How many times have you heard "it's never too early" at the beginning of a sentence? It's never too early to start saving for retirement. It's never too early to start reading to your child. How about this one: It's never too early to start instilling the value of generosity. It's that time of year when most kids are looking forward to winter vacation, presents, and having fun. These are all great personal pleasures! But how about evolving a sense of gratitude and service? What better time of year to think about being thankful and giving back to the larger community?

How do we do that with our students? Here are three easy ways to help students learn the value of service to the community:

  1. Start small. Introduce the idea of volunteering by having students define what it means to volunteer and how that relates to them. A great book to read is Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. This helps students understand how good you can make a person feel when you do nice things for them. Simple things. Things like holding a door open for someone, helping someone pick up a mess, and even just smiling at a stranger. Give your students an assignment to go home and do something nice and unexpected for another person. Make sure they understand that this should be something they aren't already expected to do (like chores). Depending on the grade level you teach, you can have students write a short reflection or, for the little ones, they can share out what they did and how they felt about doing it in front of their classmates.
  2. Work together on a class project. Now that students have grasped the concept of giving back, think about working together as a class on a project that supports a need in the community. Some examples include collecting food for holiday canned food drives, collecting blankets for the homeless, or putting together a fundraiser to raise money for an organization of the students choosing. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that it is really student-driven to create ownership of the project. You are there to guide them and help with things that can only be done by adults.
  3. Have your students do a mini Service Learning project. In keeping with "it's never too early," it's also never too early to start thinking about college. Parents start college savings plans for their children as early as when they are first born, so why shouldn't teachers of the younger grades start thinking about this as well? The competitiveness of gaining acceptance into colleges has only intensified over the past several years, but there's one thing that many parents and teachers forget to think about when helping their kids navigate the choppy waters of college applications: It's not all about grades.

As more and more students are applying to college, admission officials are looking for things that set students apart from each other. Not only do more volunteer hours help students in this process, but unique volunteering experiences give students an added advantage. Sally Rubenstone, a senior advisor to College Confidential and co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions states, "While officials certainly will not think ill of any form of volunteerism, they do try to discern a candidate's level of commitment." She continues by saying that students who have volunteered at the same place over a significant period of time will "garner more nods of approval than one who has spent an hour a week for just a month though both efforts are admirable." Knowing this, teachers can help instill a love of volunteering in their students by steering them in the direction of what interests them. If they love animals, have them look into volunteering at a local shelter or pet adoption service. If they love music, have them think about creating a mini-concert for the elderly at a local senior center. Whatever they love doing, there's a way to channel that effort into service to the community.

Do you encourage your students and kids to get out in the community and make an impact? Tell us in the comments! We would love to hear from you!