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It is important to expand the scope of who engages students in future readiness conversations beyond school counselors

4 tips to start meaningful conversations with students

It is important to expand the scope of who engages students in future readiness conversations beyond school counselors

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” It’s a question we ask students as young as kindergarten. I personally had the pleasure of watching my own kids answer this question at their kindergarten graduation (“dog breeder” and “ninja” – so proud!).

Of course, this shouldn’t just be a question we ask in kindergarten and again in senior year. All students—regardless of their backgrounds and future aspirations—benefit when they have the opportunity to explore and reflect on their future plans throughout their entire K-12 journey.

So how do we make this happen?

You might think the answer is software. While that’s part of what’s needed, I don’t believe it’s the most impactful. What I believe in, is the power of conversations.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how engaging students in meaningful conversations about future pathways—whether college, career, trade school, or military—can profoundly impact their lives.

These are ongoing conversations students ideally have with a school counselor, but with the national average of counselor-to-student ratio at 415:1, it may be more aspirational than reality.

And realities can be different based on the state. Texas, for example, has rules intended to focus students’ attention on their futures, such as requiring seventh graders to take a college and career readiness class. But there are still a handful of states without any college and career readiness standards–and most states that do have measurement criteria in place consider metrics like the number of Advanced Placement courses or dual-enrollment classes. They often do not track student’s outcomes beyond high school or look at how historically disadvantaged groups fare before or after graduation.

Because of these and other disparities, it is important to expand the scope of who engages students in future readiness conversations beyond school counselors.

Who should engage?

Parents, guardians, and other caregivers are going to have the most vested interest in their children, and so they are central to promoting meaningful conversations.

However, not every student has an engaged guide in their educational journey at home. The next best person for students to have these conversations with is an adult they trust: a coach, teacher, principal, or any caring individual in their life who is interested and vested in their future.

Community members are another great resource. These might be local business owners, college representatives, military recruiters, or others who can talk about the options for continued education or employment from a real-world perspective.

Finally, conversations with peers can reinforce the idea that their futures are worthy of time and attention, not only in the lead-up to graduation, but throughout middle and high school.

Setting the stage

Following the curriculum and the state standards provides a clear, linear roadmap for instruction that can be replicated from classroom to classroom. The same cannot be said for conversations regarding future readiness. You’re trying to help a 14-year-old plan for the distant future at a time when the world is changing so rapidly and they, too, are constantly evolving through adolescence.

That’s a very complex proposition—but the power of ongoing conversations makes it worth addressing the challenges head on.

In 2021, the Institute of Education Sciences released a study on Education and Career Planning in High School which examined the correlation between three things: developing an education and/or career plan, receiving support from an adult, and meeting with an adult in school at least once a year to review the plan. The study showed that 62 percent of students developed an education and/or career plan, but only 44 percent of students received support from an adult. Additionally, only 22 percent of students reviewed their plan annually with an adult in school, which is a practice associated with submitting the FAFSA, applying to and enrolling in college.

This really emphasizes the importance of not just developing a plan but keeping it as a topic of discussion throughout the educational journey so it can be revised as each student’s interests, skills, and knowledge change.

Igniting the spark

Here are some simple tips for meaningful conversations that anyone can easily put into practice:

  • Start early. A 2021 study from The Careers & Enterprise Company, England’s governmental body for exploring career education, showed that participants raised concerns that school-mediated career support often began too late and that students, especially those from low-socioeconomic households, have already ruled out many options as not suitable for them up to three years before graduation. While the depth of conversation will change as students get older, there are fun activities to strategically engage students as young as elementary school.
  • Ask thought-provoking questions. You can start by asking “What interests you?” followed up by “Where might that take you?” Some students may have already identified a clear goal and a pathway to success, while others are unsure where to start exploring their options—or even expressing their interests.
  • Keep the conversations open-ended. The process of figuring out what students want to do is a very personal experience. Because the process will differ for every student, it’s important that conversations explore all of the options and opportunities rather than focusing on one path.
  • Understand it is a process and not a finish line. Over the course of students’ educational journeys, they may have revelations about their future at any point in time—including the very last day of high school. And it’s totally okay if their plans change. There is no set point in time where the future is fixed.

We know in education that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. Similarly, meaningful conversations will vary. Top-performing students are already firing on all cylinders—but a meaningful conversation can advance their thinking about their future direction. Students who are less motivated may hear an idea that sparks their interest—and suddenly they become more engaged in both school and in conversations about their future.

The process of meaningful conversations will look different for every student—what matters is that we are having them.

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