Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
We all know how hard it is to figure out what you want to do with your life. Most of us are still asking ourselves that question on a fairly regular basis — sometimes daily! As adults, many of us know how the power of conversations with supportive people can help shape our next steps.
Did we have those answers and know about the power of conversations when we were 13? Now think about the pace of change today versus the pace of change when you were that young. Change has never happened faster, and it can be overwhelming to today’s teenager.
So, what is the one thing we can do to help support our students as they plan for their futures?
Over the past few years, I have come to deeply support the power of conversations — specifically, the conversations that students have about their futures with the caring adults in their lives.
In my mind, it doesn’t really matter whether that conversation is with a parent, a teacher, a counselor, a mentor or someone in the community. The important thing is that a student has the opportunity to tell their story, receive feedback and then use that feedback to refine and improve their ideas.
What this means is that as parents, educators, counselors and community members, we all have the opportunity, through the power of conversations, to make a pivotal difference in students’ lives.
Start beneficial chats through school
In most states, every student is required to receive guidance around college and career decisions, which is a great start. Often this takes the form of technology tools that help students learn about their options and reflect on their skills and interests.
The best of these allow educators, counselors and parents to gain insights into students’ personality styles, learning preferences, life experiences and future plans, as well as the status of their college applications or high-school course plans.
However, technology is only half of the equation. The rest is old-fashioned talking. In a recent study by the Institute of Education Sciences, students who receive support from a parent, counselor or teacher were more likely to engage in activities known to lead to better future outcomes than those who did not. These outcomes include submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, completing a college preparatory curriculum, applying to college or enrolling in college. Unfortunately, the same study found that only 44% of students receive the support of one-on-one conversations. So there’s definitely room for growth.
Create more opportunities for talking
Parents should be encouraged to engage in discussions about the future with their children. While they can sometimes get a bad rap for “helicoptering” their children, parents also have the most vested interest in their children’s success. This makes them a great resource for helping students to process the tremendous amount of information flowing in and for answering the many questions students have. Older siblings who are out of high school can also be excellent resources.
Beyond that, any caring adult in a student’s life can have an impactful conversation. This could happen during work-based learning. It could be during a community forum. For example, some localities have developed successful traditions of hosting meals where students and community members meet to talk about the work world and were guaranteed an internship interview just for attending. The conversation partner could also be a peer, a member of a college mentoring program or an adviser in an extracurricular activity or sport.
Events such as career and college fairs can have an impact too, especially for students who are uncertain about their future or question the value of school. Conversations with real people in the workforce or with college admissions representatives can spark a student’s curiosity and perhaps lead to a new interest or future goal.
Meet students where they are
The human mind isn’t well-equipped to make decisions in the face of overwhelming complexity. Students can’t logically work through all of the future options they have before them. And they already have a host of issues to deal with, from their changing bodies and relationships to academic pressures.
With this in mind, conversations that treat the future with light curiosity rather than as a problem that needs to be solved right now are bound to be more successful. I’ve found this with my own teenagers — the more heavy the topic, the more reluctant they are to talk to me about it.
A lot depends on the student’s state of readiness. The right time for some students could be their sophomore or junior year in high school. The right time for others may be the day before graduation (hopefully not!). Gauging this can be tricky. Because the process of figuring out your future is iterative, I think the best conversations start open-ended and aren’t intended to make a specific determination. As trust and rapport are established, the opportunity to dig into specifics will grow.
Over the years, our company has come to appreciate the complexity of the college and career decision process. But I’ve also come to appreciate the opportunities we have as adults to help students figure out their path. I’m excited about the future possibilities as we learn more about helping young people launch into the world.
Matt McQuillen is CEO and founder of Xello, a K-12 college, career and future readiness program.
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