After a trying 2020/21, career exploration gives students a sense of direction—something tangible and exciting to look forward to. Lynda Byrne explains.

For many young students, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most significant world event they’ve lived through. In 2001, my first week of high school was defined by the events of September 11th. And while there was certainly fear across North America after 9/11, our lives as high school students remained relatively the same, even if the world outside the classroom was forever changed. This has not been the case for students of the pandemic. Their sense of normalcy was taken from them along with connection to friends, motivation to participate in class, and more.

One of the experiences that students had during the pandemic was the feeling of uncertainty around the future. The longer the pandemic crawled on, the more a “no end in sight” feeling took hold. Unlike prior years where students could imagine what each season of the year would bring, the last two school years left students unable to predict what the next month would bring, let alone what future years looked like.

This is why, more so than ever, school curriculums need to harness the power of future thinking and career development initiatives to give students something exciting and tangible to look forward to. The power of future thinking can also help students focus less on the insecurities of being behind the eightball of their grade-level expectations and more on what’s ahead in their journey.

1. Self-Knowledge As the Best Roadmap Forward

Returning to school for many students will be a source of joy, a time to reconnect face-to-face with friends and teachers. But many will feel a sense of pressure to not only catch up on subjects but to make decisions about the future, especially for seniors.

As adults, we have more perspective and can say to students asking for advice, “there is no perfect path” but for many students, there’s a real feeling of not knowing the right choice. This is where self-knowledge really comes into play for students who are anxious about making future decisions. When students spend time cultivating a strong sense of self through assessments, curation of their interests, getting to know their personal strengths, and celebrating their achievements they’ll be able to make decisions confidently knowing their choices are in alignment with what will bring them success and fulfillment.

No matter what grade you’re in, students using Xello can document their journey as they build self-knowledge, explore post-secondary options, create plans, and continually reassess as they grow and learn more about who they are and where they’re going.

2. Give Students a Sense of Hope and Direction

A constant feeling of uncertainty is a perfect recipe for heightening a young persons’ sense of feeling out of control. After 15 months of pandemic life, where the only constant was a feeling of “what now?” focusing on the future is a great way to give students a sense of hope and direction. When you shift the focus from the pandemic tragedies and learning gaps to students’ strengths and achievements, students can start to feel more in control of their lives and their futures.

Developing a habit of thinking about one’s future (what scientists refer to as“prospection”) is something that could help combat current mental health issues and prevent future tendencies towards depression. “We see faulty prospection as a core underlying process that drives depression,” wrote psychologists Martin Seligman and Anne Marie Roepke in their book Homo Prospectus, noting that people with depression imagine possible futures that are more negative than people without depression.

3. Fantasizing vs. Planning for a Successful Future

In her article How Thinking About the Future Makes Life More Meaningful, Summer Allen acknowledges the benefits of students adopting a mindfulness practice, but cites research indicating that thinking about the future is a keystone to creating more meaning in our lives.

As it relates to student future-readiness and motivating them to reach their goals, thinking about one’s future can either help students or hinder them. Research has shown that positively fantasizing about successfully reaching a goal results in less effort into realizing it, while the opposite is true for having a positive expectation for reaching a goal. It’s like that Henry Ford saying goes: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right”.

But, fantasy is helpful in one way: Even when you have a positive expectation for reaching a goal (essentially being optimistic), drawing contrast between your fantasy and your reality shows you the barriers you must overcome to meet your goal. For students, it’s one thing to fantasize about becoming a movie director and another to research or reverse engineer that goal to create a plan for how to get there. With any of the career profiles found in Xello, for instance, students can see the levels of postsecondary education typically required for their dream career and can then plan their highschool courses towards that.

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4. The World Changed and So Did Our Students

When I think of teenagers, I think of young people finding excuses to get away from their siblings or rolling their eyes at the idea of a family road trip. But, when reviewing the experiences of the students in this Time’s article, I couldn’t help but notice a theme of gratitude surrounding the quality time that young people got with their families because of the pandemic.

What does this mean for college and career readiness? After experiencing a global crisis that has drastically changed the world and it’s young people along with it, there will inevitably be changes of heart when it comes to student’s plans for the future. Seniors who had always planned to apply for out-of-state schools may now be looking to stay close to home.

In the wake of 9/11, firefighters were honored as heroes and registration for careers in firefighting skyrocketed. This historic event has seen frontline workers rightfully celebrated as heroes, but students who were once interested in pursuing careers like nursing prior to the pandemic might have a very different perspective on that career after the intensity and life-risking positions frontline workers faced everyday.

5. Use the Shared Experience of the Pandemic to Teach Adaptability

If the pandemic solidified anything for me it was the truth of that old phrase, “life happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Living through an unprecedented historical event is a shared experience that educators can use to teach students about the importance of adaptability and having more than one plan for their future. In the World Economic Forum’s article 4 ways COVID-19 could change how we educate future generations, the authors argue that students need to learn resiliency and adaptability to navigate not only the pandemic, but the working world ahead of them.

When school returns in the fall, students should feel that they can share their experiences in a safe space. Additionally, everyone’s experiences of the pandemic can be leveraged as a learning opportunity around adaptability when it comes to future planning. And, it’s not just about students thinking about more than one option for their future, but creating tangible plan A, B, and C. Xello’s future readiness tools help students all throughout their student journey to create and modify multiple future plans. Xello Family will also make it easier for students to share their plans with their parents or guardians, so that everyone is on the same page!

After the hurdles that educators had to jump over to move their classes to remote education over the last 15 months, they remain under a great deal of pressure going into the new school year. The education sector is worried about the mental health of students after the pandemic, with many educators struggling themselves to manage their wellbeing. Getting students focused on their future in every class, not just a careers-specific class, is something I would lean on as an educator. And Xello, which provides personalized future-readiness content and planning tools for students, can help educators get students re-engaged and excited about what’s ahead.

ABOUT LYNDA

Lynda Byrne is a seasoned marketing professional in the education technology space, specializing in user engagement and customer retention. When she isn’t working to empower educators to provide world-class future-readiness programs, you can find her traveling, testing out dessert recipes, or playing with her dog Otis.