Find out why middle school might just be the ideal time for students to start planning for the future.

Middle school is a tumultuous time for most young people. Raging hormones, changing bodies, complex social dynamics, and pressure to fit in are just a few of the tricky aspects that characterize the 6th through 8th grades.

It’s also a rich period of openness and self-reflection. Before the eagerness of elementary school has completely burned off, it’s possible to engage and inspire kids to connect what’s on their insides to what’s possible in their future.

This is where college and career readiness (CCR) can come in – and make a big impact.

According to the study College and Career Readiness in Middle School: From George Costanza to Oprah Winfrey, middle school students may be the ideal age to learn about themselves and their futures. “We find that middle school, when students’ quests for identity are on overdrive, is an optimal time to help students deeply explore the rich and diverse possibilities for futures that connect to the things that bring them joy.”

CCR could be a life raft for kids who are drawn to bigger questions like, Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I love to do? What will my future look like?

The ACT study The Forgotten Middle found that academic achievement in 8th grade had a larger impact on students’ CCR at high school graduation than anything that happened academically in high school. This underscores the impact of the middle school experience. But the study’s authors caution that too strong a focus on academic achievement could impede exploration.

Middle school students need the right CCR program that provides them with the resources they need to engage in self-reflection, explore college and career options, and familiarize themselves with potential pathways that are relevant to their strengths and passions.

The Benefits of Engaging Middle Schoolers in CCR

There are lots of unique advantages of introducing CCR to 6th through 8th graders, including:

They learn more about themselves—and the careers available to them.

Adolescence is a natural time of self-reflection. Youth are curious about themselves and other people. And, while a person going through puberty can’t be expected to know precisely what career path they will ultimately follow, we can sow the seeds of possibility.

Online CCR programs like Xello provide a place where students can explore their personality traits, learning style, unique interests, skills, and strengths. Assessments they can take online at their own pace encourage reflection and help match them with relevant college and career options they may not have otherwise encountered.

The magic of beginning this exploration in middle school is that they have the luxury of time to consider, mature, and adapt their passions as they grow. No 12th grade panic to choose a college major.

They begin to build 21st century skills.

Students may be introduced to social-emotional learning (SEL), such as communication, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, self-regulation, and organization skills, in elementary school but these abilities begin to take on new importance as they near high school.

The mastery of 21st century skills have been identified as a key indicator for success in the fast-paced, digital world these students will ultimately work in. When students are given the education and tools to understand themselves (and each other) and learn how to think creatively and critically, they are better equipped to make informed decisions for themselves. And that includes planning for the future.

CCR programs like Xello offer lessons that cover age-appropriate SEL skill building to help them optimize their learning and round out their real-world abilities.

They can prepare themselves for specialized programs in high school.

Many school districts offer unique specialized high school programs that often connect with college credits. This allows high schoolers to get a leg up on their post-secondary education before they graduate 12th grade. (Some can even earn a certificate, college credit or industry-recognized credential before they graduate high school!) The catch? They need to know about them before they start choosing courses for 9th grade.

Middle schoolers who have done CCR exploration will have a better sense of their aptitudes and interests. This means they’re better positioned to make informed decisions about the specialized programs available to them – and can create a course plan that’s unique to their journey.

They can be engaged before they “check out”.

Academics aren’t for everyone. And if a student is at-risk, they are more likely to turn away from the rigors of school. As the bridge between elementary and high school, middle school is an ideal time to show students who are at-risk and/or non-academically inclined other options.

An online CCR program is especially helpful as a basis for alternative post-secondary options. Students who have done self-assessments may have already discovered that they aren’t destined for an Ivy League college. Instead, they can be directed to careers that come from a two-year-, four-year, technical or certificate program or even an apprenticeship.

This awareness of what’s available can make all the difference between “getting through” high school and moving forward with purpose.

They learn about what college and career actually mean.

For many middle schoolers, “work” is a nebulous term. Most of the adults in their lives do it, but it’s unclear what happens in a workplace every day.

A CCR program like Xello opens the door to the world of work by showing a day in the life of every career profiled, including a job description, core tasks, workplace characteristics and conditions, earnings, and even a sample career path to demonstrate how one would get to each job.

Similarly, college majors and schools are opened up for students to take a peek at what it’s really like to be a student in a particular program and/or school. While this kind of information may seem advanced for a middle schooler, it’s a fun way to try on different futures for size.

College and Career Activities for Middle School Students

A high-quality online CCR program that students can access anywhere, anytime is a solid foundation that can be complemented with in-class and extracurricular activities designed to build on their interests.

Middle school is an especially interesting time to introduce CCR activities because students tend to be especially receptive to “cool” jobs and they understand the connection between careers, salaries, and the kind of lifestyle they want.

Career exploration activities include:

Interviewing a family, friend, or community member to learn about their job. Students should ask detailed questions such as:

  • What a typical day is like
  • Salary range
  • Education requirements
  • How/why they chose that career

Considering how they prefer to work. Students could create a list of statements about careers and working conditions and have them choose which most appeals to them, such as:

  • I want to work inside / outside all day.
  • I want to work by myself / I want to work with other people as much as possible.
  • I want to use technology / work with my hands and/or people.

Choosing three careers based on their Xello personality assessments and charting a path to get there.

  • What type of courses should they take in high school?
  • Are there extracurricular activities that would give them experience?
  • What kind of post-secondary education would lead them to that career?

How Whitehall Middle School Uses Xello

One of the most important things to consider when introducing CCR in middle school is to ensure it has an element of fun and activities are grade appropriate.

Whitehall Middle School Counselor Lori Hartman uses Xello and says she begins with simple exploration for 7th graders.

“We talk about what’s out there, what are their interests, and how do these things match up,” she said.
“For the 8th grade, we’re a little bit more purposeful in our approach. We go through the Xello program and use Matchmaker and interests, talk about their skills and the students look into those careers a little longer and spend more time on it. I find 8th graders are really responsive to discussing careers and are interested in learning about what they need at the high school level to set them up for success.”

“As they’re doing one of the independent lessons, I meet one-on-one with them outside the classroom and we have a career conversation.”

Like many middle school counselors, Hartman finds her students receptive to thinking about the future. Without the pressure of making an imminent decision, they can be curious and have fun with their CCR exploration.

Middle school might be tough on kids, but CCR is one way to prepare them for the future while reassuring them that they are okay today.

ABOUT HEATHER

Heather Hudson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. She specializes in content marketing, corporate storytelling and good old-fashioned journalism. You can read some of her work in The Toronto Star and learn more about her at heatherhudson.ca.