Service Learning "101": A Guide for Leaders

Grade Level: 
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Scientific Investigation
Service Learning
Learning and action through service-learning give youth purpose and motivation to "do well and do good" because what they do matters. Service-learning is good teaching tool that develops critical-thinking skills. Ultimately, service-learning cultivates a caring community and prepares students for responsible citizenship, as well as college and career. In the long term, the skills, practices, and reflection help us build a more generous, connected civil society.

Before jumping into service-learning, we recommend you explore Learning to Give's Get Started page and menu dropdowns above. Try a TeachOne lesson or do some of the Building Community activities. 

The Service-Learning Process

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

The service-learning process mirrors other student-centered methods. See the chart in the handouts below correlating the similar steps of four student-centered strategies.

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

Investigate Community and Self

Investigation may involve youth in the following actions:

  • Identify interests and skills – what we care about and are good at
  • Learn about community resources – research, field trips, and guest speakers
  • Identify community needs – What could be improved? What is needed?
  • Research an issue area and ways to address it
Use the Lesson Search to start with a lesson plan or unit

Learning to Give lesson plans help youth get to know the needs and issues in their community and inspire their role as generous citizens. These lesson plans are written by teachers who integrate philanthropy with interdisciplinary content. All lessons are aligned to Common Core and state standards. They may guide activities outside the classroom as well.

Find a Learning to Give lesson by entering a term that relates to an area of study (Civil War), a community resource (food pantry), or an issue (justice) and then add filters to narrow your search.

Not sure where to start? One of the ideas below can help determine your focus for learning and service.

  1. You’re building community engagement, so look to your neighborhood or community for unique resources, experts, needs, or events as a starting place.
  2. The time of year may determine your focus. Look at the calendar of service to get ideas related to national events, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or Earth Day.
  3. Use the Build Community activities (under Get Started) to explore what youth care about. Following their interests sparks more engagement.
  4. Learning to Give has toolkits organized by issue areas you and your team care about. Toolkits include lesson plans, project ideas, and community resources.
  5. Teaching through service-learning can bring new life to an old unit. Some teachers start with the concept they like teaching the least because Learning to Give lessons spark renewed interest and excitement.  

Example from a fourth grade teacher: We entered "river" in the search and chose the elementary unit “Rivers for the Common Good” because we have access to a river, and our class was talking about clean water systems. This lesson plan gives us the framework to investigate the scientific process and link to language arts and social studies.

Research an Issue and How to Address It

Enlist youth voice and choice to narrow the topic, collect information, and state a problem that can be addressed by the group. Here are ways youth learn more about an identified need:

  • interviewing community members or experts (local nonprofits are a good resource of information),
  • taking a survey,
  • researching and reading literature, or
  • observing a place (local farm, museum, retirement facility, etc.) or situation in person.
Make a Problem Statement

Help youth assert a problem statement about the needs/problem they found in their investigation. This statement gives structure to the planning of the service action.


  1. The students took a survey about the type of bullying present at school. As a result of the survey, they state the problem that students are not skilled in conflict communication.
  2. After research and observation, they conclude that human-environment interactions have negatively impacted the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

Plan Service and Prepare for Action

It’s time to design a plan to address the identified need in the hypothesis/problem statement. Teachers guide students toward independence, giving them as much voice and responsibility as they are ready for. Help students brainstorm possible actions to take. Encourage critical thinking and communication skills to narrow the options, verify the plan is needed, and determine next steps. 

The teacher’s role is to check in with the students and ask questions. For example, if they think it is a good idea to donate collected used crayons to a neighboring school, make sure they communicate with the receiving school to ask whether this is something they want and in what form they would like the donations. 

Guide students to make a plan and break it down into action steps that can be checked off as they are completed. Below is a sample plan where students identified the problem of pollution in a local river and created a plan  including a clean-up day in collaboration with a local environmental nonprofit. 

First, break down the plan into action steps on sticky notes (contact the nonprofit, determine a date, make posters, ask for donations of supplies, get permission, etc.).

Second, put the steps in order on a board in a timeline.

Third, assign students to take on different tasks.

Fourth, as the group starts taking action, keep track of progress on the planning board and hold students accountable for their tasks. 

Involve student voice and choice in the planning. Determine what you will plan and what students are ready to take on. Give them as much ownership and responsibility for planning as their experience allows. It is extremely important to teach expected behaviors and processes, or procedural lessons, because stepping out of the classroom together may be new, and students require structure and practice with what to expect and how to behave as responsible representatives of the school and community. 

Planning tools and suggestions:
  • A rubric is an invaluable tool for guiding practice and expectations in the planning and implementation process.
  • During class discussions, carefully consider the power of the pause. Students need time to process the question and their answer and to navigate the social environment within the classroom. Giving questions in advance and allowing think time, increases the quality of thinking. 
  • Refer to learning targets throughout the experience. 
  • Work with your professional learning community (PLC) to increase connections between content areas and define student performance expectations according to standards.
  • Magnify the impact of field trips by connecting social studies, language arts, art, and the philanthropic theme. Example: Use visual literacy strategies at a field trip to the art museum in discussions related to your service issue area.
  • Relate their action to historical context by visiting local museums and historic sites.
  • Learn about people, events, and organizations in history related to voluntary action for the common good.

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

Take Action! 

The action students take to address a need empowers them to recognize they are capable of making a difference. The real-world experience extends thinking and broadens their world to see diverse places, people, and opportunities available to them. Students recognize that their actions matter! This is the first step on the path to lifelong empowerment and engagement in community. 

Document your planning and action steps in journals and with photos. Have students write essays and poems about their experience and understanding of the issue and philanthropic concepts. These data tools will be used to communicate to others and validate the internal and external experiences of the givers. The documentation is also important so the experiment can be duplicated by others or repeated and improved upon in following years. 

When the recipients of the service acknowledge what the students have done, students get the most powerful reinforcement that what they do matters. Whenever possible, include the recipients in conversations and reflection.

Read about the four types of service.

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

Reflect on Process and Impact

  1. Like in a scientific experiment, analyzing service-learning process and action helps you and your students understand and internalize. Open-ended questions will provide opportunities for students to consider broader issues in the community and reflect upon their role as an individual in the neighborhood and the global community. 
  2. View the educator mini-course Reflection in Service for background and ideas.
  3. As you facilitate the critical thinking process, use the collected data and scaffolding to help students formulate a conclusion. Direct students to interpret and communicate cause-effect relationships.
  4. Ask what they observed about responsibility and the effect of individuals acting for the common good. 
  5. Engage the students in a variety of post-service reflection activities (writing, physical activity, music, discussion, social media, and art) to extend thinking.

Investigate > Plan > Act > Reflect > Demonstrate

Demonstrate to an Audience

Communicate results to an outside audience, including community partners. Have students share their process of discovery, planning, academic and philanthropic knowledge, and the impact of their service. This may take different forms:

  • a formal presentation to parents
  • a grant proposal for funding to a youth council of a community foundation
  • a film or creative work of performance or visual art that shares their story
  • essays, poems, and songs
  • party with the recipients of their service

Note: When working with community partners, the initial contact should be the first step of many. Start small with an ask, such as inviting a guest speaker to the classroom for 45 minutes. Community partners require clarity to provide needed support for any joint endeavor. The final presentation should demonstrate reaching the objectives of the clear communications with the partner. 

Final Advice  

  • Remember to recommend service-learning as a strategy in the School Improvement Plan! Student stories of impact are a great tool for sharing the transformational nature of service-learning and philanthropy education. Include administration and school board members in your demonstration. Service-learning empowers better human beings and improves your professional teaching evaluation!
  • These evaluations may be completed by parents and families, community partners, students, and teachers, and may be used in conjunction with any Learning to Give lesson, toolkit, or resource to measure impact. The goal is to help you collect information about the impact of your philanthropy and service-learning instruction.
  • As you implement Learning to Give lessons, reach out and collaborate with other Learning to Give teachers and share resources. Your list of community partners will grow!
  • The Stages of Service Learning -- This educator mini-course introduces service-learning to educators with a brief overview of strategies and helpful tips. Learn the steps and quality indicators of service-learning, which is a teaching and learning strategy that combines real-world application of academic skills and content with service to the community.