Helping Your 9th or 10th Grader With Career Awareness and Exploration
Four Stages of Career DevelopmentWhatever your teen’s path to the world of work—through postsecondary education or training, or directly from high school to a job—it can be helpful to consider four stages of career development. This article will offer suggestions about the first two stages. A companion article, “Helping Your Eleventh or Twelfth Grader with Career Preparation and ‘Fit,’” offers suggestions about the last two stages. Despite the division between articles—and their targeted ages—these stages aren’t necessarily sequential and frequently overlap.
Stage 1: Career Awareness Begins With Self-AwarenessOne of the first steps your teen must take on the path to adulthood is recognizing that her learning disability won’t go away after graduation. Learning disabilities are not “curable,” but they are manageable. They require strategies and accommodations throughout adult life and must be considered as your teen makes plans for the future. However, you can help your teen understand that her learning disability is only one part of her profile of strengths, abilities, challenges and needs. It is even possible to see a learning disability as a source of rewards as well as struggles and frustrations. Having a learning disability may be teaching your teen:
- creative problem solving: working around and compensating for the disability
- persistence: continuing to try, working through frustrations to reach a goal
- empathy: supporting and understanding others who struggle
In the first years of high school, your teen needs to become aware of himself as a multifaceted person, regardless of the challenges of his learning disability. Self-awareness leads to the self-acceptance that allows your teen to begin advocating for himself, asking for the modifications and accommodations he needs to succeed. With increasing self-confidence, your teen is ready to think about a career.
Build Independence and Self-ConfidenceLearning disabilities have emotional challenges as well as academic ones, as you well know. Help your teen rise from the discouragement and low self-esteem she may feel. You have probably been your child’s strongest advocate, and that role will likely continue for you. But it’s crucial for your teen to practice speaking up independently about what she needs to help her succeed. As your child gets older, you won’t be able to fight all the battles anymore—nor should you. You want your teen to become an independent adult. Independence requires self-advocacy.
For example, if your teen finds that a teacher is talking too fast and presenting material too rapidly, encourage him or her to politely ask the teacher for permission to record the class, get the information in writing, use a study partner to compare notes with, and try whatever other reasonable accommodations seem advisable. When large projects are assigned, expect your teen to break the task into smaller parts and set interim deadlines independently. Involve yourself less and less, realizing you may need to intervene or help sometimes.
Build confidence outside school hours by allowing your teen more freedom and independence. Expect your teen to take full or substantial responsibility for appropriate chores, such as cleaning his room every week, doing laundry, taking charge of a family meal, providing pet care or yard care, watering plants, babysitting or supervising younger siblings.
Ninth and tenth graders also need work experience. The responsibility that comes with chores and neighborhood obligations helps build work habits that will much improve your teen’s chances of finding a good job and a rewarding career. Encourage your teen to walk dogs, babysit, help an elderly or infirm neighbor, mow lawns, shovel snow or do odd jobs. If possible, enroll your teen in babysitting or lifesaving classes.
Stage 2: Career Exploration Means Discovering Genuine InterestsTo plan for the future, your teen needs to discover his own genuine interests, passions, and strengths. What does he truly like to do? Sit down together and help your teen make a list of favorite activities and pastimes—what gives him satisfaction and what he’s good at. If he claims he isn’t good at anything, encourage him by talking about his individual strengths. Does your teen like hands-on work? Does he like to help others? Be outdoors? Take care of animals? Look after younger children? Cook? Sew? Build or fix things? Plan parties or celebrations? Play computer or video games? Make music?
Encourage your teen to begin making connections between enjoyable, interesting activities and a future job or career. Focus on your teen’s personality. Does she love being around people, in the midst of things, or does she prefer to work alone or in a small group, doing quieter activities? To find pursuits that may interest her, seek out classes given at local parks or community centers, such as bird watching or quilting. Encourage your teen to volunteer at a nonprofit organization, such as a food bank or animal rescue group. Specialized stores often put up notices of teachers or clubs for people who like to sew, garden, ski, read to children, play computer games, draw cartoons and so forth.
Expose your teen to new experiences whenever you can. Offer opportunities to try new things, such as theater (on stage and behind the scenes), music making, filmmaking, drawing, carpentry, papermaking, printmaking, ceramics, tai chi or yoga. Help your teen “shop” for his passions. Besides suggesting career paths and broadening his view of what people can do with their lives, finding activities he loves can lead to satisfying leisure activities in adulthood. Doing what he does well can offer solace and bolster self-confidence during difficult times. Such activities can point your teen toward mentors, role models, part-time jobs and careers. He or she will also be developing a support system of like-minded peers.
Armed with a growing understanding of his interests, abilities and challenges, your teen can consider why people work and what motivates them to pursue certain jobs. Many teens don’t know what kinds of jobs are held by family members and friends and what skills are required by various careers. It can be enlightening for your teen to visit workplaces—where you work, where your family and friends work—to see if he can imagine himself doing the jobs he observes. You can help arrange experiences for your teen where he can practice crucial work-related skills.
What Can I Be When I Grow Up?Does your teen understand why most people want and need to work, beyond the obvious financial incentives? Discuss your own job with your teen. Talk about how work brings a sense of belonging to a larger community. Be frank about the satisfactions and frustrations of your job. Encourage your teen to ask family members and friends about their jobs. Adults your teen knows may be able to help him find jobs or volunteer opportunities in your community.
Take your teen with you to work. Ask friends or family members if she can “shadow” them as they do their jobs. Help your teen get a sense of employment possibilities.
Help Your Teen Develop “Soft Skills”Your teen needs extra help with academic skills like reading, writing and math. But other skills, called “soft skills” by some researchers, are just as crucial for life success. Kids with LD need focused attention to master these everyday, commonsense skills important in all aspects of life: skills of communication, getting along with others, making decisions, taking initiative and accepting responsibility.
Families are especially important in helping young people develop soft skills. Some soft skills are closely related to a work ethic: the importance of being on time, the initiative to seek help or develop one’s own strategies for success, being a valued part of a team and taking pride in one’s work. Self-control, respecting others and dealing constructively with conflict are essential for job success. Refusing to follow directions and inability to get along with others are common reasons people get fired.
Recent research has identified six qualities that are characteristic of successful people with learning disabilities. These “success attributes” include nonacademic skills—soft skills—essential for a productive adulthood. You play a vital role in supporting your teen’s development of these attributes: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, goal setting, use of effective support systems and emotional coping skills.
Make sure the soft skills your teen needs to practice are included on his IEP during middle school and high school.
The Importance of a Transition PlanYour teen needs a map for the future. Work with your school to create a detailed, individualized transition plan for your teen. Include both short- and long-term goals for education (e.g., high school courses to take, postsecondary options), skills development, extracurricular and community activities and employment. Be sure your teen’s transition plan includes specific goals for career preparation. As a parent, you are the expert on your teen’s strengths, interests, challenges and needs. Become actively involved in formulating your teen’s transition plan, ensuring that the plan includes all the skills (not just academic) he or she needs to work on. For example, you can emphasize the importance of learning self-advocacy. Above all, make sure your teen takes an increasingly active role in developing these plans for the future.
Discuss transition plans and future goals within your family. Involve school staff as early as possible. Even middle school students can begin to work on skills for independence.
The Importance of High ExpectationsOne of the best ways you can help your teen prepare for the future is to hold high expectations. Research shows that students with learning disabilities whose parents expect them to go on to some form of postsecondary education achieve more in high school. Without losing sight of your teen’s individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs, keep your expectations achievable but keep them high and communicate them frequently to your teen. Even when it’s difficult, be positive and encouraging.
It’s very important that your teen graduate with a standard diploma, rather than a special education certificate, if at all possible. Nonstandard diplomas are usually seen as inferior to standard diplomas and will impede your teen’s job, career, and education opportunities. Find out from your school district the requirements for a standard diploma and make sure your teen’s IEP fully supports his path toward it.
Life After High SchoolSelf-awareness underlies all stages of career planning. The first two years of high school can, with your help, be enlightening and reassuring for your teen as life after high school comes closer. Now that you have a clearer idea about the first two stages of career development, read the next article in this two-part series, “Helping Your Eleventh or Twelfth Grader with Career Preparation and ‘Fit.’”
Bonnie Z. Goldsmith has worked in the field of education throughout her professional life. She has wide experience as a writer, editor and teacher.