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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.


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