Grade matters. That’s the key finding of a new CERIC-funded research report that shows that grade is significant for career exploration with Grade 5/6 students scoring notably higher on career planning, interest and curiosity.

Career Trek, in partnership with the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, conducted the two-year study that involved 500 students in Grades 3-12 from four school districts in Manitoba. Students were drawn from two groups, those who attended Career Trek, an early intervention initiative developed to expose students, beginning in Grades 5 and 6, to a variety of career possibilities accessible via post-secondary education, and a control group of students who had not participated in any career awareness program.

The purpose of the project (originally titled Career Exploration: An Application of Social Cognitive Career Theory with At-Risk Adolescents and Young Adults) was to examine how children’s career interests change through adolescence and the factors that affect their interests, such as parents. The research identifies how career exploration interventions can meet student needs in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Highlights of the report, Creating a Lifelong Career Development Model, include:

  • Interest: In this study, students in lower grades demonstrated greater interest in career exploration compared to higher grade peers. These results suggest the importance of promoting family, school and community-based practices that encourage and importantly, maintain students’ interests in career exploration by filtering ideas through the lens of “likes and dislikes.” Although Internet-based programs can provide extraordinary amounts of information, this may not be the ideal career exploration format for youth in Grades 7 or higher. “Doing” is generally rated as holding greater relevance and meaning for students. Children’s career interest is generally encouraged by experiential learning activities.
  • Planning: Compared to students in higher grades, Grade 5/6 students demonstrated greater awareness of the importance of planning when considering future careers. Planning is a critical skill in career exploration. Students who have some degree of awareness of the need to approach career exploration in an organized manner either by having a clearly-defined goal that they can describe and a strategy for attaining it, or who have an awareness of multiple career options along with some kind of plan to work toward these, will be more effective in their career decision-making.
  • Curiosity: Findings suggest that the earlier the grade, the greater the career-related curiosity. The “drop off” between Grade 6 and middle school years may limit exploration and prompt unrealistic aspirations and expectations about the future. The implication is that interventions need to re-ignite curiosity at this stage of development. The research emphasizes that is important to shift the understanding of a decrease or perceived absence of career-related curiosity in children and adolescents as developmentally typical to the view that this may be maintained and/or ignited by environmental interventions that spark curiosity.
  • Parental Involvement: Grade was the significant effect for parental involvement as parents engage in greater career support and action with their children in Grades 5/6 than higher grades. This is congruent with other research that suggests that parental school involvement during middle school generally decreases when compared to elementary levels. Previous research has found that although parents state that they personally would have found greater parental guidance helpful, they are unsure as to how to provide this type of support to their children.

Implications for interventions

The diminishing career interest and exploration behaviours demonstrated between elementary, and Grade 7/8 and higher grade students suggest a need for more direct intervention during this later period, the study recommends. One possible response may be to provide information to parents about the impact of their involvement on the career exploration behaviours of adolescents. In collaboration with community- based organizations that are targeted toward positive youth development, school-based educational sessions could be developed that highlight the benefits for students that occur as a result of parent-initiated conversations and career exploration activities.

As well, the finding that high school students undergo a decrease in career planning interest suggests that the current process of “back-ending” career development (ie, beginning career exploration curriculum at the senior years) is not meeting the needs of high school students. This is a stage in which adolescents are struggling with a number of demands in terms of brain development, identity, peer relationships and academic issues. According to the study, this is not to say that schools should not focus on career development in the senior years, but it does reinforce the need for “planting seeds” at an earlier age and implementing different interventions for senior-year students that contextualize career issues within the social, developmental and psychological changes they are experiencing.

The findings from this project are relevant to school systems that are tasked with the responsibility of facilitating children’s career development. There is also relevance to those in curriculum development as findings indicate that students in Grades 5/6 demonstrated significantly greater capacity to engage in career exploration compared to more senior students. Community-based programs would also be interested in this research because the results support the idea that career exploration outside of the school setting can be an effective means of developing career interests in youth.

CERIC provides funding for research as well as learning projects in career development. This project supports research in one of CERIC’s key Practical and Academic Research priority areas: early intervention to assist children’s career decision-making.