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Science & Tech

When I Grow Up

Making a case for career counseling for elementary schoolers

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Charlotte has her career all mapped out. Depending on the day. When she grows up, the six-year-old announces while overseeing the class of soft toys on her bedroom floor, she’s going to be a teacher. Last month, her mom whispers, it was a farmer, before that, a “blood doctor.”

This, according to Kimberly Howard, a School of Education associate professor of literacy and language, is the magical stage of career development. Charlotte isn’t concerned with the how of becoming a teacher—or a blood doctor. “You just think it and it happens,” says Howard. “The younger kids, kindergarten, first grade, don’t understand that there is a process.”

And most teachers and parents are content to leave them to it, prolonging the magic and holding back reality for as long as possible. Howard, a counseling expert and a specialist on the different stages that children and youth go through in thinking about careers, believes that might be a mistake. Waiting until middle school to talk about jobs could be too late, she argues, especially for kids from low-income or minority backgrounds.

Charlotte’s ever-changing “When I grow up” declarations aren’t just representative of magical childhood moments. A decade ago, Howard studied kindergartners in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood and found that the children named only professions they’d seen firsthand: in the case of Charlotte, a day at school opens up teacher, a trip to the petting zoo gets her thinking about farming, and a test at the pediatrician’s office sparks dreams of becoming a blood doctor.

Even at four and five, says Howard, the scope of children’s ambition can be narrowed—or broadened—by the world around them. “We know that kids as young as four are making judgments about what jobs are possible for them, and not, based on things such as gender and socioeconomic status. Kids are looking around and saying, ‘Possible for me, not possible for me; possible for him, but not possible for me.’”

Once set, such limits can be hard to shake. Children can dream of being an astronaut, but if they don’t think they can make it, they probably won’t. “Your confidence for pursuing a particular route can greatly influence whether you take it or not,” Howard says. If career counseling begins with a question about interests—what are you interested in?—it’s probably happening too late. “There’s a lot that leads up to what students say they’re interested in, and if you don’t back up to address and explore some of that, you’re essentially just continuing to perpetuate the status quo.”

Boston University BU, School of Education SED, Kimberly Howard, research

Kimberly Howard, an SED associate professor in the educational foundations, leadership, and counseling department. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Howard recommends that elementary schools weave age-appropriate introductions to careers into classroom lessons. Instead of a biography project about American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, for example, teachers could look at nursing in general, exploring what the job involves or why people do it. And, while it’s great to bring in community members and parents to share job stories, schools can now turn to the internet for role models far beyond the traditional ways. Sites such as Career Locker and Career Cruising, she says, are packed with kid-oriented videos about people from different backgrounds and professions.

For children and youth from diverse or low-income backgrounds, such “modeling” is especially important. “There are a lot of messages, both implicit and explicit, that are offered to low-income kids and youth of color about what their place in the world is and isn’t, and what’s possible for them,” says Howard, who has undertaken counseling research ranging from the perspectives of urban youth to working with transgendered young people.

Howard and a team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently completed a project interviewing more than 22,000 students in grades 8 and 10 about their career aspirations. With such a large pool of participants, they could go beyond simple differences between rich and poor to eliminate a common complaint about other research—the confusion of “socioeconomic status with race and ethnicity.” It allowed Howard to draw authoritative conclusions rich with detail—that low-income Native American boys, for instance, set for themselves humbler expectations than any other group.

One of the most interesting findings, she says, is that girls from every socioeconomic group aspired to careers requiring more education than those picked by comparable boys, but “the resulting salary was about the same as what the boys were pursuing.” She speculates that this might be because “occupations dominated by women generally have lower prestige and pay than those dominated by men,” or that boys could be making a cost-benefit analysis when considering potential careers. “As we’re working with youth in general,” she says, “that’s something we should be exploring with them—how long will it take to enter this occupation?”

As an advisor to future classroom and guidance professionals—she teaches seven counseling-related courses at SED—Howard is aware that these conclusions won’t directly help those in schools, many of whom are more likely to be dealing with problems than proactively preventing them. One current project aims to turn her knowledge into something teachers can use. She’s joined with engineering experts to develop middle school math and science curricula that build career education into everyday classroom activities, while still meeting national standards. Currently in the testing phase, the curricula contain “content focused on engineering,” a field Howard says is projected to soon have more jobs than people to fill them.

At the end of the three-year project, she will review not just the students’ interest in, and understanding of, engineering careers, but “we’ll also be looking at the teachers and their confidence for teaching engineering in the classroom.” After all, she says, it’s easy for harried teachers to “forget that what’s happening in the building and what you’re doing with the kids is really a foundation for what comes later”—the nine-to-five. In her view, that applies to the youngest pupils, too, and it’s her recommendations about elementary school children that Howard expects will provoke the most interest—and debate.

“I would love a world where all kids have the freedom to dream and get the education they need so they can explore those opportunities,” she says. If little Charlotte likes the idea of being a blood doctor, she should also know it’s an achievable aspiration—no matter what her background.

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

A version of this story appeared in spring-summer 2012 edition of @SED.

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