Empathy: The Critical Link between Service Learning and Giving

Why do some people give easily while others do not?  How can giving be instilled in children so that they will be givers as adults?  What is it about empathy that encourages giving and how can it be developed in children?  These are many of the questions researchers have sought to answer, many of them looking to Service Learning as the mechanism to bridge empathy and giving.  However, does Service Learning really encourage young children to make the leap from empathy to the decisive action and follow through required in giving?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person (Webster).  Research clearly delineates a high correlation between effective service learning programs and high outcomes of empathy toward others increasing the likelihood of civic involvement later in life (Celio, Durlak, Joseph, & Dymnicki, 2011).  But what leads children with empathy to give as children?

Research involving the patterns of giving in adults reveals some clues to the relationship between empathy and giving.  Not surprisingly, several adult studies imply a strong correlation between empathy and a willingness to donate and volunteer in adulthood.  These studies also imply men tend to give less frequently than women unless the giving opportunity is presented with an aligned personal self-interest.  It is apparent that for many adults, it takes more than empathy to determine whether or not giving will be the end result.

Data related to highly effective service learning programs suggest that those experiences in which children and youth have a strong voice or higher degree of ownership actually develop higher levels of empathy due to higher engagement in problem-solving and decision-making as part of the service learning experience (Celio, Durlak, Joseph, & Dymnicki, 2011).  This mirrors the findings in adult men who are more likely to give (Charitable Giving Facts, n.d ).   Low income working families make up the most generous in America, giving up to 4.5 % of their income (Charitable Giving Facts, n.d ).  The act of giving requires real human engagement in seeing a need, problem-solving how it can best be met, and making the decision to take action by helping to meet the need through giving.  Pre-fab service learning opportunities where adults do the decision-making do not meet this requirement.

Research is clear about the many healthful and emotional benefits in giving to others ((Charitable Giving Facts, n.d ).  ).  Perhaps experiencing these benefits as a child as part of an empowering opportunity to help others under the guidance of a carefully scaffolded child-adult relationship (whether child-parent or child-teacher) enables children to make the leap from service learning to giving through empathy (Serriere, Mitra, & Reed, 2011) .  Giving is leadership in action, and perhaps this kind of experience reframes the act of giving for children.

Celio, Christine, Durlak, Joseph, & Dymnicki, Allison (2011).  A meta-analysis of the impact of service learning on students;  Journal of Experiential Education, Volume34, Number 2, pp. 164-181.  Retrieved on June 30, 2015, http://www.stjohns.edu/sites/default/files/documents/adminoffices/asl-meta-analysis-effects-asl-students.pdf

Charitable Giving Facts (  ).  Retrieved at http://www.compassion.com/poverty/charitable-giving.htm

Serriere, Stephanie, Mitra, Dana, & Reed, Katherine (2011). Student voice in the early elementary years: fostering youth-adult relationships in elementary service learning; Theory & Research in Social Education; Fall, Volume 39, Number 4, pp. 541-575.  Retrieved on June 30, 2015, at http://www.academia.edu/2006239/Student_Voice_in_the_elementary_years_Fostering_youth-adult_partnerships_in_elementary_service-learning.

Webster’s Dictionary (  ).  Retrieved on June 30, 2015, at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy.

Self-Control Predicts Future Life Patterns

Social scientists have found that poor self-control is predictive of a variety of patterns of instability later in life.  For example, children displaying poor self-control during elementary school years are more likely to develop unhealthy behaviors later in life, such as over-eating and smoking.  They have even found poor self-control to be predictive of early mortality, unemployment, poverty, and crime.  Obviously, this highlights the importance of teaching children self-discipline and delayed gratification.

Researchers have found that approximately 30% of 4 year olds already possess adequate self-control skills.  Children who struggle with self-control issues can be taught healthy self-control and self-management skills early in life.  While many people don’t necessarily equate self-management with social-emotional learning, the roots of self-management are in social-emotional learning and character development.  The development of trust, empathy, patience, gratitude, respect, and generosity all contribute to the development of self-management skills and an awareness of the needs of others.  Parents and teachers who model emotional regulation as well as empathy in setting limits help children to strengthen their self-management skills.  In addition, character development opportunities through direct instruction and frequent conversation at school and at home enable children to develop increased empathy for others, increasing self-management skills and positive character strengths.

By Pamela L. Bruening, Ed.D.


Cain, G. & Carnellor, Y. (2008). ‘Roots of Empathy’: A research study on its impact on teachers in Western AustraliaJournal of Student Wellbeing, 2(1), 52-73.

Duke University. (2011, January 25). Childhood self-control predicts adult health and wealth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 14, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110124151711.htm.

Markham, Laura; Help Your Child Develop Self-Control.  Aha! Parenting Blog. Retrieved July 14, 2014 from: www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/Help_Your_Child_Develop_Self_Control/

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Cooperation: Natural or Nurtured?

The bustling ant colony is a vivid picture of cooperation. As parents, we often expect that our children are probably born the same way – cooperative from birth, perhaps because they love us.  Research, however, suggests that cooperation may be more of a nurtured skill than a natural skill.  Cooperation is defined as a willingness to collaborate rather than a response to adult’s prompting to share with another child (Jewell, 1992).  Cooperative behavior leads to established friendships in early years, an important contributor to children’s social and communication development (Faulkner & Miell, 1993).

Children learn how to manage conflict and establish intimacy through two primary strategies early in life: aggression and cooperation (Jewell, 1992).  Cooperative problem-solving with peers is an important part of social development, and in school settings, also promotes cognitive development (Ramani & Brownell, 2014).  Aggression and cooperation both have strong roots in family interactions, parental expectations, and experienced values (Jewell, 1992).  Though some aggression at very young ages is normal, children can be taught cooperative problem-solving behaviors through parental modeling, encouragement and recognition of observed cooperative behaviors, and by acknowledging a child’s efforts toward cooperation even when it is not reciprocated by another child (Jewell, 1992).  Likewise, aggressive behaviors can be minimized through re-direction and collaborative problem-solving, as well as labeling and verbalizing feelings leading to the aggression (Jewell, 1992).

Parents can have a strong and positive impact on the development of cooperative behaviors in their children.  In addition to modeling, valuing, and encouraging cooperation at home, parents can allow their young children some unstructured social time with peers and encourage them to manage natural conflicts through cooperative problem-solving.  These experiences contribute tremendously to the social, communicative, and cognitive development of their children.

By Pamela L. Bruening, Ed.D.


Faulkner, Dorothy; Miell, Dorothy (1993).  Settling into School: The Importance of Early Friendships for the Development of Children’s Social Understanding and Communicative Competence.  International Journal of Early Years Education, v1 n1 p23-45 Spr 1993.  Retrieved on August 15, 2014 at http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ462983.

Jewell, Jan (1992).  Aggression and Cooperation: Helping Young Children Develop Constructive Strategies.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education;  Champaign IL.   Retrieved on August 21 at ERIC DIGEST: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED351147.pdf.

Ramani, Geetha B.; Brownell, Celia A. (2014). Preschoolers’ cooperative problem solving: Integrating play and problem solving Journal of Early Childhood Research February 2014 12: 92108. Retrieved on 9/11/2014 at http://eric.ed.gov/?q=cooperation+in+young+children&id=EJ1019452 .

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The Importance of the Home in Developing Positive Civic Attitudes and Behaviors

For years, schools and communities programs have sought to positively impact student citizenship or civil behaviors.  While those programs in schools have developed wonderful awareness and knowledge related to civic behaviors, research shows that it is what happens in the home that impacts students most in this area.

Researchers have shown that students involved in discussion and participation of civic responsibilities with their parents, especially in close parent/student relationships, are more likely to be involved with civic activities later in life.  Participation in civic-related activities and knowledge in school, sometimes translated into action based on what also happened at home related to civic responsibilities,  Civic knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors are also significantly associated with later voting habits.  Though families who engage in civic opportunities increase the likelihood of students becoming civically-minded as adults, those social-emotional learning programs implemented in schools that both increase student understanding of civil responsibility and encourage these activities in the home, appear to have the greatest impact in actual civic participation later in life.  Parents do well to volunteer with their children on a regular basis in building civically responsible adults tomorrow.

By Pamela Bruening, EdD


Cohen, A. & Chaffee, B. (2012).  The relationship between adolescents’ civic knowledge, civic attitude,
and civic behavior and their self-reported future likelihood of voting.  University of CARetrieved from http://esj.sagepub.com/content/8/1/43.abstract  on August 14, 2014.

Kahne, J. & Sporte, S. (2008) Developing Citizens: The Impact of Civic Learning Opportunities on Students’
Commitment to Civic Participation, University of Chicago.  Retrieved from http://aer.sagepub.com/content/45/3/738.short  on August 15, 2014.

Lenzi, M., Vieno, A., Santinello, M., Nation, M., & Voight, A. (2013).    The Role Played by the Family in
Shaping Early and Middle Adolescent Civic Responsibility.  Department of Developmental and
Social Psychology, University of Padova.  Retrieved from http://m.jea.sagepub.com/content/34/2/251.short
on August 15, 2014.

Written for Charity for Change