What is the Patrol Method? How do I help my scouts do it right?

What is the patrol method? The patrol method is a small group learning technique where a group of four to eight scouts form a team to work together to meet their goals. As teams have colors and mascots, a patrol selects colors and a patrol animals to represent them. The patrol also invents a call, or a fun way to yell for the group to get together while scouting. The call generally has a call and reply element, but not always. Traditionally, the patrol animals were real animals, and the calls animal sounds. However, a modern patrol may mix and match to create something that resounds with them.  Scouts may choose a fictional animal like a unicorn, and have a call and reply relevant to a show or book the patrol likes.  One of my favorites was the Turtle Patrol that had the call “Turtles in a Half Shell” and the reply was “Turtle Power!”  

This combination of colors (generally worn as ribbons pinned to the left shoulder), animal, and call help establish a patrol identity and playfulness that makes the game of scouting more fun. Scouts also may make flags to carry on hikes or to hang by their tents when camping to identify them by patrol.  If your Pathfinder group is large, this means your scouts have a fun way to divide into smaller groups for hikes, camp chores, badge work, and adventures.  However, even if you only have enough pathfinders for one patrol, the elements of fun and patrol identity still matter as it helps define their team. 

Patrol Leader

Now that your scouts identify themselves as part of their patrol (their scouting team) they will need a leader. If your scouts are very new, an adult may fill this role for a few months while the scouts are getting the hang of scouting and learning what it is all about. During that time, they will hopefully earn their Tenderfoot badge and get to know each other.  It isn’t fair to make scouts lead something they don’t understand, so do your best to set a good example of how to lead during these months as you teach them what scouting is all about. If you have older or skilled scouts, you can ask your patrol to select a leader and an assistant leader or second for the patrol. 

As a scout led organization, you should see if the scouts can sort this out for themselves. If they struggle, as there are multiple scouts who want to lead, or none, you can help. One solution for both of these is rotating and letting either all of the scouts, or all interested scouts, lead a meeting as patrol leader to try out the role.  You can also help the scouts to have a secret vote, and by writing on paper their votes, you can count them. This can be a solution when scouts don’t feel comfortable letting friends know who they voted for.  The patrol leader should choose who their second in command is, as you want them to be able to share the work. However, some patrols may also elect this position as a group decision.  As the adult, you may need to fill the role of giving them wise council on who to choose, or point out which scouts have attained Second Class and may be ready to step up. 

How much can you really rely on your patrol leader to lead? This honestly depends on the scouts you have. As the adult, it is your job to set up your scouts for success. So, if you have a young group of pathfinders, you will need to plan to provide lots of coaching and assistance. Even older pathfinder patrol leaders benefit from being given plans to follow, checklists for chores to assign and help with creating schedules for camping trips.  

The benefits of allowing the scouts to try out these leadership roles are huge. In the majority of life experiences that youth today have, adults tell them what to do. This chance to choose what they will do, and navigate working with their group to get things done is unique. While the patrol leader has the work of leading the group, they also have to negotiate with the group. While the patrol leader may present a plan where they want to do an aggressive backpacking trip or provide hot dogs for dinner at a meeting, they need to be able to change their plans based on whether other scouts are interested in taking this trip, or have food allergies or requirements that mean they can’t have hot dogs.  Part of learning to lead, is learning how to get others to follow you because they want to.

Some groups find that rotating the role of patrol leader every three or six months allows all the scouts to develop their leadership skills. Trying out both leading and following can be good for scouts. However, some kids are natural leaders and others may want to avoid the work of leading, so if your scouts don’t want to have turn over in the role, it isn’t necessary. Scouts who already have responsibilities in other parts of their lives such as younger siblings to care for or heavy work loads at school, may need scouts to be a place where they don’t have to work as hard, and that’s okay too.

Scout Masters will Still Have work to do

One point of failure for a group can be when the adults give either too much or too little help to your patrol leaders. Just like we know that younger scouts need time to grow into doing things for themselves, so do your pathfinders. If your pathfinders have never been on a camping trip, they aren’t going to know how to plan one nor what to do when they get there. It will still be on you to teach your patrol leader, second and any older scouts the skills they need.This lack of knowledge is also true of canoe trips, longer expeditions or backpacking if your scouts haven’t done those.  Part of your job as the adult is to educate your scouts on what to expect and discuss how to plan an event and how to divide work, along with what to bring.  If you work with them on a few trips, gradually doing less and less, you will soon have a group that can plan a trip and do the work of camp while you sit by the fire. 

The scoutmaster also supports the patrol leader’s leadership learning by passing instructions, when appropriate, for them to provide to the patrol.  Individual scouts learn many leadership lessons from working with and watching the patrol leader.  This is how they learn how to be a patrol leader when it is their turn in the scouting game.

At meetings and on camping trips, don’t feel you have to move too fast to help your scouts when they need it,  a slow moving scoutmaster gives pathfinders a chance to figure out their problem for themselves.  Non-emergency situations need non-emergency responses. Take time to ask your scouts what they have tried already when confronting a problem. Ask the entire patrol for solutions or ideas, so your patrol leader can see they don’t have to be the only one who has those. 


Now you can relax

Once your patrol is working well, and you can sit by the fire, make sure your scouts are learning good leadership skills. Encourage your patrol leaders to be fair about chore assignments (though open rebellion can also occur as a motivator on this front) and to help younger scouts. You want your patrol leader to develop the skills you wish your boss at work had.  This is a chance to test out leadership, and for scouts to explore how to motivate others. Some scouts excel at this, others need a lot of coaching. A lot.  But these are life skills that will take them far beyond scouting. 

The patrol leader will ideally want to teach skills to newer scouts and listen to their patrol. They will help lead the group through badge work during regular meetings, and help check off newer scouts on skills. As the adult, you will want to check on your patrol, create challenges for them, and give them direction when they are adrift. There is nothing wrong with letting scouts have time to play or relax together, so be sensitive to whether your patrol really needs direction, or not. Part of the joy of scouting is being with your friends.

Dealing with Challenges

What about scouts who have trouble following directions given by other scouts? It is important that you discuss with those scouts why they are struggling. Sometimes, taking directions from a sibling or friend is difficult. Helping these scouts think about what they should do with their feelings, and whether they are truly being treated unfairly is important. Sometimes, siblings REALLY need to be in separate patrols.  Many an older sibling’s life has been saved by giving his younger sibling a separate patrol to work with.  It also is up to you to mediate when scouts have trouble getting along.  Making sure scouts can safely voice their feelings and concerns, and that the group will take those seriously and try to help fix the problem is important. 

One guideline  that  is important to follow, never make a scout be the only one of their gender, race, religion or other factor in a mixed group if you don’t have to.  While it may be enticing to put one girl in each of your 2 patrols, the 2 girls will likely be happiest in a patrol together.  That said, you also don’t need to divide by gender and have a boy group and girl group, unless your scouts request that.  

As a GSM you may need to help your scouts divide into patrols or decide if you will only have one patrol. If you have only eight scouts, one patrol is usually better than two tiny patrols. If you have nine or more scouts, divide into two groups.  I recommend having a meeting or more to get to know your scouts before deciding on your patrols. Figuring out if you should separate or keep siblings together is a challenge that comes up more for our all inclusive organization. You also will need to decide if scouts will be split into older and younger groups, or patrols that have a mix of skills. Once again, the best choice is to talk to your oldest, most experienced scouts and get their input on how they think the group will work best.  The scouts who you expect will likely be the patrol leaders, will be the best at suggesting what they want out of scouts and what they think will work best for their peers. 


Scouts Get Attached to their Patrol

While there is nothing wrong with establishing new patrols each year, scouts tend to become very attached to their patrol, both the scouts in them, and the group identity. Sometimes a group of scouts graduates, and their patrol flag/animal/etc leaves with them so that younger scouts can establish a new identity. Sometimes, a patrol will feel a need to rename or recolor themselves.  Just remember that your job is to let them lead themselves and not force them to stay the same or change. That isn’t up to you. 

Multiple Patrols- Yes or No?

However, having multiple patrols can lead to many questions. Do your patrols camp together or not? Are they going to work on the same badges or different ones? Will they meet at the same time or not?  In our experience, having multiple patrols at the same place and time is great! Each patrol is a team for any game, scavenger hunt or relay race. Patrols can have a friendly competition to complete camp set up first, and they are natural groups for creating campfire skits. There are many possibilities. 

Senior Patrol Leaders- The Next Level

Tardis Patrol Flag in Parade

One last technique that our group has found useful, is to promote older scouts to the rank of Senior Patrol Leader when it is time to let someone else lead, but they significantly out rank the rest of the group.  For us, the Senior Patrol Leader is someone who has been a patrol leader for years, and is now ready to coach a patrol leader, lead multiple patrols in a pinch and is also ready to step back a bit and let the younger scouts do all they can before stepping in. For us, pathfinders with five to six years of experience tend to gravitate towards this role. This scout may also be more interested in completing their own scouting journey, doing the work to obtain First Class, or wrapping up other scouting goals more than being Patrol Leader. 

This is not a role that has to be filled, so if your older scout just wants to step back and follow instead, that’s fine too. Finding the right role for your scouts to fill as they mature so that scouting still fills a need for them is important.

Patrols are Memorable

Patrols can be one of the funnest parts of scouting and create a lot of fond memories for scouts. For all the times things will go right, there will be times they don’t. Knowing they were part of a team during those challenges matters. The game of scouting isn’t so much about winning or loosing, but about playing the game together.


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