Turn Your Idea of “Service” on its Head! How Kids Can Learn By Serving

by Mary Mazzoni on July 18, 2013

upsidedown2-MonkeyMashButton5997517351_398eb65753_zHere’s a challenge for our kids:

“Think not what your family and community can do for you,

but what you can do for your family and community.”

(John F. Kennedy, adapted)

This isn’t an either-or proposition.

Our kids must learn how to advocate for themselves – so they can access the accommodations and services they need.

But – a full and happy life isn’t just about getting our needs met. It’s also about contributing to our world by exercising our unique passions and gifts.

Are we teaching our kids (of all ages) to serve – to add value to the common good – at home and in their community?

Their lives can be turned upside down – for the better – when they realize that they are needed.

Major Impact on Quality of Life

Parents often ask me what they can do that will have a BIG impact on their child’s skill development, quality of life, and readiness for adulthood.

My answer? Support your child in finding ways to serve – to contribute – in their home, school, and community.

The learning and networking that flows from this can’t be measured.

Through well-planned and well-supported service, kids:

  • experience themselves as needed by others
  • discover their passions and their gifts
  • meaningfully practice communication and interpersonal skills
  • explore career interests
  • gain employment skills and practical life skills
  • learn about their community
  • earn the respect and gratitude of others
  • develop relationships with people who share their interests
  • develop career and personal networks
  • stretch their concept of what they can do
  • practice responsibility (doing needed tasks even when they don’t want to)
  • develop dreams and goals for their future

 Ways to Serve At Home

Explain to your child that everyone’s help is needed so that life can be good for the whole family.

Allow them to choose one chore from a selection of two or three options you’ve thought through ahead of time. In planning the options, consider your child’s interests, skills, and support needs. Start small. Let your child chose from a short list of  small, do-able tasks.

Teach your child the chore using the I Do – We Do – You Do method. (Demonstrate first, then do it with the child, then observe as the child does it him or herself, then fade away when the child can do it independently).  It may take a while for the child to reach independence. Or, if your child has intense support needs, your presence and occasional assistance may always be needed. Still – your child is contributing to the family and learning valuable skills.

Use the same overall approach to chores for all of your children. For example – if allowance is tied to chores for your other children – do the same for your child with a disability. If allowance is not tied to chores at your house, or if money isn’t a powerful reinforcer, consider if your child needs some other sort of reinforcement (achievement chart tied to privileges, etc.)

Consider using tools such as timers and checklists to reduce your child’s need for reminders and prompts. A chore checklist is also ideal for teaching kids to self evaluate their work (a key employability skill).

Set a date to meet with your child about how things are going. Consider together if it’s time to add another chore or switch to something different. Consider a “raise” (allowance or privileges) for additional responsibilities.

Your child will experience the reality that the rest of the family depends on his or her contribution only if the chore is meaningful and his completion of the chore is consistently expected.

Here is a practical how-to article about chores by the mom of a ten-year-old boy with autism. You’ll obviously need to tailor ideas to your own child’s specific needs.

How to Serve In the Community

1. Start with your child’s intereststhere's something62849_678555488825510_2047865990_n

Help your child reflect on these questions.

  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • What environments do I prefer?
  • What causes are important to me?
  • What do I want to learn more about?

It may be helpful to use structured questionnaires like those in the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network’s free Toolkit , or to create a Vision Board using pictures.

2. Explore opportunities in your community

Check with your local United Way. Most have a database with extensive volunteer opportunities. Also – ask people in your personal network about service opportunities that align with your child’s interests and skills.

Engage your child to the extent possible in the process (reviewing the United Way database, making phone calls, sending emails, talking with people about opportunities, etc.) – with your support as needed based on age and skills.

Consider using the Think-Plan-Do strategy with your child to involve her in the process of choosing a service opportunity.

3. Visit first, start small

When you and your child have identified a couple of potential service opportunities, plan a visit to each.

Come prepared with a list of questions. Be sure that you understand the proposed tasks and expectations.

It’s wise to begin with a one-day experience. Then consider if an ongoing commitment is a good idea. It may take several one-day experiences at a variety of settings before deciding on an ongoing service role.

4. Before making ongoing service commitment 

  • Obtain a written job description
  • Consider the stress and skill demands of the tasks and environment
  • Discuss needed accommodations
  • Understand the supervision and support that will be provided
  • Consider the possibility of your child working with another volunteer (this could be a current volunteer – or someone from your personal network who would enjoy volunteering with your child).

5. Practical tips

  • Start small (an hour or two a week – or even less frequently, to start)
  • Be sure the schedule fits your child’s needs and yours
  • Develop a checklist of routine tasks your child can refer to
  • Be sure he knows what he can do if he has questions or concerns
  • Agree on a “try out” period of 5 or so service days with a meeting to review progress and determine if your child desires a longer commitment
  • Arrange similar periodic meetings going forward
  • Be sure the supervisor has current contact information for emergencies or concerns

6. When the experience comes to an end

Not every service experience works out the way we think it will. And, even when the experience has been ideal, everything has it’s season. If your child’s interests or circumstances change, or if concerns develop, support your child to determine if it is time to modify or end the service experience.

When the time comes, end an ongoing service role in a positive way.

Support your child to:

  • Write a resignation and thank you letter
  • Provide two weeks notice
  • Ask for a letter of reference to add to his career portfolio
  • Add the experience to his resume
  • Reflect on what he has learned (environments and tasks he likes or doesn’t like, skills he has learned, relationships he has developed, etc.)

Consider a Service Mentor

You may be saying to yourself: “I don’t have time for all this!”

And even if you did have unlimited time and energy (what a fantasy that is, right?) – there is still wisdom in considering a mentor to support your child in volunteer service.

Research shows that, in addition to their parents, kids need to develop supportive relationships with one or more other trusted adults.

Ask yourself if there is a relative or trusted family friend who could serve as your child’s “service mentor”. You may be surprised to find, if you ask, that there are people in your life who would welcome a way to connect with your child. It’s not easy to reach out to others. But you can enrich the life of both your child and a potential mentor by simply asking someone you trust if he or she would like to become involved with your child in the ways described above.

I’ve been an informal “service mentor” myself – and loved every moment of it!

Your turn

Please share your experiences, ideas, and questions in the comment section.

Did you find this post helpful? Please share it!

Our kids need to be needed. Let’s empower them to make their mark on the world

Photo credits: Monkey Mash Button on Flickr

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan Lockhart July 19, 2013 at 7:35 am

I am Director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at El Paso Community College in El Paso, Texas. I found your article to be very interesting and right on. Too many time students come to the postsecondary setting not prepared to attend college. They don’t know what their disability is, their partents try to direct everything, they don’t know what they want to study, how to study, time management, etc. What you advocate are important skills young people need to learn when they are young that will better prepare them to go to college. Keep up the good advocacy.


Mary Mazzoni July 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Jan – thanks so much for your comment. I often team up with the Disability Services administrator of our local community college to present information to high school students and parents as they prepare for postsecondary education. Families need to hear from you! Thanks for the work you do – and for leaving your valuable comment here.


Kerith Stull July 20, 2013 at 7:04 am

Just found you (via “Love That Max” Linky) and SO happy to find you! Love this post. Love even better the words about when the experience ends. So often, we special needs families get so excited about new activities that we often don’t prepare our child (or ourselves!) for the end of it. Thanks for your words of wisdom!


Mary Mazzoni July 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Kerith – So glad to meet you! Isn’t the Love that Max linky a great way to connect? Thanks for your kind comment. Learning that everything has its season is one of life’s lessons for all of us. Being intentional about endings is something I’ve learned only recently. So glad you found the post helpful. All the best to you and your family!


Geralyn July 21, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Awesome post. Great ideas. Thanks!


Mary Mazzoni July 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Geralyn – Thanks for making my day with your encouraging comment. So glad you found the post helpful. Blessings on the journey!


Sandy Horowitz December 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

I just found you and subscribed to your newsletter. I feel empowered and inspired by the great site you’ve created. I found you when I was searching for information about teaching soft skills to my son who has autism and other issues. I love your suggestions for handling service opportunities. My son starts as an official volunteer at a nearby County park on Friday and we are all excited.

Volunteering is required for his Peer Counseling class in middle school. The class has been great for helping him learn social skills, perspective taking, empathy, etc. I’m sure he will grow tremendously through this experience. I know it will be even more valuable as we apply your suggestions. I especially love the one about the Service Mentor. I was just talking to a friend about trading kids to teach them certain skills. Sometimes the kids are more receptive to someone other than the parent and you inspired me to pursue that idea more enthusiastically.

Is it OK to list you as a resource on our website and in our own blog? Meanwhile I will tell friends about it.

Thanks again.


Mary Mazzoni December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Sandy, thanks so much for your lovely comment! I am grateful that you find the blog helpful, empowering and inspiring. Great to hear that your son is involved in service during his middle school years. Good for him! Isn’t it great when we learn through service? Glad to hear that you’re pursuing the Service Mentor idea – and the concept of “trading kids” – so that your son and other youth can benefit from relationship with other trusted adults.

I would be delighted for you to share links to Life After IEPs on your blog or in any way you think will be helpful to others. We’re all on this journey together. Please stay in touch. All the best to you and your son!


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