Service Learning

By Amy Goodman
Co-Director, Autism Now

Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy used in the many K-12 classrooms throughout the country. It integrates instruction with community service, which includes Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals for students with disabilities and also covers all the core curriculum standards. It could be a short term or long term community service project, ranging from one activity to a series of events throughout an entire semester.

Three main goals of a service learning project are:

  1. To enrich the learning experience and use higher level thinking skills through reflection
  2. To demonstrate civic responsibility, which teaches skills necessary for leadership and citizenship; and
  3. To strengthen communities by bridging the gap between the students and the other individuals involved in the community service

Through service learning projects, young individuals from kindergarten to college use what they learn in the classroom to solve real life problems. This also allows them use practical applications to become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service that they perform.

Service learning can be applied in a wide array of settings. This could include schools, universities, community-based and family-based organizations. It could involve a class of students, an entire school, or an individual. Students build character and become active participants as they work with others to benefit society.

Some examples of Service Learning Projects include:

  1. In Florida, elementary schools students studied the consequences of natural disasters and designed a kit to help families know what to collect in case of an evacuation. When they finished putting the kits together, they delivered them to members of the community.
  2. In Pennsylvania, middle school students learned about health consequences of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. They worked on a project where they conducted a health fair, created a healthy cookbook, and opened a fruit and vegetable stand for the school and community.
  3. A Girl Scout troop in West Virginia investigated the biological complexity and diversity of wet lands. They learned about the need to eliminate invasive species, so they decided to monitor streams. At the conclusion of their project, they presented their finding to their town council.

Service learning can be adapted for high-school students with moderate to severe disabilities such as autism. These activities provide benefits to students such as improving work-related skills, self-esteem, practical skills needed for adulthood, school attendance, and new academic skills (Krajewski and Callahan, 1998).


Gent, P. (2009). Great ideas: Using service-learning and differentiated instruction to help your students succeed.

Krajewski , J., & Callahan, J. (1998). Service-learning: A strategy for vocational training of young adults with special needs. Journal for Vocational Special Needs Education, 21(1), 34-38.

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