Adulthood can feel like light years away for elementary students, but it’s never too early to start thinking about it. Here’s why there’s value in introducing college and career readiness activities now.

College and career readiness (CCR) is often not something elementary teachers think about when planning their yearly curriculum. In fact, many elementary teachers only think to include CCR activities in their curriculum if it’s mandated. To some, it may seem too early to expect kids to know what they want to do with their life.

The reality is that it’s never too early to introduce students to college and career options. Young children are dreamers, and they dream big. Anything is possible when you’re young, so it’s great to capitalize on that optimism and openness.

CCR isn’t about getting students to pick a career; it’s about providing opportunities that expose them to examples of potential careers. It’s about helping students see themselves in potential careers that maybe they didn’t even know existed and getting them involved in exploration and self-discovery. It’s about helping them realize they can achieve their dreams.

The ACT Center for Equity in Learning and the American College Application Campaign state that the first goal of CCR is “sharing information and building awareness about higher education and career readiness opportunities.” This is best done in elementary and middle school years because it sets a foundation to build upon in high school.

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There are many benefits that come from introducing CCR to elementary students:

  • It helps teachers think about and align what they are teaching with the skills that their students will need to be successful once they graduate high school.
  • It ensures that students know what being college-ready looks like, which can affect their course selections once they get into middle/high school and their overall engagement in learning throughout their schooling.
  • It builds a college-going culture, which is especially important for students who are the first in their family to attend college. It’s really easy for first-generation students to see college as something that exists for other people if they are not taught that they, too, can attend.
  • It expands students’ understanding on what career options are out in the world. Unless they are introduced to new careers at school, students mostly only know about the careers of their family and friends.

Overall, CCR sets students up for greater success once they reach their middle/high school years.

So, what does CCR look like in elementary years? Here are a few examples of ways you can incorporate college and career readiness activities in your classroom:

Embed Talking About College and Careers in Existing Lessons

This is perhaps the easiest way to help students start thinking about college and future careers. Create a culture where you talk about college in the classroom. This will help students see themselves as future college students.

Use lessons as an opportunity to highlight potential careers. If you’re teaching a science lesson on animals and their habitats, take a few minutes to have students brainstorm different careers where people work with animals. You could then take one of the careers and talk a little more about it before moving onto the actual lesson. This not only exposes students to different careers, it also connects their learning to the real-world.

Encourage Self-Exploration in the Classroom

It’s important that students have opportunities to discover themselves and what makes them unique. There are many ways teachers can help facilitate this in the classroom through graphic organizers, bulletin board displays, and reflective activities.

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Allowing students to have choices on assignments also allows for self-exploration. This could be as simple as allowing students to pick a book that interests them instead of assigning the same book to the entire class, or allowing students to present information in different ways. Some students might choose to write a paper, while others might want to create an audio-narrated presentation or video. This helps students explore their own interests, while developing skills that might be instrumental in their future career.

Writing assignments can easily double as self-exploration activities. Here are a few journal prompts you can use in the classroom:

  • What is your favorite activity outside of school?
  • What subject do you like best in school?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • What is something you’re really good at?
  • What makes you unique?
  • What is a dream you have for your life?
  • What do you like best about school?

Get Creative with Research Projects

When my son was in third grade, his school had a grade-wide wax museum project. The students had to pick a notable person, research that person’s career, and then dress up as the individual for an actual wax museum where parents and grandparents walked around the room asking the students questions about their person and that person’s career.

My son picked Neil Armstrong, and for nearly a month, he came home every day with new facts about astronauts, space, and Neil Armstrong. He was so enthusiastic about this project, especially on the wax museum day where he got to dress up as an astronaut. The best part about the project was that the students had to practice in front of each other before the actual museum day, so my son learned about many potential careers in this one activity.

Invite Professionals into the Classroom to Share Their Careers

Few things get kids more excited than having a visitor come to their classroom, especially when that visitor is there to share something cool or unique about his or her career. Try to look for professionals who relate to books you’re reading with the students or topics you’re studying in science or social studies. Artists make for great guests in art classes. Encourage the speakers to dress as they would for their job and to bring any items they use in their line of work.

Another option is to seek those closest to your students. Are there parents or family members who would be interested in sharing their careers and experiences?

If your district doesn’t have a college and career readiness program, there are many activities and lesson plans online that can help your district develop a curriculum or help you embed activities in your lessons. Make college and career readiness part of your professional learning communities, so that it becomes part of your school’s culture.

The sooner students start learning about college and career readiness, the better. By providing self-exploratory activities in the classroom, you will be helping students have a better understanding of their interests, their skills and talents, and their values. Having this insight will help students know the direction they should take when it comes to a future career. It also creates a college-going culture, which is especially important for students who will be the first person in their family to attend college.