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Solution-Focused College and Career Planning
James Paterson
Saturday November 01, 2014
by: James Paterson

Section: Inside Insight

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Although school counselors have long been responsible for getting students to make postsecondary plans, increasingly school districts are expecting school counselors to further emphasize college and career exploration and readiness, particularly with younger students.

College readiness is part of many school system improvement plans, and the ASCA National Model prioritizes this process, asking that school counselors guide the development of effective school counseling programs around three domains: academic, career and social/emotional development. It points out that college and career readiness is a goal and that career preparation is a key part of the school counselor’s role. Clearly school districts also see it that way. In addition, dealing with the stress and confusion that sometimes comes with this process is often a school counselor’s job.
Stressing college and career readiness can also motivate students to increase their academic achievement. As students set specific goals and see education’s purpose and role, they may also improve their grades and their behavior to meet their specific goals.

So what are some things busy school counselors can do to make sure they are touching on this process with their students, especially in elementary and middle school? How can they blend it into their work with students every day? How can they use their counseling skills and techniques to help with this college and career planning? And, finally, how might working on future plans with students help students understand the value of education and take it more seriously?

Experts say there are three steps to this college and career investigation process – awareness, investigation and choice. Keeping those steps in mind, school counselors at any level can make this type of preparation part of their daily work with students.

Let’s take a look at a few simple efforts school counselors at each level can make.

Make Them Aware
In elementary school, it begins with awareness. America’s Career Resource Network (ACRN), a group of state and federal organizations providing information, resources and training on career and education exploration in connection with the federal government, recommends elementary-level school counselors help students:
  • Discover the variety of jobs available to them
  • Connect what they are learning in school to real-world situations
  • Begin viewing themself in an occupation
  • Develop work-readiness skills such as working in teams, making decisions, solving problems and being a leader
Learn about a broad range of careers and how education is connected to those careers
See how academic skills apply to jobs (e.g., A veterinarian uses math skills to calculate the amount of medicine a cat will need; a reporter needs writing skills to compose newspaper articles; a marine biologist relies on his or her knowledge of science to study aquatic life.)

You can make students aware of careers with posters, announcements, classroom lessons about basic career tracks or by asking teachers to regularly include career awareness in their lessons. Brief visits from local professionals can also help, along with a career assembly or career day.

As students move on to middle school, the college and career work should continue. Increasingly, college and career planning is being emphasized in middle school. ACT’s report “The Forgotten Middle” encourages schools to begin serious college and career preparation in grades 6-8. This report suggests that in the current educational environment middle school is a critical defining point for students in the college- and career- readiness process, one so important that if students are not on target for college and career readiness by the time they reach this point the impact may be nearly irreversible. We must therefore also focus on getting more students on target for college and career readiness by the end of eighth grade, so they are prepared to maximize the benefits of high school.

At this level, interest assessments may help keep students motivated. Students can also begin a career interest notebook and do regular career discovery assignments. And, again, school counselors can encourage teachers to include career awareness in their lessons. For instance, this effort can be as direct as talking about fields related to science in a science class or math careers in math to less direct associations such as a discussion about construction trades, civil engineering or law enforcement as a social studies class talks about urban growth.

Some schools ask teachers to promote their own educational experiences, talking about them in class, discussing their alma maters or other schools in the classroom or perhaps all wearing jerseys from their schools on a specific date and talking about their college experience.

At the high school level, the process is well-defined at most schools, and often a college and career specialist is available in addition to the school counselors.

Nearly 20 years ago, Randall Chapman, a professor at the University of Alberta, structured the college selection process into five steps.
  • Pre-search behavior
  • Search behavior
  • Application decision
  • Choice decision
  • Matriculation decision
He noted that those working with students must realize there are two different processes – the search and the choice – and that helping students recognize those different functions simplifies the effort, makes it clearer and helps school counselors working with the students focus their work.

Putting it into Place
Beyond these simple steps to make students aware of the need to plan for life after high school, you might also use some traditional counseling techniques, such as solution-focused brief counseling.
Solution-focused brief counseling was developed in the early 1970s when therapists saw better results with clients when they focused on solutions and what was working rather than reviewing the problems clients faced. It asks that clients consider ways they can solve their problems with resources that are available and by considering approaches that have worked, looking at what their situation would be like if they were happy.

“It can be used effectively in choosing the right college, designing a resume and for parents to talk to kids about this and other topics,” said Linda Metcalf, the author of numerous books on solution-focused brief counseling. She notes the miracle question might be particularly effective to use with students in college and career planning.

Ask your students the following: Suppose tonight while you sleep, a miracle happens. You wake up tomorrow and, because of the miracle, you are attending the college of your dreams. It is exactly what you had hoped for, and you feel successful at what you are doing.

Then ask students what the school would look like, its size, what the students would be like, what courses they would be taking and other things about the school that come to mind. Then have the students apply those attributes to their college search.

Another common solution-focused approach would be to ask students to consider where they are now regarding their college planning. For example, have zero represent pre-contemplation (the point in time before the student considered any college) and 10 represent the point in time when they’ve made a good decision. “Since the scale engages the evaluative part of the brain, this facilitates decision making,” said Yvonne Dolan, executive director, Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy.

In their article “Applying the Principles and Techniques of Solution-focused Therapy to Career Counseling” in Counseling Psychology Quarterly, psychologists Rebecca Burwell and Charles Chen at the University of Toronto found solution-focused interventions work in this area because they are based on a “fundamental belief that people have what it takes to get what they want and that this potential simply needs to be brought into their consciousness and set in motion.” Their paper describes many ways to use solution-focused brief counseling in college and career counseling.

John Murphy, author of “Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools,” recommends the following techniques:

Explore previous successes: Ask the students (or prompt them to ask themselves) about one or more previous situations in which they made effective decisions that were complex or difficult. Or ask them to think about a time when they’ve been successful in sorting out important aspects of some issue/decision/situation in ways that helped them move toward making a decision. This strategy helps students focus on what’s worked for them in the past that may also work when making college- or career-related decisions.

Tap into natural resources: Encourage students to think about people, traits, friends, sources of information and other “natural” and available resources in their lives that might help them in their current decision-making situation. This may involve getting in touch with peers facing the same decision and sharing ideas or dividing and conquering the process by sharing the workload. For example, one person calls a college, another researches websites, etc., similar to how study groups often work. Consider having some first-year college students who graduated from your school last year come and share their wisdom about the whole process with any students who are interested. After all, students may find advice and tips from a peer more compelling than advice shared by their school counselor.

Take small steps: Encourage students to approach the decision as a series of small steps vs. trying too hard and too fast to resolve the entire issue. This allows for small victories (e.g., I made a phone call today), which in turn creates momentum for the next small step. Focusing on a series of small steps can counteract the overwhelming size of these decisions.

Make it work: Finally, remind students that no one has a crystal ball and can predict the future. All they can do is do their homework, collect/consider the relevant info, make a decision and make a commitment to make it work. After all, much of what determines the success or failure of a college-related decision is what students accomplish once they get to college or into their career.

“When students focus on their future it helps them perform academically and helps them set goals,” said Maureen McLaughlin, the head of school counseling at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. “I saw a number of seniors who struggled academically, and all of a sudden, they blossomed in the classroom at least partly because they realized their future is important, and they have some control over it.”

James Paterson is a school counselor at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Md., and a writer and editor specializing in writing about education. He can be reached at jamespaterson7@gmail.com.