A New Opportunity for Inclusion: Service Learning

Service learning is a unique experience that uses community service activities to teach students new skills, and concepts, including what it feels like to contribute to the community, and how to meet ones civic responsibility. Service learning also requires students to think about their experiences, and what they have learned. In service learning, students reflect on the problems they may have encountered, how they solved those problems, as well as their successes and what may have led to that success. Service learning is an especially good opportunity for students with and without disabilities to work together.

Students with disabilities sometimes struggle with generalization, or applying what they learn in the classroom to the outside world, and service learning can really help here! A service learning project is a wonderful way for peer buddies to work together and increase generalization of skills for a student with a disability. Additionally, you just might be surprised at some of the skills and talents that your buddy uses in new setting that you’ve never seen when he or she is at school! Service learning helps all students understand why what they learn in the classroom is important in the outside world, and to build skills such as critical thinking that they can use in the future.

A service learning activity might be something that a large group of students have organized at your school that your buddy can become involved with, or it may be something that you and your buddy decide to do because you find that you have a common interest. It helps to start out by looking around your school and community to see what opportunities are already available for volunteering. For example, if a local animal shelter accepts volunteers, and your buddy thinks that he or she might like to work with animals, or maybe the two of you just love the idea of helping out there, this would be a great opportunity to connect interest and opportunity.

Just as in the classroom, your peer buddy may need modifications or accommodations, or may participate in the project in a different ways than your friends without disabilities. If you choose to do a service project with your buddy, you can help him or her to decide what that project will be. Another important role that you can have as a peer buddy in a service learning project is encouraging your buddy to interact with new people and make new friends. It is important, after all, that the project be inclusive, and think of all that the other students will be missing out on if your buddy keeps to him or herself!

Work with other peer buddies and your teacher to consider a service learning project that might be a good opportunity for students at your school to get involved in helping your community. Consider projects that are already ongoing in your community, such as a shelter that needs volunteers to work in the food pantry. If you used this example, your group could collect food at school through food drives, and also spend time together volunteering at the shelter. Also consider what services might be needed by your school, such as a group of students who work to increase disability awareness at the school, or restoring/creating gardens on your school’s grounds together. Even if you are not able to carry out the group, come up with at least three good ideas and present them to your teacher.

BONUS ACTIVITY: Carry out your service learning activity with your peer buddy, under your teacher’s direction. Then write a self-reflection on what you learned from your service learning activity and assist your peer buddy in writing his or her own reflection about all that was learned. An important part of service learning is thinking and writing about the lessons you have learned, and you and your peer buddy can do this together!


Carter, E. W., Swedeen, B., & Moss, C. K. (2012). Engaging youth with and without significant disabilities in inclusive service learning. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 44(5), 46-54.