Here’s a question I recently received asking how to fix Scout patrol problems:
I’m a Scoutmaster with less than a year under my belt and I’m faced with a ‘good problem’ ; we’re growing. We currently have 4 patrols and we anticipate that we will get about 7 Scouts from the Pack in February; they would be the 5th patrol.
Currently, we have one ‘first year’ patrol, two second year patrols, and one patrol made up of the remaining older boys. This particular patrol is usually woefully understaffed during outings as those Scouts are either committed to other obligations or working.
I think the patrols need to be re-worked a bit, but I don’t want to break up any close friends or turn the patrols into popularity contests. What I’m considering is splitting up the oldest patrol and putting those scouts into the other three patrols. Based on your experience, is this a good idea, bad idea, is there a better way?
I must admit I haven’t asked the Scouts yet, but I would anticipate that the older boys would not really want to be split up. I should add that there is a two year age difference between the ‘older boy’ patrol and the next oldest patrol. Plus I really like the idea of keeping the new Scouts together in their own patrol for the first year at least. Any suggestions are welcome.
My answer starts with the basics:
Why do we have patrols? Is it just so we have an efficient system to mange Scouts or is it something more?
Does what a Scout thinks is a “good” patrol look different to an adult ?
Boys volunteer to be Scouts because their friends are involved. If they don’t get to do Scouting with their friends why would they stay?
We have patrols because there’s no Scouting without them. Scouts working together encounter challenges and learn all kinds of things. 99% of the aims of Scouting are met in the context of the patrol. When Scouts go camping they go by patrol, at meetings they are preparing to go camping by patrol. Everything is about the patrol.
Once you understand this you’ll agree that Scouts should be able to freely choose their patrol, they know who they get along with and who their friends are.
To understand how Scouts view adults stepping in to make changes in their patrols imagine I am given the opportunity to evaluate your troop and the one next door. After studying both troops I am going to make a few changes to optimize the combination of adult volunteers.
Both troops have adults with differing levels of experience. I am going to change some of them around so both troops have equally experienced adults. Some adults in each troop have a busy schedule that means they can’t be there at times. This leaves things woefully understaffed – we’ll need to change them around to even things out.
It’s a poor use of resources for you to have twenty Scouts and the other troop to have forty, so we’ll even it out so both have thirty. Changes will be made to assure we have a consistent adult-to scout ratio. Your troop has ten Assistant Scoutmasters but only needs seven, three need to go to the other troop.
Finally I’ll be assigning the Webelos crossing over this spring between the two troops. It’s only fair right? After all we don’t want this to be a popularity contest.
Would you appreciate these changes? Of course not. Even though they make perfect sense on paper I am taking away your friends and breaking up your team.
When we ‘fix’ patrols, when we try to even out numbers, ranks, ages, and experience we are usually breaking up friends and teams. Scouts find this just as disheartening as you would if I made the changes in the scenario I imagined above.
About a year ago when something went wrong it usually led back to three of our Scouts we dubbed ‘the terrible trio’.
One senior patrol leader tried to break them up and put each in different patrols. The terrible trio were fast friends and gravitated to each other no matter what patrol they were in. This caused their patrol leaders no end of aggravation. The next senior patrol leader decided that if they wanted to be together it was useless to fight with them, so he let them form their own patrol.
None of the other Scouts wanted to be in that patrol, so we had a patrol of three. Once these three friends were together they all showed up at nearly every meeting and campout. Soon they stopped being the terrible trio and became a competent, well-behaved patrol.
When it comes to patrols let the Scouts choose, accept their choices and help them solve any problems their choices create. It’s not nice and neat but Scouting is about the processes involved in making choices and the alchemy of working together with your peers to meet challenges and solve problems.
Talk to your senior patrol leader, ask him some questions. Do you think our patrols are set up the right way? Would you change anything if you could? How would you go abut changing things? Can you be sure that everyone is happy with whatever changes you make?
You may end up with patrols of ten or twelve, patrols of three or four, and everything in between. You may have patrols with mixed ages, or all the same age. It may look inefficient and messy, you’ll wonder if it’s a mistake! But be patient and work with the patrol leaders council and watch what happens. It will take some practice and patience but soon you’ll see that those patrols are full of happy, advancing Scouts having the time of their lives.
Scoutmaster Chris says
The issue of scouts selecting their own patrol has merit but there is the issue of one patrol getting many scouts while other patrols have few or none. We had one patrol that was very popular when one scout was PL and that is where most of the scouts wanted to go. Once there was a new PL, this popularity faded and many scouts wanted to go to other patrols. If left to their own decisions many scouts may choose one patrol and it would be about 20 or more scouts. In our troop, the SPL makes the decisions on patrol assignments for the new scouts after visiting with them and I, as SM, have nothing to do with these issues. The SPL tries to balance patrol numbers while making sure that friends stay together, This is the old difference between theory and practice. It would be great if they all chose the patrols evenly and wanted to stay in patrols no matter who was PL, but in practice some patrols would become massive while others would disappear. I think the tension between having several patrols of functional size and the scouts choosing their own patrols is real and is a challenge.
Enoch H. says
Good point! If all Scouts were mature, there would be no formal rules required. The issue that you pointed out is just one of the many reasons why a Scoutmaster would probably find it easier to simply dictate everything himself. But that wouldn’t be the Scout way.
John Thurman said:
“I’ve always been glad it isn’t too easy. If all we had to do was to write ‘Patrol System’ over the entrance to every Troop Headquarters and a sort of miracle resulted it would really be too simple to bother with, but fortunately, and I mean fortunately, it isn’t as easy as that. It does not get any easier as the years go by, and perhaps in that lies its secret, its charm and its possibilities. It always needs and always will need two special qualities – the one common sense, the other effort.”
The most important thing is keeping true to and always continuing to work toward the principles of Scouting: Patrol unity, P.L. responsibility, and etc.
I think it’s sometimes necessary that a Scoutmaster who understands the principles and how they work exert some influence or make some rules to keep things headed in the right direction. However, it can very easily be taken too far and have the Scoutmaster’s actions take away the responsibility of the Scout Leaders and independence of the Patrols. The balancing act will always be there, and I think it’s one of the “hard” aspects that Thurman was talking about.
Clarke Green says
This may seem as though I am cutting things a little thin but we aren’t applying or making rules, we are applying principles. A rule is inflexible, “no more than or less than x number of Scouts in a patrol” instead of the principle that Scouts choose and make up patrols. Principles are the context, rules attempt to codify principles and they always fail at some point.
When you have the principles in play you don’t really need rules. When we understand why we have patrols and what they are to accomplish we use our common sense and apply the method.
Great thought from Thurman! – where did that come from?
SM Ron says
I hear in this that the older boys are fading in involvement….
To keep the older boys engaged, might I suggest, you need to give them a few outings of just them. Even though they are in patrols, we designated our high school age boys to also be part of our venture patrol and they go on 4 higher adventure outings per year.
The other side of this is to engage the individuals with unique responsibilities. Leave No Trace Trainer, Troop Guide, Instructor, and jobs like this keep the older boys involved with the younger ones and feel needed.
Clarke Green says
Scouts with real responsibility, no matter what their age, don’t fade away.
We don’t utilize first year patrols, but instead parse the new scouts out to established patrols–boy lead patrols win in the end; and helps the patrol leadership teach and the younger members how a patrol runs. Plus, you separate that old pod of AOLs from the Pack. It really tells them, “you’re in Boy Scouts now”…positively.
Clarke Green says
Don’t parse or put Scouts anywhere, let them choose.
Enoch H says
Thanks for the post. I think your answer was a very good one. I would add, though, that sometimes a Scoutmaster might need to put a cap on the size of a Patrol, or need to keep more immature Scouts from wanting to constantly jump from one Patrol to the next because they happen to bump heads with some of the other Scouts. After all, because of what Patrols are meant to be, they can’t always be in flux, rather a Scoutmaster/Senior Patrol Leader can use an interpersonal conflict as an opportunity to help a Scout grow and mature.
I have seen this problem from a different perspective. I was the Senior Patrol Leader who wanted to keep the Patrols together, and the adult leaders wanted to split them up and rearrange them to get more mixed ages.
There were a few younger/immature crossovers who were causing some personal conflicts in their Patrols. So the adults’ rationale was that mixing them up would separate the trouble-making Scouts and put older Scouts in charge.
My rationale was that the Scouts could work out their problems with time and some guidance, and I could already see some real Patrol Spirit just starting to develop. Above all, I believed that the Scout Patrols should be kept together.
Unfortunately, things changed as soon as I left the position of S.P.L.. The Patrols were mixed up, and I was replaced with a less active S.P.L.. This did, however, give me an opportunity to observe how things developed. It did solve the immediate problem of arguing Scouts by separating them, but all real team-work broke down, and the Troop became, essentially, one big group.
Once breaking up the Patrols became a precedent, this happened several more times over the last two years, and the Troop has shrunk overall in size. Patrol Spirit never got a chance to develop since then. Currently, we have just two Patrols, but I still have hopes of Patrol Spirit starting to develop, especially since a new, more active, S.P.L. was elected.
Anyway, just my little bit of experience for the benefit of any who are dealing with this question right now.
Clarke Green says
If you go with the idea that Scouts can be in any patrol they choose and make the choice to change when they see fit it does not exclude the idea that those choices are not the subject of discussion of counsel. While jumping around from patrol to patrol is a theoretical possibility it’s not something I have seen.
I think that patrols should stay together and last as long as possible – I don’t think that means we take away choices. The idea of a patrol being important is the key – patrol leaders who get this will work to keep Scouts in their patrol, they will work to resolve conflicts and differences. I see Scouts consider those choices carefully, they don’t take them lightly, but if they don’t have the power to choose they are helpless to do much of anything.
Adults making these decisions for Scouts is the source of the problem – it devalues the whole idea of a patrol to Scouts. Instead of being considered individuals with the power to choose they are managed like so many widgets.