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Encouraging your student to serve others pays off

By Katie Wetherbee

Picture it: twenty seven seventh graders, dancing, laughing and eating nachos. At first glance, it appears to be a typical birthday celebration. However, gifts are noticeably absent, and in their place, a stack of envelopes containing donations to a local charity. This is a party with a purpose, planned by students determined to make a difference.

Parents and schools strive to help children develop this kind of commitment. Current events classes help students understand community issues, while activities such as collecting food and donating warm clothes provide tangible ways for students to help others.  Many schools require community service hours for graduation.

With the goal of improving communities, “service learning” has become part of the academic day.  Approximately one third of the nation’s schools have service learning programs as part of the curriculum. Unlike one-time service projects, service learning closely ties community participation with problem solving and academic skills. Students learn to take data, identify goals and solve problems in the community. For example, a group of students might create a survey to determine the needs of a local animal shelter and then create a plan to raise funds or complete projects to help the organization. The results are mutually beneficial: the community is enhanced and the students improve their learning.

Research indicates that service learning has a positive effect on academic performance.  Students who are actively involved in service improve their grades and their performance on standardized tests.  They also develop critical thinking skills necessary for career success. In addition, service learning increases students’ leadership skills and instills a sense of responsibility. Furthermore, students who actively participate in service are less likely to engage in high risk behaviors.

With the benefits associated with service, the case for including service learning in schools is strong. As with any skill, students are more likely to succeed when they have reinforcement at home. Parents can increase their children’s ability to serve in several ways.

Do as I do…

Discussions about community issues can make a great impression on children. However, when parents volunteer, children can see solutions in action. Without saying a word, parents show their children the importance of community participation. When children observe their parents’ passion for a cause, noting the time and resources needed to accomplish goals, they gain a sense of long-term commitment to the good of the community.

Inviting a child to participate in a parent’s activity, when appropriate, can be particularly meaningful.  For example, one father invited his teenage daughter to accompany him on a mission trip to Mexico recently. Similarly, a teacher at an inner-city school recruited her high schooler to assist with creating materials. These kinds of activities make children feel necessary to what their parents are accomplishing, increasing the children’s sense of competence and motivating them for future service.

Make it a family affair

Serving the community as a family provides a common purpose and promotes togetherness. Families can choose hands-on projects, such as making dinner for a person in need or providing respite care for a family whose child has a disability. Some families prefer to participate in fundraising activities together. These kinds of activities have teachable moments: parents can teach money management and instill a habit of charitable giving in their children.

With families’ busy schedules, adding even one extra commitment can feel overwhelming. Creating service traditions can be a solution to the scheduling dilemma.  Families can try one activity per season for starters. In December, many families adopt a local family in need and provide gifts and food for them. Donating school supplies in the fall and planting flowers for a beautification committee in the spring are other examples of “seasonal” service that can become family traditions.

Another way to spark an interest in service is for families to choose an organization that has special meaning. Some families, volunteer regularly at their church or synagogue. Others might choose a cause that has benefited a family member. By choosing one organization, students will be able to develop relationships with others involved and see the fruits of their efforts on a long-term basis.

It is important to note that service opportunities are not always structured. Parents can encourage their children to serve others by offering to shovel a neighbor’s walk or by cooking a meal for a family with a newborn baby. These “incidental” service opportunities underscore the importance of anticipating and filling others’ needs.

Consider their interests

When helping their children choose a service project, parents should consider the children’s interests and passions. Music, sports, and fine arts can all lend themselves to service opportunities. For example, a ministry organization recently sponsored an all-night soccer tournament to raise money. A local piano teacher hosts her winter recital each year at a nursing home, creating a performance opportunity for the students and an enjoyable afternoon for the home’s residents.  Students may be more motivated to participate in a service event when it is in line with their own talents and interests.

Parents should also be aware that some kids are truly gifted at service. While it is not a talent that garners varsity letters or leading roles onstage, this gift should be recognized and developed just as any other ability. Scouts, youth groups, and service activities at schools are excellent ways for these students to hone their special skills.

Encourage reflection

Students involved in service will need to reflect on their experiences and process what they have learned. This helps them to compare their textbook knowledge and service experiences in order to draw conclusions and evaluate the project outcomes. Service learning research shows a high correlation between reflecting on service experiences and an increased sense of competence.

Sometimes, students who volunteer may be involved in an emotionally-charged event and they may lack the maturity and experience to manage this. Similarly, the emotional let-down after an anticipated event may weigh heavily on students. They will need guidance as they work through their experiences. Parents can help by understanding the project, being available listening without judgment.

Parents should also probe their children to identify success in their experiences. Determining the feelings and outcomes that indicate effectiveness increases the likelihood that students will continue growing as active community members. “I liked seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” one student reflected after an outreach event, “It made me feel good, knowing I was serving someone else and making them happy.”
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