Stepping Up To Serve

helping others starts earlyWhat happens when we grow up and realise that what we believed we could achieve in our youth was more of a challenge than we expected?

Step Up To Serve is a campaign to promote Youth Social Action and seeks to build relationships with a wide range of organisations, researching and sharing best practice in youth social action opportunities. The campaign offers a platform to engage in activity that could sustain the passion to serve through to adulthood.  An inspiring conversation with Kerri Hall, Education Consultant at Step Up To Serve, has prompted me to reflect on what lies beneath an Education for Social Responsibility and the incremental stages of development in becoming a more active and engaged member of society.

It is not an accident that some individuals are more willing than others to take part in activity that benefits others rather than oneself.  Family, environment, school, significant others, all of these contribute to what we become as adults and shape the role that we play in society.  Therefore it would follow that greater interest and involvement in youth action and a more positive contribution to society as a fully-fledged adult have their foundations in those most formative years of primary education.

Learning anything – reading, riding a bike, particle physics – requires small and deliberate steps to become skilled along with resilience and determination to gain mastery.  In the same way, becoming more socially aware and engaged, willing to contribute and to be to actively socially responsible, is a journey that has an inevitable origin in early childhood development and, from my perspective, the experiences provided at school.

We know that young people gain a level of social and emotional maturity that enables them to be more proactive and willing (possibly) in deciding their future through their present actions.  Therefore at senior school there is greater opportunity to assume and discharge responsibility, to organise and run events, clubs and societies.  While this is possible at primary and prep schools, through school councils, eco-committees, etc., the degree of autonomy and self-determination is less common.

There needs to be structures and frameworks that support such endeavours in any environment – a legacy, a curriculum, committed adults, demand, necessity.  Yet there also needs to be an understanding of the phases of development in the acquisition of skills and values that lead to greater involvement when, later on, an individual encounters those opportunities that enable the expression of service.

Of course there is nothing, perhaps, new here and others have written in greater detail elsewhere. In addition, this is not rocket science.  And while some of this may be stating the obvious, what is essential is a focus on the development of social responsibility, service to others and an awareness of social capital and the “ecology”, the interdependence, of human society and the world in which we live.

So what, then, are the phases of development in an Education for Social Responsibility? Laura Wray-Lake & Amy Syvertsen (2011) have produced research on “The Developmental Roots of Social Responsibility in Childhood & Adolescence”.  They suggest three broad areas in cultivating social responsibility through home, school and social action.  These are:

Modelling Prosocial Behaviour – positive role models reinforce socially responsible behaviour such as care, justice and democracy
Values Socialisation Messages – information implicitly embedded in verbal and non-verbal communication and in actions of people and organisations
Opportunities to Practice – experiential learning that enhances self-efficacy, perspectives and identity

Here, then, are a few suggested stepping stones that build on these three areas and would take a child from the EYFS, through primary and prep school years and leave them more ready and willing to participate when the opportunities in secondary education present themselves.

  • Learning to take turns and share
  • Recognising similarities & differences in others, either peers or in more distant locations
  • Meeting people who work in vocational careers
  • Learning about food and farming, healthy lifestyles and trade
  • Learning about other countries and cultures with an emphasis on human experience
  • Linking with schools and communities in different locations
  • Being part of a school wide committee – either as representative or through opportunity to express opinions
  • Acting to support others – planning and organising events, helping in the local community
  • Working proactively with small-scale, local charities
  • Being trusted with responsibility within the school community

Further work is needed to understand these and other stepping stones, to define and refine them.  There may, indeed, be others, however those I suggest here are naturally broad.  In addition it requires members of the school community to be willing to lead with a values-based approach to their interactions – inside and outside the classroom.

Taking these steps, embedding social responsibility in education, will give young people the opportunity to reach adulthood and realise that what they believed they could achieve in their youth is still a very real possibility.

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