Service Learning: Helping Teens Benefit Through Giving, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

Yes, service and learning go together!

And parents can play an important role in helping tweens and teens get the most from service learning during the summer months!

Research shows that civic engagement promotes higher academic achievement and develops many skills, including critical thinking, organizing, and planning. It also helps young people form an identity, an essential role of adolescence. But all volunteer jobs are not created equal and finding the best experiences for teens can be challenging.

Most likely, you have heard the term service learning. It usually refers to an organized program, part of a school curriculum, that gives kids the opportunity to link what they learn in the classroom to real world situations in their communities. Service learning programs work with a variety of community agencies that agree to work with schools to provide rich learning opportunities for youth.

But service learning need not be confined to the school year – or to classrooms.  Opportunities abound for rich summer experiences where young people can come together to work for a cause, build relationships, and apply their skills in the real world.  During the summer months, lots of organizations provide service learning experiences for youth.  Some are in foreign countries but many exist in your own community.

The following guidelines for supporting your tween or teen were synthesized from multi-disciplinary research and from young people’s own stories in Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation.

Guidelines for Working with your Tween or Teen

Talk about the Meaning of Service and Learning

Volunteering is not about putting another job experience on a college resume. You can help build character strengths in children by discussing service in ways that bring deeper meaning to life. When children do community service as a route to college admission rather than to genuinely serve others, learning is diminished.

Discover your Child’s Interests 

It is important for children to choose their own activities, based on their own interests.  Although you may have a great job for Billie through your friend at the local food bank, Billie may prefer to work outdoors building trails.  Let go of what you think Billie should do and help facilitate a conversation that links your child’s interests to possible jobs in your community. Kids have a much greater capacity to develop purpose and initiative when they choose activities for themselves!

Research Jobs

Once you’ve determined your son or daughter’s interests, help them begin to research opportunities. The older they are, the more they can do this for themselves. Use the internet and networking to find organizations in your community that have potential for offering a good experience. Good starting places are All for Good and Summer Programs for Kids & Teenagers. If your teen wants to organize their own project, point them to VolunteerSpot where anyone can mobilize and coordinate volunteers for projects in their community.

Make a Commitment

All jobs come with commitments, including volunteer positions.  This is important for your child to learn. Talk about how much time they will spend and in what ways they will discuss and reflect on their experiences with parents or other adults in their life.  Encourage teens to facilitate conversations that provide feedback to them on how they are doing. Often, if this request is made at the beginning of the summer, supervisors are more than happy to take time to review a student’s performance and help them learn new skills.  This is a good time to reassure your child that volunteering is a time to learn, that they don’t have to be perfect, and that they will learn from mistakes.

Take an Interest in Your Child’s Learning

As your child volunteers, they are growing and learning in many ways.  Find out how by asking open-ended questions about their day.  Asking questions like, “Tell me about…,” “How did that impact you?” or “How did you handle that situation?” will help you engage in meaningful dialogue.

Praise Your Child for Who They Are

When children take on jobs in their communities, parents have a tendency to praise them for all the great things they do! Research shows this type of praise becomes meaningless to kids. Community service develops skills and builds character strengths in young people. To help kids discover their identities, praise them for using their strengths and living their values rather than for the things they do.  You may want to refer to the article, Developing Character Strengths: A Vital Goal of Education – Part 2 for additional guidance.

Helping Youth Learn from Volunteering

Service Learning: Helping Teens Benefit Through Giving, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhDIt’s important to understand both words in service learning.

Service can embrace a variety of volunteer jobs, including visiting elderly people, tutoring children, raising money for nonprofit organizations, working in community gardens, cleaning up public spaces, monitoring environmental sites, creating websites, filming video segments, and working in food banks.

Learning occurs as teens discuss their experiences with others, when they write about issues, and when they reflect on the meaning of their work.  In practice, it’s often easier for learning to occur when it’s structured into a classroom process.  But it’s also just as easy to approach service and learning together when parents take an interest in their child’s volunteer work and when young people connect with adults in their communities who have an interest in their development.

Building homes can lead to learning about why people are homeless. Working in food banks can lead to learning about poverty and hunger. Working on trails can lead to learning about the environment.  But this kind of learning may not come naturally, particularly if kids view volunteering as just a way to pass the time during the summer and meet new friends.  Critically thinking about service can be fostered by parents, mentors, and other adults.  So get involved!  Your child will be the beneficiary!


All for Good

Summer Programs for Kids & Teenagers



Davila, A., & Mora, M. T. (2007). An Assessment of Civic Engagement and Educational Attainment (January 2007): Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Harré, N. (2007). Community service or activism as an identity project for youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 35(6), 711-724.

Photo Credits: g_walter; Chris Garrison

Published: June 13, 2011

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