Cultivating Empathy through Project-Based Civic Action with Early Childhood Students and Students with Special Needs


Individual Presentation

First Presenter's Institution

University of Alabama

Second Presenter's Institution

Lisenby Primary School

Third Presenter's Institution


Fourth Presenter's Institution


Fifth Presenter's Institution



Ballroom E

Strand #1

Social & Emotional Skills

Strand #2

Family & Community


This presentation will specifically address two of the five conference strands including, “Heart: Social and Emotional Skills- Fostering social and emotional skills and the school climate for all children and youth,” as well as “Home: Family and Community- Developing and enhancing family and community support for all children and youth.” This session allows participants to engage in lessons designed for diverse early childhood students and students with special needs while promoting their own conceptual understandings of empathy, volunteerism, service learning, and civic responsibility. Participants will examine ways in which even young students can invest in community action and actively participate in worldwide issues through roles of community, country, and international service as they build emotional development skills and cultivate an understanding of empathetic response through social reform. This session encourages participants to critically examine their own expectations of young learners and students with special needs and integrate new evidence into their existing schema to include an awareness of individual and collective social action that can occur with these students’ involvement. In this presentation, participants will:

• Engage in a variety of strategies within lessons that focus on empowering students at risk and cultivating empathy through inquiry-based instruction with collaborative social action.

• Model lessons that encourage the active engagement of young students and students with special needs as they explore empathy, volunteerism, and civic ideals.

• Develop an understanding of how to teach inquiry-based lessons involving hands-on project-based opportunities related to service learning and social and emotional growth of young children and children with special needs.

• Demonstrate teaching strategies that foster connections between classroom learning and the integration of relevant community action.

• Take part in standards-based lessons that appeal to needs and interests of students at risk.

• Discover differentiated learning techniques for use with diverse early learners including students with special needs and students at risk.

Brief Program Description

Participants will engage in community volunteerism lessons emphasizing civic activism that position early childhood students and students with special needs as empathetic, capable community members. The presenters will provide strategies and materials for using project-based approaches and standards-based instruction to involve early childhood students and students with special needs in community service efforts and social and emotional growth opportunities.


This session will provide innovative teaching strategies successfully used in Title I classrooms in rural Alabama to foster empathy using project-based teaching of active community service with students in early childhood and specifically with students with special needs. Participants will acquire ideas of best practices for delivering meaningful and active learning experiences to pre-kindergarten through third grade students at risk, with special emphasis on inquiry-based strategies such as students evaluating community needs, providing evidence, and communicating conclusions in relation to volunteerism. In this presentation, participants will engage with developing questions and planning inquiries for teaching active, civic engagement using 21st century skills such as student-collaboration, critical thinking, and communication that enable all students, and certainly youth at risk, to participate in a global community.

Participants will acquire new pedagogical techniques promoting best practices designed to enhance knowledge, skills, and understanding of civic education and social and emotional competencies of young learners at risk. Differentiated examples of teaching volunteerism will be given for practical application of varied lessons designed to meet the multi-needs of inclusive classrooms and of students in early childhood education at various stages of development. Presenters will showcase resources for instructing students of the importance of collective social action as attendees take an active role in a range of lessons demonstrating building empathy inside the classroom first and then outside the classroom through community service.

Participants will contribute to discussions, view videos and photographs, and hear and see real students in early childhood grades and students with special needs speak about civic action in their communities while witnessing them working in active lessons. Participants will engage in collaborative small and whole group sharing as they begin to offer suggestions of volunteerism efforts that might work in their own communities with their own students. Further, this session will model examples of engaging students with anchor charts, dramatic play, community visitors, writing and literacy-based lessons, experiential and exploratory learning, and small group collaboration with content-area trade books. All participants will receive lesson plans and other supporting materials along with electronic copies of PowerPoints, lesson plans, handouts, and strategies presented.


As we began our work, we acknowledged that our student population in rural Alabama with most children coming from households at poverty level or below poverty level is considered at risk (Putnam, 2015). We further contended that we had additional considerations as we attempted to meet specific needs of diverse learners in early childhood and students with special needs. Our students’ success and their engagement in these learning opportunities lead us to believe that our results indicate beneficial practices useful with other students at risk.

As current and former early childhood teachers, we set out with four essential questions.

1) How can we cultivate empathy in classrooms that translates into empathetic civic action in response to the needs of a diverse citizenry in our world?

2) In what ways can we provide developmentally appropriate and challenging instruction to involve all learners at risk while meeting appropriate cross-curricular standards?

3) How can we dynamically engage young learners at risk and students with special needs in community volunteerism efforts?

4) What differentiated teaching strategies can we use with young learners at risk and with students with special needs to see and realize their roles as active, civic minded, valuable community members?

This presentation session aims to share the answers we found to those questions to help participants learn to involve their students in active volunteerism efforts while simultaneously meeting classroom standards across the curriculum. Further, we hope to help them learn strategies to promote social and emotional skills through active, engaging lessons that were found to be useful and effective with our student population. The presenters will further demonstrate how to guide students through activities that were used successfully in our work to foster empathy and new understanding, reconfigure roles as members of a community, and address gaps in students’ prior knowledge related to civic efforts.

In our lessons, we relied heavily on the philosophical ideas of social constructivism. Because, “it is widely believed that children's social-emotional growth and academic learning are inextricably connected” (Daunic, Corbett, Smith, Barnes, Santiago-Poventud, Chalfant, & Gleaton, 2013) we chose to work with children in ways that supported both their academic understanding and their social and emotional growth. “Social constructivism is a highly effective method of teaching that all students can benefit from since collaboration and social interaction are incorporated” (Powell & Kalina, 2009, p. 243). Pedagogical practices using a social constructivism philosophy can be useful with students at risk, early childhood students, and students with special needs as these practices emphasize problem-solving, critical analysis, and student collaboration in learning through social opportunities (Feeney, Moravcik, & Nolte, 2016). We found that with our students at risk, these were skills that may not have been utilized often in prior school experiences and with our young learners and students with special needs, perhaps had been limited by teachers’ lowered expectations. As our students were learning autonomously and with purpose through activities rooted in tenants of social constructivism, they rose to high levels of engagement and understanding.

We further relied on research-based effective methods of citizenship education, service learning, and project-based learning. Teaching students to be engaged and socially conscious of community and world issues is a powerful aspect of instruction that considers justice-oriented citizenship education (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Lucey & Meyer, 2013; Sanchez, 2010; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). Our students at risk benefitted from the social and emotional skills needed to produce community action service learning projects as they worked together and also as they empathized in considering the needs of others in their community. As “service learning is a low-cost strategy that can benefit elementary-aged school students when implemented properly” (Fair & Delaplane, 2015, p. 19-20), we considered this type of experiential teaching and learning to be most appropriate for our students who lacked prior knowledge and socioemotional competency skills. Through social and emotional learning opportunities in concurrence with project-based civic action, we found our students were able to learn academically and show growth in social and emotional skills, as well. Rheta DeVries (2004) explains the importance of planning lessons that foster relationships stating, “The child’s construction of relationships is fundamentally important …and underlie(s) the construction of knowledge” (p. 422-423). Because project-based learning necessitates teacher guidance and student interaction, cultivates relationships, promotes learning motivation, and can demonstrate academic learning gains, (Hung, Hwang, & Huang, 2012) we found it to be a productive pedagogical strategy for our students.


Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching for the common good. New York: Routledge.

Daunic, A., Corbett, N., Smith, S., Barnes, T., Santiago-Poventud, L., Chalfant, P., & Gleaton, J.(2013). Brief report: Integrating social-emotional learning with literacy instruction: An intervention for children at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 39(1), 43-51.

DeVries, V. (2004). Why the child’s constructions of relationships is fundamentally important to constructivist teachers. Prospects, 34(4), 411-422.

Fair, C., & Delaplane, E. (2015). 'It is good to spend time with older adults. You can teach them, they can teach you': Second grade students reflect on intergenerational service learning. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(1), 19-26.

Feeney, S., Moravcik, E., & Nolte, S. (2015). Who am I in the lives of children? An introduction to early childhood education (10th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Hung, C.-M, Hwang, G-J., & Huang, I. (2012). A project-based digital storytelling approach forimproving students' learning motivation, problem-solving competence and learning achievement. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(4), 368-379.

Lucey, T. A., & Meyer, B. (2013). Does social studies teaching uphold the citizenship values to which students should aspire?: Survey findings from one state. Action in Teacher Education, 35(5-6), 462-474.

Nilsen, B.A., (2014). Week by week: Plans for documenting children's development (6th ed.).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Powell, K. C., & Kalina, C. J. (2009). Cognitive and social constructivism: Developing tools for an effective classroom. Education, 130(2), 241-250.

Putnam, R. (2015). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sanchez, R.M. (2010). The six remaining facts: Social studies content knowledge and elementary preservice teachers. Action in Teacher Education, 32(3), 66-78.

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237-269.

Biographical Sketch

Holly Hilboldt Swain is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama. Prior to instructing pre-service teachers, she taught in early childhood and elementary Title I inclusive classrooms using project-based, constructivist teaching practices. Her research and practical work has appeared in several national and international journals and has been presented at numerous state, regional, national, and international forums.

Meagan Roberts Chapman is an Early Childhood Special Education Teacher with experience working in both co-teaching Title I special education inclusive collaborative models and in Title I self-contained multi-age special needs classrooms. She was awarded Teacher of the Year 2016-2017 for Lisenby Primary School, Teacher of the Year 2016-2017 for the Ozark City School System, and was a nominee for 2016-2017 District 2: Alabama Teacher of the Year.

Presentation Year


Start Date

3-6-2018 11:30 AM

End Date

3-6-2018 2:15 PM

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Mar 6th, 11:30 AM Mar 6th, 2:15 PM

Cultivating Empathy through Project-Based Civic Action with Early Childhood Students and Students with Special Needs

Ballroom E

Participants will engage in community volunteerism lessons emphasizing civic activism that position early childhood students and students with special needs as empathetic, capable community members. The presenters will provide strategies and materials for using project-based approaches and standards-based instruction to involve early childhood students and students with special needs in community service efforts and social and emotional growth opportunities.