Planting the Seed of Career Exploration in Middle School Students
Providing young people with the tools and knowledge to decide for their future
By Monica Edwards
As a child, many of us remember being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” While always posed with the best of intentions, this question has proven to be both confusing and stressful for young people. Often it pressures them into making a decision about their future before they have the skills or knowledge to properly do so. The answer that children might provide to this question can also have a lasting impact on how they see themselves.
Career decisions, especially those made at a young age, are often based on what the individual perceives as acceptable by his/her family and peers. The majority of children are also only aware of the occupations held by their parents, family members, friends, and the professionals that the child may encounter in everyday life. If youth are being asked to make decisions about their careers with this limited exposure, their options from which to choose are going to be relatively restricted.
A lack of opportunities for career exploration early on
A recent study reported that 39% of millennials are choosing a career based on what they view on television,1 undoubtedly resulting in disappointment for many when they realize the unrealistic portrayal of these occupations. So the question becomes, if children have not had the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of occupations, along with accurate information about those careers, how can we ask them to make such a significant decision?
Some may respond to this question with the view that children will change their minds about their career many times throughout their youth, and being asked this question is simply part of growing up. However, we know today that children as young as 12 “have a strong sense of their personal futures. »2 More so than ever before, today’s children will have a plethora of job choices available to them, many of which do not presently exist, and the sky won’t even be the limit. New research and developing technology will require the next generation to be some of the most innovative and creative thinkers in history. Considering the uncertainty of the future job market, we must ensure that our young people are prepared.
The middle school years (typically grades 4 to 8, though this varies across Canada) are a crucial period when students can benefit greatly from career exploration activities, self-awareness exercises and learning career planning and goal-setting skills. Career decisions are built over time, with the middle school years creating the optimal opportunity to help students develop an awareness of who they are, their unique strengths and weaknesses, what they enjoy, and equally important, what they do not enjoy. Building a vocabulary in these areas, and becoming able to clearly identify and communicate their own personal characteristics, is a skill that many young people are lacking.
While most Canadian high schools often deliver some form of career guidance for their students, middle schools across the country usually do not provide the same services. Whether it is due to a lack of funding, or being unaware of the importance of this topic, it is uncommon to find career-related programming at this grade level.
At a significant period of emotional development and intellectual growth, middle school students become aware of the world around them. This is also the period when students can become disengaged in their studies and, at this very delicate fork in the road, students must realize that what they are learning in school today will carry forward into the world of work later in life. Enabling young people to connect both the soft skills that they are developing and the curriculum that they are studying to a future of prosperity can have a lasting impact on their school experience.
Implementing career-related activities is crucial
When considering the implementation of a middle school career program, a school or school jurisdiction should not feel overwhelmed with the idea of developing a full-fledged, comprehensive program. While this would provide the ultimate benefit to students, as a relatively new concept for schools, it is likely unrealistic. To begin small, and allow the idea to percolate and develop will be more sustainable and, in the long term, will have a greater impact on students.
Simple ideas such as hosting career days, inviting students to dress up as different occupations and present them to their class, welcoming guest speakers to discuss their careers – all of these activities begin to plant the seed of curiosity and exploration for young people. The ultimate goal is not to coach these children towards choosing a career, but to help them develop a sense of self-awareness, and an appreciation for the career possibilities that the world has to offer them.
There are a multitude of resources available for teachers and school personnel to use when considering a program, many of them free or relatively inexpensive. My Blueprint Educational Planner offers two online career development and self-awareness programs. All About Me is their program specific to elementary and middle school students. Career Cruising (rebranding as Xello) is another online tool that provides a comprehensive system designed for students beginning in kindergarten all the way through high school. Many provinces throughout Canada also have free resources available to residents, providing a wealth of information in the area of career development.
No matter in what capacity a school is able to begin providing career development programming to their middle school students, the importance of doing so is undeniable. Success comes when preparation meets opportunity. Our young people want to be prepared and deserve to be successful, and now is the time to provide them with the opportunity.
A CERIC-funded research report has shown that grade is significant for career exploration
with Grade 5/6 students scoring significantly 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 to12 from four school districts in Manitoba. The purpose of the project 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. Learn more at ceric.ca/lifelong
Monica Edwards has more than 10 years of experience in the field of career development, focusing primarily on youth. She is a Career Coach with High Prairie School Division in northern Alberta and is also a member of the Alberta Career Development Association. Edwards has a diploma in Business Administration from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), a Bachelor of Management from Athabasca University, and is working towards her Certified Career Development Practitioner designation.
1 Cruse, Toby. « Almost 40% of Millennials are choosing their careers based on TV”, 2017. Retrieved from https://palife.co.uk/news/almost-40-millennials-choosing-careers-based-tv/
2 Phys Org. “Today’s children decide on their school and career path early”, 2009 Retrieved from http://www.phys.org/news/2009-11-today-children-school-career-path.html