Six Thoughts on Merit Badge Requirements and Learning Challenges

Merit Badges, Douglas Murth/Wikimedia Commons

I was recently asked for guidance from a merit badge counselor  working with a Scout whose learning abilities are severely affected by Down syndrome. The Scout could master the physical aspects of the badge but struggled with the “discuss” and “explain” requirements.

Here are my thoughts. They are not anyone’s gospel. I’d love to hear what guidelines other people use.

While I’m writing this in the context of Scouts with special needs, the interpretations should apply equally to any Scout. We can’t judge typical Scouts by one set of merit badge criteria and judge Scouts with special needs by a different one. We all need to follow the same requirements.

#1: The “Merit Badge Worksheet” is 1000% optional

I suspect a lot of Scouts avoid merit badges when the worksheet seems intimidating. This is sad. I never mention worksheets to Scouts when I talk about counseling them on a merit badge. I never use them at merit badge fairs.

If a Scout hands me a merit badge worksheet, I’ll accept it to fulfill relevant requirements. But the worksheet doesn’t substitute for genuine discussions or demonstrations. If the requirement says “Discuss,” I’ll let the Scout refer to the worksheet, but a discussion must and will take place. If it says “Show or demonstrate,” the worksheet is irrelevant.

Scouts are welcome to meet with me without ever having looked at the worksheet. It’s not part of the official requirements. It’s not authoritative, though the authors work hard to try to make them accurate.

#2: Use the official merit badge requirements

The official requirements are all posted online. If the badge requirements have changed recently, the page also links to the older requirements. Scouts have to use the latest version of the requirements.

When I’m working with a Scout over several sessions, I often keep my own log of what requirements the Scout completes. This is especially useful if the Scout has a penchant for losing things. Most do.

If a Scout has learning challenges, we work on the badge a few requirements at a time, check them off as completed, and pick up other requirements at a later meeting.

#3: There’s not that much memorization

If a requirement does not say “from memory” or demand memorization somehow, then Scouts should be able to use memory aids to fulfill it. The Scout rank requires memorization of the Oath, Law, Motto, Slogan, Outdoor Code, and Pledge of Allegiance. There are no other rank-specific requirements for reciting something “from memory.”

A requirement that says “list” does not imply that the Scout must list something from memory. Don’t demand a Scout to work from memory if it’s not part of the requirement.

#4: The merit badge pamphlet is a guide, not an authority

Scouts learn things in school and from their own reading or discussions. I will give a Scout credit for a reasonable answer, based on what I know about the subject and how the Scout justifies an unexpected answer. It doesn’t matter if the answer doesn’t match some version of the merit badge pamphlet

Some requirements demand a list of a specific of features, like 5 parts of a computer or 7 cancer warning signs. These rarely have a single correct answer. As the “resident expert” the merit badge counselor may accept any reasonable answer even if it fails to match a list in the merit badge pamphlet.

When I served as a counselor for the Computer merit badge in the 1990s, I struggled with the requirement “List the 5 major parts of a computer.” I first encountered computers in grade school and have been working with them since the 1970s. I knew there was no authoritative list containing exactly five major parts.

The Personal Fitness merit badge requires the Scout to discuss the “7 warning signs of cancer.” If you search the Internet you will find several different lists of cancer warning signs. Some have exactly seven signs, and some list different signs than others.

#5: “Discuss” is different from “Explain”

When a requirement says “Explain,” I think it means the Scout should be familiar with the concept, even if she or he doesn’t grasp all details accurately. The Scout takes the lead in the conversation in explaining the topic at hand. The counselor is welcome to probe the Scout’s understanding with leading questions once the Scout demonstrates some basic knowledge.

If the requirement says “discuss,” the counselor’s goal is to tie the Scout’s own understanding and background to the concept at hand. The counselor has more freedom to tutor the Scout in the topic and ask leading questions from the beginning. The Scout must bring his or her own thoughts and experiences to the discussion to fulfill the requirement.

#6: You are the authority

You sign up to be a merit badge counselor because you have some knowledge or experience in the topic. Counselors won’t know all the answers from memory or experience, but a good counselor should recognize a good answer to a question, even if it’s surprising.

If every merit badge requirement had a single, authoritative response, the BSA would have switched to multiple choice worksheets back in the 1960s. Social and intellectual exchanges between Scout and counselor are an essential part of the merit badge program.

Editorial Notes

These are notes added after the article was first published. I’m starting with comments I copied/pasted from Facebook discussions. If your name appears here and you want it removed, please use the contact page to tell me.

Bernard Adelsberger: If you look up “discuss” you see that it does not have to be verbal. My son with autism is severely speech impaired so he and I will review a “discuss” requirement ahead of time so he can write out a “discussion” to present to the MB counselor. 

My quick visit to dictionary.com shows this is correct. The definition says a discussion may be spoken or written.

Marcia A Bettich: This is good. My only comment would be on #1. There seems to be this pervasive idea that worksheets are part of the merit badge process. They are not. Here is what Is stated in the Guide to Advancement 2017 … [GTA quote omitted]

I agree, this point can’t be emphasized enough. I especially like how this comment casts it: worksheets are not part of the merit badge process. I’d be inclined to say “not an official part” but that suggests they may be a respected tradition. Some people believe they are. I’m sure there are misguided counselors who demand them.

Here is a quote from the 2017 Guide to Advancement regarding flexibility in advancement exercised by individual leaders and merit badge counselors:

Simple modifications very close to existing requirements need not be approved. A Scout in a wheelchair, for example, may meet the Second Class requirement for hiking by “wheeling” to a place of interest. Allowing more time and permitting special aids are also ways leaders can help Scouts with disabilities make progress. Modifications, however, must provide a very similar challenge and learning experience. (GTA Section 10.2.2.1)

These “simple modifications” are contrasted with “alternative requirements,” which require very special handling for any requirement above Cub Scouts. The post-Cub rank requirements (Scout through First Class) may be substituted with alternative requirements, but the Scout or interested adult must first apply for approval by the local council. For Star through Eagle, a Scout may apply for alternatives to Eagle required merit badges. Aside from that, no changes may be made to those rank requirements, or to requirements for individual merit badges.

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