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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Growing Up Responsible

From making holiday decorations for a local nursing home to serving food at a homeless shelter, students at a Quaker school participate in service activities designed to match their level of social awareness.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
Why do some service activities succeed and others fail to engage student interest at a particular age level? For example, why does making up Thanksgiving baskets appeal to the middle years? Why don't young children enjoy raising funds for Save the Children? Why does shopping for senior citizens have great appeal to high school seniors?
Questions like these have puzzled the faculty at Friends Academy for many years, as we've sought to express our service-oriented Quaker philosophy in activities appropriate for students at each age level. During the past 20 years, we have discovered, through trial and error, what works and what doesn't work with our students—from age 3 to seniors in high school. Yet an answer to the underlying question why escaped us until we were directed to Robert L. Selman's developmental stage theory of social perspective (1980).

Developmental Stage Theory

Selman views his work as parallel to former colleague Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. His theory is based on George Herbert Mead's stages of social understanding and Jean Piaget's cognitive stages. Within the framework of Mead/Piaget theory, Selman and his associates carried out research in schools as well as in situations created for their specific purposes.
Selman discerns five sequential stages in human development of social awareness and understanding. In Stage 0, a person understands and treats others and self as no more than physical entities. Relationships are physical and momentary. In Stage 1, one perceives oneself as a person and responds positively to those who treat him or her as a person. Understanding is self-centered. Others are not discerned as being persons. Relationships are temporary, lasting only as long as the self finds them useful. In Stage 2, a person acknowledges the personhood of others. Partnerships that involve bilateral cooperation can now be formed.
For Selman, the crucial stage in the development of social perspective is the movement to Stage 3. Relationships are now understood to involve mutual sharing. Mature persons function well at this level. At Stage 4, a person has fully developed the capacity to form complex relationships with others. Individuals are complex self-systems who develop autonomous independence capable of pluralistic organization.

What Younger Students Can Do

Selman's developmental theory of social perspective illuminates the experiences of teachers at Friends Academy. Our 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are in Stage 0. The 3s enjoy feeding birds, raising frogs, and caring for a rabbit. The 4s make decorations for nursing homes and soup kitchens and, with the help of 6th graders, wrap Christmas gifts for needy children. The 5-year-olds begin to understand community in terms of physical proximity. They are also learning how to get along with others without fighting and to resolve conflicts by talking through problems. At this level, children cannot understand appeals to help others with whom they do not have physical contact. Therefore, they cannot understand what it means to, for instance, aid children in Bolivia through Save the Children or to participate in a “Chain of Hope” during the Persian Gulf conflict.
In grades 1 and 2, we see the emergence of Stage 1. Children are becoming aware of their own feelings, but are not yet able to feel genuinely for others. Much effort must be invested in helping them learn that being a good neighbor means treating others as friends. Therefore, community service projects should go beyond making holiday decorations to delivering them in person to the residents of a nursing home. At the end of each day, our 2nd graders meet one-on-one with a teacher to reflect on the question: Was I a good friend today?”
Stage 1 development continues in 3rd and 4th grades. Students begin to understand that others have great physical needs and that their actions can make a difference in the lives of others. They enjoy making Thanksgiving baskets for local families but see no point in helping distant charities that are unable to respond personally to their efforts. At Stage 1, the self is at the center: She is my friend. I helped someone else.
  • Our 5th graders begin to understand conceptually what volunteerism entails by participating in a can recycling project and supporting a Native American child in the Southwest.
  • Students in 6th grade are active in environmental cleanups, recycling activities, and tree plantings. Through a hunger awareness simulation game, they realize in a small way the injustice of food distribution.
  • By organizing a walk-a-thon to help the Kurds in Iraq, our 7th graders raised $8,000.
  • Our 8th graders help people from the ages of 5 to 21 participate in games for the physically challenged. They also hold bake sales in support of soup kitchens and serve meals in a nearby soup kitchen.

How Older Students Can Help

While signs of Stage 2 development are seen in 8th and 9th grades, complete emergence takes place for the majority of our students in 10th grade during an overnight trip to New York City. This trip climaxes a required one-term course entitled “Poverty, Homelessness, and Community Service.” The experience begins with students preparing an evening meal and sharing it with the occupants of several homeless shelters. Later that evening, they deliver sandwiches to homeless people who have taken up shelter in Grand Central Station. The following day, students prepare and serve lunch at various soup kitchens. How do our 10th graders react to this experience? They are amazed at the intelligence, insight, and experience of the homeless and hungry people they meet. These individuals are no longer distant objects in need of help but people who have feelings, ideas, and interests “just like me.”
Our extensive high school community service program offers ample opportunity for Stage 2 service. Once students discover the needs of other persons, they are eager to help in ways that recognize the personhood of those being served. After school, our students can serve in day-care centers, tutoring centers, and nursing homes. Once a month on Saturday, trips are made to a Habitat for Humanity project and a soup kitchen. A recent addition to our program is an annual trip to help construct homes in Southern Appalachia. Every year more than 50 percent of our 330 9th through 12th graders voluntarily participate in one or more aspects of this program.
During the high school years, many of our students begin to function at Stage 3 as well. They realize something personal in return for helping others. “In serving I receive great satisfaction,” said one student. Another student talked about reaching “a new understanding” of others in less fortunate circumstances.
Students' discovery of the mutual benefit of serving others is particularly apparent in the “Shopping for the Elderly” program. Each week more than 20 of our seniors shop for elderly people who have difficulty getting to nearby stores. What begins as a conscientious effort to help another person soon blossoms into a personal relationship that gives great fulfillment to our students. Students come to realize that they, the servers, benefit as much as or more than those they are serving. For the first time in their lives, those who have been dependent on family, school, and community find themselves in a relationship in which someone is dependent on them. When an elderly friend calls and says, “I'm out of milk,” students eagerly rearrange busy schedules to make time to lend a helping hand. That both server and served give and receive becomes clear.

Launching Students in Service

While some of our students come to understand social interdependence in the abstract, few avail themselves of opportunities to work for those changes in social policies and structures that many believe are required if the needy of the world are to be fed, clothed, and housed. At Friends Academy, our hope is that we have launched students on a path that will eventually lead to social responsibility at the highest level, which in Selman's scheme is Stage 4.
Selman's five-stage developmental theory of social perspective helps us understand why the projects and activities we have selected through trial and error are developmentally appropriate for our students. Had we applied this theory from the outset, we would have arrived at our present program sooner and with fewer failures along the way. In other words, like other educational ventures, service learning programs can readily benefit from the utilization of developmental theory.
End Notes

1 R. L. Selman, (1980), The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding: Developmental and Clinical Analyses, (New York: Academic Press).

2 In Chapter 6, Selman delineates these stages by applying his general theory to the domains of individuals, friendship, peer groups, and parent-child relations (1980, pp. 131ff).

3 Selman's clinical experience is that some serious personal problems develop when this stage is not reached by the time one is about 15. Selman seeks to apply this theory clinically in The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding and in a book written with Lynn Hickey Schultz—Making a Friend in Youth: Developmental Theory and Pair Therapy, (University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Thomas Woehrle has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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