February 2019

Elementary Essentials for Postsecondary Success

By Carolyn Berger, Ph.D.
Elementary school students are at a critical age for developing career and postsecondary aspirations. Children are very observant; they regularly evaluate the characteristics and qualities of people in specific types of careers and postsecondary paths. They also absorb messages they hear from family, peers, and the media. Students apply these observations and messages, forming opinions about which careers and postsecondary paths are compatible with their own unique qualities. Gottfredson developed the theory of circumscription and compromise around these concepts and emphasized that providing students with career information at a young age is very critical. Only then can students learn accurate information about careers and postsecondary options as opposed to drawing conclusions based on potentially misleading societal messages and observations.

Few elementary schools have effective postsecondary preparation curriculum and often school counselors feel like they have to start from scratch. This task can seem overwhelming, but a step-by-step approach will help.

Step 1: Lay the foundation.
Beginning with the foundational pieces that standards provide is important. The ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors are a useful guide when determining priority areas for addressing postsecondary readiness. Another helpful resource is the Elementary School Counselor’s Guide from the College Board’s National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), now closed. The NOSCA guide presents eight components for college and career readiness. Using the ASCA standards and NOSCA components can assist with identifying priority needs in relation to postsecondary readiness.

Step 2: Gather stakeholder input.
Once you have determined the priority areas, consult and collaborate with stakeholders to start planning the curriculum and interventions. Do stakeholders agree with your assessment about the priority needs? What is their input about interventions that could be used to meet the standards? School counselors must understand families’ and community members’ perspectives to ensure that their postsecondary readiness program is appropriately addressing the students’ needs. This is especially true if the school counselor is not an integrated member in the surrounding community or comes from a cultural background that is different from the majority of their students.

Step 3: Research your strategies.
Insight from stakeholders will assist with the next planning step: researching innovative and engaging strategies to address the area of need. Although evidence-based programs and outcome research in this area are limited, especially for grades K–5, some helpful resources exist for elementary-level postsecondary preparation interventions. School counselors can find curriculum developed by others online and modify it to fit their students’ needs. Several states have developed career and technical education lessons, some that are specifically tailored to elementary students. For example, Virginia has a Career View website with elementary level games. Missouri has school counseling curriculum with a career counseling component, which can be modified to include postsecondary concepts. Some companies have developed products with elementary-level online games for career exploration, such as Paws in Jobland. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has K–12 career activities available online. Although the curriculum located might not be a perfect fit, you can integrate the materials with other counselor-developed lessons and activities. School counselors can be creative and use technology resources such as apps, games, and videos to make lessons more interactive. Also consider hands-on interventions such as career/college fairs, Reality Stores, scavenger hunts or other engaging activities.

Step 4: Plan to measure.
Finally, determine how you will measure the impact this intervention will have on your students. The NOSCA guide identifies data for assessing the impact of postsecondary readiness interventions. Using perception data (e.g., pre- and post-surveys) in combination with outcome data (e.g., attendance, grades, promotion) is critical for evaluating whether the program is having a positive impact. You can use this data to advocate for more postsecondary readiness supports for students.

A few final tips for developing an elementary postsecondary readiness program:
  • Consult with other school counselors. Use the ASCA Scene and your state or regional school counselor association connections to find out about innovative interventions.
  • Family connections are critical. A family postsecondary night would be a great way to connect, and, at a bare minimum, families should receive updates on what their child is learning.
  • Community connections are also very important. For example, if you are developing a career or postsecondary fair, the adults involved should mirror the demographics of the school.
  • School culture cannot be ignored throughout this process. Does your school have a postsecondary-going culture, and is that apparent when walking through the building? Do teachers believe that ALL students are capable of successfully completing postsecondary training? Collaborate with administration to ensure a positive, encouraging school culture, especially as it relates to messages about postsecondary options.
Setting up an elementary postsecondary planning program can be a daunting task. Take this process step-by-step and develop a team to help you to make this happen. Following these recommendations will assist you with developing a postsecondary readiness program that will lead your elementary students to build a positive mindset that postsecondary education is not only possible, but probable.

Carolyn Berger, Ph.D., presented on this topic at the 2018 ASCA Annual Conference. She is an assistant professor for the University of Minnesota's Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology program. She is a licensed school counselor and licensed professional counselor (LPC).