes tossing out all the rules in order to accommodate them.

“When I meet with parents who take a ‘boys-will-be-boys’ stance, I ask them if they apply this same attitude to what their son does in school or church,” Adelson says. “I explain to them that Scouting is about a lot more than just camping and having fun, that it also prepares a boy to be a responsible citizen.”

A negative ripple effect

When a boy is lost to Scouting because of a leader’s inability to deal with ADD/HD, the price can be high, with the aftereffects spreading in poisonous ripples to mar dozens of other lives.

“We lost an entire troop in the Kansas City area because nobody could figure out what to do with one behavior-problem kid,” says Buzz Shepard, who works with special-needs Scouts in the Heart of America Council. “We can’t be satisfied with doing damage control after the fact in situations like these.”

To improve Scouting’s success rate with ADD/HD boys, BSA councils must answer two key question, Jane Grossman emphasizes: “One, how do we get unit leaders interested in helping special-needs kids? And, how to we keep kids with behavioral disorders in Scouting?”

It won’t happen overnight, those who attended last summer’s Philmont course agree—but it will happen.

“A small group like this can do wonders,” says Adelson. “Most councils are cognizant of the problem, and with education and training, we can find a solution. The seeds are being planted, and I like to think the ‘harvest’ will come one boy at a time.”

A frequent contributor to Scouting magazine, Bill Sloan wrote “The Keys to Successful Money-Earning Projects” in the October 1999 issue.

What Can Unit Leaders Do?

Picture yourself as the leader of a traditional Scout unit with one or more boys who, you suspect, may have a learning/behavior disorder such as ADD/HD. Where and how do you start dealing with it?

The first thing to do, according to a program developed by Jane Grossman and proved effective over the past few years, is to involve both the boy and his parents in your problem-solving initiative. Then follow these additional steps:

  • Determine the nature of the disability through parental information or test results.
  • Identify the symptoms that are causing problems.
  • Pinpoint what triggers the symptoms. (Usually it’s something fairly simple—a certain tone of voice, a particular activity, proximity to some other boy.)
  • Take decisive steps to avoid these triggers.
  • Find out which medications the boy uses or needs. Learn what effect they have and how to tell if the boy forgets to take them. (Scout leaders can’t administer medicines, but you can make sure they are taken in proper dosages while you watch.)
  • Ask parents what they do if symptoms occur at home.
  • Encourage parents to offer suggestions and comments.
  • Ask the boy if he wants to talk to his fellow Scouts, to help them better understand his condition.

ADD at Top of “Special Needs” List

How prevalent is ADD/HD among Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts? No statistics are kept nationally, but a survey of regular units serving special needs Scouts in one council produced some revealing figures.

In March 1999, officials of the Old North State Council in North Carolina checked a total of 74 units (30 Cub Scout packs, 37 Boy Scout troops, and seven Venturing crews) with a combined total of 2,758 members. They found 245 (8.9 percent) with identifiable special needs.

Almost half the special needs (47.3 percent) were identified as ADD, followed by learning disabilities (15.9 percent) and vision and speech impairments (13.4 percent).

What Not to Do Can Be as Important as What Should Be Done

Many kids with ADD/HD can’t define what’s wrong with them. But if a child with a behavior disorder could write a memo to family, friends, fellow Scouts, and Scout leaders, the experts say it would read something like this:

Don’t spoil me. I know I shouldn’t get all I ask for. I’m only testing you.

Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer to know where I stand.

Don’t use force with me. It teaches me that power is all that counts. I respond better to being led.

Don’t be inconsistent. You’ll just confuse me and make me try harder to get away with anything I can.

Don’t make promises. If you can’t keep them, I’ll quit trusting you.

Don’t let me provoke you. If I say or do things to upset you (like telling you I hate you), don’t blow up or I may do it again. I don’t mean it. I just want you to feel sorry for me.

Don’t make me feel smaller than I am. I’ll just make up for it by acting like a bigshot.

Don’t do things for me that I can do myself. Making me feel like a baby makes me want more of the same.

Don’t give my bad habits a lot of attention. It only encourages me to keep on displaying them.

Don’t correct me in front of people. It’s better to talk to me quietly in private.

Don’t discuss my behavior in the heat of conflict. I don’t hear or cooperate well at this time. Do what needs to be done, but save the words for later.

Don’t preach to me. You’d be surprised how well I already know what’s right and wrong.

A Guide to Successful Unit Meetings

The following guidelines were adapted from the Greater St. Louis Area Council’s program on dealing with special-needs Scouts:

  • Always have a positive attitude.
  • Write out and post rules where boys can see them, but make consequences fit the individual boy and situation.
  • Have different (and adjustable) activity levels for fast and slow learners.
  • Give extra attention where needed; use parents and buddies to help.
  • Help everyone understand that while fair means giving everyone what he needs, it is not necessarily equal.
  • Accept and praise each boy’s best effort in keeping with the Scout Oath. Never make comparisons.
  • Avoid saying “don’t” or “stop that.” Give positive alternatives instead.
  • Stick to viable discipline options.


  1. I am the parent of a child with ADHD and I appreciate you writing this aritcle so much and also the leaders who take on the challenge of leading ADHD scouts. I have so much trouble with 75% of the tips you gave, but as time goes on, I am getting better at parenting (and leading) my scout. The hardest part is the embarrassment I feel when other parents see the symptoms but don’t recognize the disability, they just think he was raised wrong. Then after the embarrassment, I feel sad for him, because he won’t have the same opportunities as the boys who don’t stand out because of their poor executive functioning, unless they have really well trained and patient leaders. Let’s hope for the best.

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