Service learning is well reputed for its ability to link academics to real-world experiences. By participating in service learning, students gain knowledge about social and environmental problems, and they engage in meaningful planning and service activities to address them. Later, formal reflection allows students to evaluate their service activities and make plans for next steps.

While service learning as a whole is widely researched, it is not often examined through the lens of special education. However, the studies that do exist on the subject demonstrate service learning’s powerful impact on special education students’ academic, emotional, and social development.

Few would dispute that service learning enriches education by and large, but let’s take a look at how it goes a step further in special education. Many believe that service learning has the power to close gaps that thwart the development of special education students.

Promotes Inclusion

Historically, special education students were separated from their mainstream peers, which led to feelings of inferiority and deficiency. In recent decades, legislation and educators began integrating mainstream and special education students as a means to close gaps and promote inclusion. Service learning has been an effective method to do so. In his article “Service Learning: Special Education Inclusion,” Corey Watt writes that special education students have the ability to apply their strengths and talents to serve real needs, which helps counteract a culture in which they “have historically been demeaned and dismissed by society.” Furthermore, Watt explains that service learning is an even playing field, where students of all abilities can come together to serve a common goal. This allows all students to experience the “simple concept of selfless giving” and it “teaches people a greater tolerance for others.”

Fosters Active Learning Environment

Commonly, special education classrooms include students with varying skill sets, learning styles, and struggles. Consequently, the classroom environment provides a challenge for both the teachers and the students, but the service learning environment reverses the mode of learning. Instead, students are out of their desks, asked to engage in a practical application of their skills. While they might have struggled passively learning math equations on the chalkboard, they might excel at planning, organizing, and sorting cans into boxes at the food bank. Students feel rewarded, knowing that they played an active and practical role in completing a task. And, suddenly they can connect what they learned in class to the real world, says Lori Armstrong Lynass in her article “Service Learning in Special Education.” Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, they can see a future place for themselves as contributing members of society.

Boosts Self-Confidence and Spurs Motivation

Special education teachers often struggle to motivate their students, trying to help them overcome self-doubt. When the very environment of school is challenging, it’s hard to expect a student to be excited to participate in it. However, research shows that when academics are linked to an outside environment, as they are in service learning, students become more interested in engaging and learning. For example, in her article “Special Projects for Special People,” Lisa Olnes established service learning projects for her inclusive 6th grade class, in an attempt to bridge her special education students with her mainstream students. She hoped service learning would reverse her special education students’ lack of motivation, belief that they were failures, and general disinterest in school, which had been brought on by years of struggles in rote learning.

Throughout the year, mixed groups of mainstream and special education students assumed control of various service learning projects. They engaged in planning, delegation and execution of duties, reflection, and follow-up action. As a result, Olnes’ special education students – some of whom were group leaders – “displayed increased motivation, showed they cared for each other, were eager to help, made connections of what they were learning in school to the real world, and improved their social skills and self-confidence.” Students even performed better on state proficiency exams. Olnes was most convinced of service learning’s profound impact on a special education classroom when she saw her students’ newfound awareness that they can make a difference for people and places in need.


Service learning is a tool that inarguably benefits student learning, but it is also a useful tool for teachers as well. Indeed, it can help them expand the resources available to them and transform their pedagogy. This tool allows special education teachers to partner with each other and embed their classes in the community. In the process, Lynass says, teachers will “enliven” their classes and “address both perceptual and cognitive learning styles.”

While getting a service learning project fully established takes time and patience, experienced special education teachers say it is worth it. As Lynass says, “This powerful educational strategy not only shrinks the gap between school and community, it also helps to create a positive culture within the school itself.”

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