Service learning: Nursing students' civic engagement with diverse populations of children with special needs

Published:April 01, 2022DOI:


      • Pedagogical strategies that involve civic engagement enhances learning
      • Service learning increases students' knowledge about diverse populations
      • Children with special needs have diverse capabilities and needs that must be known
      • Students must acquire knowledge about the needs of children with disabilities
      • Use of community based participatory research methods can facilitate collaborations and evaluation of engagement experiences



      There is limited knowledge of nursing students' perspectives about engagement with special needs populations. The purpose of this study was to identify the advantages/benefits and disadvantages/challenges of nursing students' engagement experience with children with special mental and physical disabilities. Recommendations to enhance student engagement experiences were also provided.


      A descriptive, qualitative design was employed. Undergraduate nursing students (N = 28) responded to open-ended questions about their civic engagement experiences at a community-based, respite care program for children with special needs. Student accounts underwent directed content analysis, with coding, category and theme development according to the Theory of Planned Behavior. The Atlas.Ti computer program was used to manage the data.


      Advantages/Benefits: Filling cognitive and experiential learning gaps, rewarding connections/relationships, positive emotions, perceptions and interactions, and fun and stress relief. Disadvantage/challenges: Managing negative/uncomfortable emotions and uncertainty, witnessing and managing disruptive behaviors, negative perceptions of program operations/expectations.


      Students experienced cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and educational advantages and/or disadvantages while engaging with this defined population.

      Practice implications

      To enhance engagement faculty can provide education and anticipatory guidance, detail responsibilities and expectations, and/or utilize simulation for student preparation. Nurses and researchers can utilize community based participatory methods to guide discussions with community-based organizations to collaboratively develop strategies to institute, evaluate and enhance student engagement during service learning experiences with children who have special needs.


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      Dr. Atkins is an assistant professor at the College of New Jersey and a Family Nurse Practitioner. Her research focuses on enhancing mental health and preventing illness in low-income or ethnic/minority populations through physical activity, health education, enhancing parent-child engagement and mind-fullness meditation.


      Dr. Dugan is an assistant professor at the College of New Jersey and a Family Nurse Practitioner. Her research focuses on enhancing health in student athletes. She is also interested in Concussion, Depression, Infectious Diseases, Family Practice, and Inter-professional Activities.


      Dr. Jakubowski is an associate professor at the College of New Jersey and a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. Her research focuses on pedagogical strategies to enhance nursing educational methods and combining community engagement with health education to enhance the health of pediatric populations.


      Dr. Perron is an associate professor department chairperson at the College of New Jersey and a certified nurse educator and Basic life support instructor. Her research focuses on pedagogical strategies to enhance nursing education and educators that include utilizing simulation technologies, mentorship, promoting civility and combining community engagement with health education to enhance the health of vulnerable groups.


      Deborah King is a full-time faculty member as a clinical assistant professor at Villanova University Fitzpatrick School of Nursing. Her research area of Interest is in Cardiac Heart Defects in preemies and newborns. As a Ph.D. student at Villanova University, her area of Interest focuses on social isolation, depression, and suicide in teens and adolescence during COVID-19.


      Madeline McSweeney is a nursing student research assistant and nursing student. She is interested in conducting research in the areas of health disparities, disease prevention and health promotion in vulnerable populations.


      Vyacheslav Ivanof is a nursing student research assistant and nursing student. He is interested in conducting research in the areas of health disparities, disease prevention and health promotion in vulnerable populations.


      Dr. Johnson is an assistant professor at the New Jersey City University (NJCU) and a Family Nurse Practitioner with a focus in pediatric health. Dr. Johnson is passionate about nursing and is truly committed to eliminating health disparities in minority communities. Her research focus is improving health care outcomes among adolescent who suffer with obesity, as well as improving mental health in low income minority women.