What is Service-Learning?Service-learning is commonly defined as "an educational method that involves students in challenging tasks that meet genuine community needs and requires the application of knowledge, skills, and systematic reflection on the experience." Most service-learning programs involve schools working with community partners, but some are carried out by community-based organizations. Service-learning is not simply community service. High quality programs are characterized by the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice (PDF) .
- Meaningful service: Beyond simply logging volunteer hours, service is meaningful to those involved, including youth participants and the beneficiaries of the service.
- Link to curriculum: Education is intentional and structured, not simply an expected by-product of service. The curriculum does not have to be directly related to sexual health education in order to be effective in teen pregnancy prevention [1, 3].
- Structured opportunities for reflection: Activities include discussion, writing, or other creative and cognitively challenging work designed to help students make connections and come to new understandings as they progress through the project. Reflection activities should occur before, during, and after service.
- Diversity: Participants encounter and learn to value multiple points of view and people from different backgrounds. They develop interpersonal skills by working with those who provide and receive service, and learn to overcome stereotypes.
- Youth voice: Youth are partners with adults in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning projects.
- Partnerships: Community needs are addressed through a highly collaborative and mutually beneficial process.
- Progress monitoring: Participants measure their progress toward program objectives, and present their results to a wider community.
- Duration and intensity: Programs are most successful when they are at least one semester in length. In a review of service-learning programs that were associated with reducing teen pregnancy, Douglas Kirby noted that "all of the [effective] programs were very intensive and involved students for many hours (e.g. 40 to 80 hours) after school." For more information on this standard, see Duration and Intensity: Supporting Research.
Evidence-Based ProgramsCertain service-learning curricula have been shown to reduce risky sexual behaviors while students were enrolled in the program. Programs that have shown some evidence of effectiveness include Teen Outreach Program, Reach for Health Community Youth Service Learning program, and All4You! . One study also found that well-designed service-learning programs following the Learn and Serve model lowered pregnancy rates for the duration of the programs, and was especially effective in middle school .
Service-Learning: Building Assets and Protective FactorsWhy is service-learning effective? The answer isn't entirely clear. Because youth are engaged for many hours in service-learning, and because they are supervised by adults during that time, these programs may work by simply decreasing opportunities for sex . But well-designed and carefully implemented service-learning programs may also build developmental assets  and protective factors  that in turn have an impact on sexual risk-taking. These include:
- High quality relationships with non-parental adults
Resilience studies have found the presence of caring, non-parental adults (mentors, for example) effective in promoting positive outcomes for youth , and this protective factor has been associated with reduced sexual risk-taking behaviors .
- Development of greater autonomy and confidence; high educational aspirations and plans for the future
A sense of purpose and a positive future is thought to motivate teens to avoid pregnancy. Service-learning may help to instill this sense as young people develop skills, interact with others, and engage in genuine problem-solving within their communities. Research has linked educational aspirations and plans for the future to reduced sexual risk-taking behaviors [1, 7].
- Community connectedness
By involving youth in meaningful roles within their communities, service-learning promotes a sense of belonging to community, another factor that protects against sexual risk-taking among adolescents [1, 7].
- School connectedness; success in school
Successful school-based service-learning projects are likely to foster achievement and attachment to school, both of which are protective factors for sexual health .
ResourcesA vast amount of information on service-learning, including curricula, research, guidelines, toolkits, and much more, is available on the web:
National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC)
The mission of NYLC is to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world with young people, their schools, and their communities through service-learning. NYLC sponsors an annual conference, publishes research, and offers service-learning curricula, including the HIV prevention curriculum Y-RISE.
A project of NYLC, this multimedia website contains hundreds of resources: videos showing service-learning in action, interviews with teachers and students, model projects, and much more. Modules include Meaningful Service, Link to the Curriculum, Reflection, Diversity, Youth Voice, Partnerships, Progress Monitoring, and Duration and Intensity.
Generator School Network
The Generator School Network, an online community of youth and adults involved in service-learning, supports a clearinghouse of service-learning resources.
K-12 Service-Learning Project Planning Toolkit (PDF)
This toolkit was created for Learn and Serve America.
|||Kirby, D. (2007). Emerging answers 2007: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Retrieved from
|||National Youth Leadership Council. (2008). K-12 Service-learning standards for quality practice. Retrieved from
|||Community Preventive Services Task Force. (2007, October). Youth development behavioral interventions coordinated with community service to reduce sexual risk behaviors in adolescents. Guide to Community Preventive Services. Retrieved from
|||National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (n.d.). What works 2011-2012: Curriculum-based programs that help prevent teen pregnancy. Retrieved from
|||Roehlkepartain, E. C., & Scales, P. C. (2007, December). Developmental assets: A framework for enriching service-learning. Learn and Serve America's National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
|||Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.
|||Vesely, S. K., Wyatt, V. H., Oman, R. F., Aspy, C. B., Kegler, M. C., Rodine, S., Marshall, L., & McLeroy, K. R. (2004). The potential protective effects of youth assets from adolescent sexual risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34, 356-365. Retrieved from