Using Intergenerational Learning to Improve School Outcomes for At-Risk Adolescents


Harborside Center

Strand #1

Social & Emotional Skills

Strand #2

Academic Achievement & School Leadership


One of the 5 protective factors for students at risk is to develop their social and emotional skills. It represents the protective factor described as the heart.

Intergenerational learning experiences foster relationships that include mutual respect between generations and greater empathy for all people. Intergenerational learning can help youth foster friendship skills, and provide for socially shared experiences that can strengthen adaptive skills for the future.

According to Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Teachers College, the influence of home and local community on adolescent development is far greater than that of peers. By involving adolescents with older adults who have lived out their careers, students are best able to hear the stories and learn what has been the real work of adults. When older adults can present a diversity of vocations, life styles, backgrounds and other human experiences while at the same time present a common core of values based on a concern for the future of these students, we begin to construct community support for adolescent development beyond the values espoused by teachers and parents.

Very little is more relevant to adolescent experience than relationships. Adult stories and the sharing of lifelong experience will only have true meaning and relevance when it becomes relational. An adolescent, especially one at risk who is comfortable with a variety of adults has far greater resources to call upon than those without meaningful relationships throughout with adults throughout their lives.

Brief Program Description

See how one teacher used intergenerational learning with senior citizens to motivate adolescents at risk for academic failure to enjoy learning, develop skills, stay in school, and experience academic success like they never have before!! This presentation summarizes the research supporting the strategy and will offer a nuts and bolts approach with recommendations for infusing intergenerational learning into any academic program.


This presentation will describe what intergenerational learning is and how it can be infused into academic programs in order to optimize developmental outcomes for at risk adolescent students, including academic motivation and achievement. It will review and provide a rationale for why in today’s world, the need for more intergenerational learning experiences for students are needed now more than ever. It will summarize what we know from research about what high quality intergenerational learning experiences consist of and the benefits of using intergenerational learning with adolescent students. It will explain how one instructor at a liberal arts university created and then structured intergenerational learning into a three week academic learning experience for students at risk for failure at her institution. Content to be shared include all the logistics of the experience including identifying senior adult participants, classroom arrangements, suggestions for course content, readings, activities, and assignments, and how students were assessed and graded. Specific suggestions for shared learning experiences between adolescents and seniors will be offered and a copy of the course syllabus will be distributed. The presenter will also share how data was collected over a three year period from students on how the experience impacted them as learners. This data has provided additional evidence from past research on why using this pedagogy with at risk students is recommended. Pictures of adolescents and seniors learning together throughout the experience will be highlighted. A discussion at the end will allow participants to consider how they might be able to integrate intergenerational learning into their own course content and/or infuse intergenerational learning experiences into their own academic programs and settings.


Based on three years of feedback from students, the following four themes, largely supported by previous research, emerge as major benefits of intergenerational learning with older adults for at risk older adolescent students.

Knowledge and Interest in Later Adulthood and School

When students are immersed in intergenerational experiences with older adults, many of the myths and stereotypes some young people hold that are associated with aging and older adulthood are rejected. Hayslip et al. (2013) found adolescents are surprised at the discrepancies which exist in their expectations for adults over age sixty-five before coming to know them and afterwards when they do. Like the adolescents in their study, at the beginning of the course, many of our students believe getting older is not something to look forward to. Their views are consistent with what Hernandez &Gonzalez, (2008), found in that students often portray seniors with stereotypes that include seeing them as being sad, frail, ugly, inflexible, pessimistic, and/or complaining. An overwhelming majority of my students report that the class has helped them understand that just as there is wide range of diversity in the life experiences of adolescents, so too is there for older adults. They view many older adults as capable of leading happy and satisfying lives and they think this is “pretty cool”. In fact, the majority of our students indicate that this was a major take a-way from the experience, and that it made them look forward to the day to day activities and assignments of the class. They learn that despite the potential challenges and limitations getting older brings, older adulthood can be a time for significant human growth- a time to learn, a time to meet new people, form new relationships, and a time filled with new ventures and opportunities to look forward to- that they too can look forward to too one day themselves.

Empathy, Respect and Social Skills

Many of our students indicate that as a result of the intergenerational learning experience, they feel less judgmental of older adults they encounter in their families, their community, and read about in the news. In fact, the majority state they have enhanced respect for seniors. Students are amazed that even though all the seniors they met in class faced numerous challenges throughout their lives and for some, unique health and other challenges continue today, they are still eager to learn and grow as evidenced by their active interest in coming to the class each day with them. Many students state it even helped put their own struggles they face each day into perspective. A few stated they plan to stay in touch with some of the seniors from the class and plan to seek out senior relatives and acquaintances for interaction, recreation, and advice a lot more than they used to.

Our students confirm what Zucchero (2011) discovered, that by participating in an intergenerational learning with older adults, adolescents become more reflective of the direction of their own lives and less judgmental of others. The majority of our students state the experience has led them to be inspired by senior adults, seeing them as role models for themselves and for other members of their generation, something they would never have thought before.

Nothing was cited by our students as more beneficial to their learning than having multiple opportunities to be social with their senior adult classmates. Students report that the intergenerational learning experience provides them an unparalleled opportunity to form new adult friendships they never thought they would have in school. This is important because according to Loewen (1996), an emerging adult who is comfortable forming meaningful relationships with a variety of people of all different backgrounds and ages is more likely to develop a stronger repertoire of interpersonal resources to call upon in the future when needed as family members, employees, employers, and citizens in their communities.

Identity and Vocational Prospects

The third major outcome suggests that adolescents find intergenerational learning a valuable experience towards moving them forward in choosing an academic major and or career path as part of their identities. During the experience, several students, who were aspiring health and exercise majors, asked the health professional at the hospital we toured, if they could apply for an internship working with the seniors they observed there. Another student, a business major, asked to shadow the director of the nursing home. Another student, majoring in music, invited seniors to a recital and offered to teach an instrumental class at Senior Action. Several students stated the course has confirmed their commitment to a nursing career path and for a few others, it led to increased interest in taking additional courses related to later adulthood, including a course on adult cognition in our psychology department. This is especially important as many adolescents and college students are still unsure of their career identities. According to Meier (1993), by involving adolescents with older adults who have lived out their careers, students are able to hear career stories and learn what has been the real work of adults. Even one experience with aging and adulthood can attract some students to show an interest in gerontology so that they want to learn more. Compared to frequent contact with just older adult family members, personal contact with older individuals outside the family contributes to even more substantial interest in aging. This substantial interest directly relates to more concrete plans for college study and potentially a career path following high school graduation. (Gorelik, Damron-Rodriguez, Funderburk, & Solomon, 2000)

Finally, we found intergenerational learning positively impacts adolescent identity through a broader value system about how young adults perceive the balance in adult life between autonomy and independence. According to Gilligan (1993) when families and schools only assist emerging adults to achieve individuation from their families of origin and a personal career identity, they under-represent the reality of human interdependence that exists in the real word including the reliance of people on one another to mesh their abilities and resources to achieve goals. Our students unanimously acknowledge that as much as they strive for independence, they now know it is not only ok, but important to reach out to others for guidance and support- not just from their peers and teachers, but from others who are much older and wiser than they!!

Academic Achievement

Although it cannot be concluded that experiences with intergenerational learning will improve academic achievement for all students, for all the students at risk for failure at the university where the class was taught, class attendance and grades did improve substantially and prospects for remaining at Furman and looking forward to continued study were confirmed by students. One reason for this could be that the intergenerational learning experience did not include formal testing assessments, but rather an evidence portfolio that highlighted how students were engaged in and what they learned from the readings, discussions and class activities. Another important finding however emerged and that was that because students were interested and motivated to learn the content and participate in the activities, they were more motivated to do well in the class and thus they did.


Ayers, E.L.& Narduzzi, J.L. (2009). Intergenerational learning: Beyond the jargon. Continuing Higher Education Review, 73, 218-223.

Gilligan, C. (1993). Adolescent development reconsidered, in Approaches to Moral Development: New Research and Emerging Themes, Andrew Garrord, Editor, Teachers College Press. N.Y: New York.

Goncalvez, D. (2009). From loving grandma to working with older adults: Promoting positive attitudes towards aging. Educational Gerontology, 35, 222-225.

Gorelik,Y., Damron-Rodriguez,J., Funderburk,B. & Solomon, D. (2000). Undergraduate interest in aging: Is it affected by contact with other adults? , Educational Gerontology, 26, 623-638.

Hayslip,B.,Caballero,D.,Ward-Pinson,M. & Riddle,R. (2013). Sensitizing young adults to their biases about middle-aged and older persons: A Pedagogical approach. Educational Gerontology, 39, 37-44.

Hernandez,C.R.& Gonzalez,M.Z. (2008). Effects of intergenerational interaction on aging. Educational Gerontology, 34, 292-305.

Loewen, J. (1996). Intergenerational learning: What if schools were places where adults and children learned together? U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Meier, D. (1993). Why kids don’t want to be well educated: Rethinking school reform. Conference Paper. April.

Zucchero, R. (2011). A co-mentoring project: An intergenerational service-learning experience. Educational Gerontology, 37,687-702.


Poster Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Lorraine DeJong is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University. She received her Ph.D. in Child Development from Florida State University. For over 15 years she has taught classes in Human Development, Early Childhood Education and Intergenerational Learning to undergraduate and graduate students. In 2011 she developed a 3-week course in intergenerational learning with older adults based on years of observations that her human development students were interested in learning more about later adult development while the retired adults enrolled in the Osher Life Long Learning Program at her university were interested in learning about adolescents. Since 2010 she has been able to collect data on how the course has had an impact on her students, particularly those at risk for academic failure at her university.

Keyword Descriptors

intergenerational learning

Presentation Year


Start Date

3-8-2016 4:00 PM

End Date

3-8-2016 5:30 PM

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Mar 8th, 4:00 PM Mar 8th, 5:30 PM

Using Intergenerational Learning to Improve School Outcomes for At-Risk Adolescents

Harborside Center

See how one teacher used intergenerational learning with senior citizens to motivate adolescents at risk for academic failure to enjoy learning, develop skills, stay in school, and experience academic success like they never have before!! This presentation summarizes the research supporting the strategy and will offer a nuts and bolts approach with recommendations for infusing intergenerational learning into any academic program.