Being a troop leader is incredibly exciting, but what happens when you meet a new Girl Scout you just aren’t sure how to support? As a troop leader, it’s important to make sure all members feel welcomed and included in our troops. Sometimes we aren’t sure what that should or could look like, and that’s okay! You’re in the right place to learn more.
In the United States about one in six, or roughly 17%, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disabilities. Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. A sizable number of those are defined as invisible. Invisible disabilities include, but are not limited to:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Brain injuries
- Severe food allergies
Since invisible disabilities can be difficult to recognize, it is even more important that we try to equitably serve Girl Scouts when approaching and welcoming children with varying abilities. And Girl Scouts River Valleys is here to support troop leaders in creating a positive experience for all Girl Scouts of all abilities. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. No Experience is Required
You do not have to be an expert on disabilities to provide accommodations. Starting off with a willingness to learn will carry you far in fostering an inclusive troop. Seeking out education on your own is a great first step to take. We shouldn’t assume that a member with a disability will want to educate us about their disability because it can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Asking for additional help from family members or parents within the troop can add layers of support.
2. Plan Ahead
Set up your troop for success by taking thorough notes of what Girl Scouts can expect during your activities. Some considerations include:
- What will the activity involve? Who will lead it?
- What are the badge requirements? How do they align with my troop’s abilities?
- Are there paved paths, stairs, or anything else to consider in the physical location?
- Will the space be noisy or crowded? Are there quiet or private spaces nearby?
3. Partner with Parents/Caregivers and their Girl Scout
Learn about your troop by asking families to fill out the Meet My Girl Scout Form. What are their likes? Dislikes? What things do they find difficult? You can also learn more about your troop member’s needs by asking families to fill out the Health History Form. Prepare your families for what the activities might look like and ask if there are any barriers. Allow them to make suggestions and be part of the planning process for how their child might participate.
4. Focus on Abilities, Not Disabilities
A troop member who uses a wheelchair may not be able to build a campfire on the ground, but they may be able to prepare graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolates for s’mores at the table nearby. A raised portable fire pit could also be used to have everyone on the same level. Knowing and understanding a child’s abilities will allow you to transition in moments where there are barriers. Avoid calling attention to the extra assistance and have alternatives on hand when an activity doesn’t work out. Remember to focus on the intent of the activity you are doing, instead of getting stuck in the details. When you start looking at the situation with everyone’s abilities in mind, there are no limits to what Girl Scouts can achieve!
5. Speak up
When creating a space of inclusion, use teachable moments. Allow questions and use those questions as a moment to educate fellow troop members on how what they do might look alike or might be different. Use people-first language which emphasizes the person before the disability. For example, use “people with disabilities” instead of “the handicapped” or “the disabled.” Words have impact and we should be aware that even if we’re not intending to, our words can be experienced as hurtful by others. We recommend completing the Delivering Inclusive Programming module on gsLearn for more support.
6. Create a Welcoming Space
Contact local schools and ask if you can provide the special education teachers with fliers from our Growing Your Troop resources. Make sure those materials specifically say that children with disabilities are welcome in Girl Scouts. Parents are used to assuming their children with disabilities are excluded, so you might have to be more intentional to get their attention!
Want to learn more? Check out the resources below to learn more:
- Safety Activity Checkpoints
- Health History Form
- Allergy & Anaphylaxis Action Plan Form
- Request for American Sign Language Interpreter Form
- Meet My Child Form
Inclusion is a fundamental aspect of creating the safe and supportive environments we want for Girl Scouts. When we embrace inclusivity and accessibility, we empower Girl Scouts of all abilities to discover their full potential and build their self-confidence.
Christina Ettestad – Christina is a Community Organizer at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She is a current Girl Scout troop leader for 2nd grade Brownies, was a Girl Scout herself as a child, and now mentors new leaders. Christina attended the University of River Falls to obtain a certificate in Early Childhood Development and continues her passion for working with kids. Christina has three children of her own, one of whom has disabilities, including Cerebral Palsy, Severe Cognitive Delay, Apraxia, Dysarthria, limited mobility, and limited fine motor skills. She loves to plan Girl Scout meetings, explore art, camp, get outdoors with her family as often as possible, and advocate for inclusion.