Since the recent gathering of a Career Education Strategy Session of Santa Barbara Partners in Education, I’ve been wondering what my individual contribution might be to the overarching goal of readying youth for college and career. I have learned from my own children that one of my contributions is to let parents know that the rules have changed! Four year colleges are not the only, or even the best option, in some cases.
Over the years I’ve worn many hats, including that of a parent, educator, trainer and professional facilitator. A recent article about the Individual learning plan and post- secondary preparation sparked my curiosity in all of those hat modes. The article described an Individualized Learning Plan as a tool that high school student’s use – with support from school counselors and parents – to define their personal interests and goals related to their career and postsecondary education and to plan what courses to take and what activities to participate in during high school to further their interests and achieve their goals.
Beyond the formulaic course enrollment sheet that listed graduation requirements and articulation with UC, CSU entrance requirements, I don’t recall either of my two sons ever having an individual learning plan. This left me wondering how and why our schools and communities do so little to support young people in discovering their gifts and talents, hopes and aspirations, and matching those with post-secondary opportunities. I think, collectively, we have let down a generation of young people and not given them much support as they navigate options and expectations.
Donning my parent hat, I think of my two sons who have graduated from high school within the last five years. The individualized career guidance they received consisted of an annual 20 minute session, to remind them of the articulation requirements for graduation and college entrance. One of them had the opportunity to complete a Holland career interest survey, the other did not. That was it, not much personalization or genuine interest in helping either student explore, discover, and pursue their interests, talents and passions.
My professional hat has me spending my days building capacity of service providers, social workers, care givers and family members to engage in person centered planning with people with developmental disabilities, including those age 18-22 that are transitioning from high school to community and adult services. In this process, the Individual Program Plan is built with input and support from people who know and care about the young person and come together to assist that person in identifying their goals, and the personalized supports that are needed to make progress on those goals. This ‘planning team’ continues to meet periodically to discuss progress and redirect services and supports as needed.
A person centered approach to this process becomes a celebration of who the young person is, what they hope to experience in their lives, a discussion of what is important to them now and in the future, and action steps needed to move in the direction of their dreams. If we bring these two worlds together, there is much to be gained. Applying a more person centered approach to not only the IPP/IEP process for students with special needs, but for all students can help them plan for their future after high school. I know it may not be practical for schools to assume this responsibility for all students, but in our collective impact effort, there must be a way to coordinate a facilitated approach to this level of support through a public/private/parent partnership.
My son wanted to go to college and was overwhelmed by the pressure to achieve, the broad range of options and the lack of guidance and direction available to him. He didn’t know where or how to start the self discovery process. I was disappointed to learn how little the Guidance Counselors were able to do for students in his situation, not due to lack of interest, but due to lack of time and resource. His overwhelm was reflected in declining grades and loss of focus, which in turn increased our parental nagging and negativity. One day I asked if he would be willing to do some planning with us at home. He agreed and our entire family sat down to help him think about and map out his senior year and what might come after that. We met over sub sandwiches on a Saturday and used a format that I borrowed from my work day and that disability professionals would recognize as a Person Centered Review. To learn more about Person Centered Reviews, you can read an article that was co-authored with colleagues from the US and the UK.
Our family came together and used the topics below to share our unique perspectives and agree to an action plan.
- What others like and admire about him – to help him recognize the significant gifts and talents he brings to others and eventually to the workplace
- What future occupations might be a good fit for your interests, gifts and talents?
- What are your hopes and fears about going to college?
- What is important to you now and in the future?
- What is currently working and not working from different perspectives?
- What questions do we have or issues we are struggling with?
- What support do you need to make your decisions?
- What are some next steps to help you make your decisions?
- Who will do what by when?
Without going into details, the conversation was powerful. My son was able to talk openly about the type of environment he needed to learn best. He talked about what is important to him to feel like a valued, contributing adult. As parents we were able to discuss in an honest and non-threatening way our observation of his need for structure and support to help him be successful.
At the end of our lunch discussion we had a road map of careers that he wanted to explore and an action plan of how he was going to do that. We also had a list of characteristics of the college environment that he thought would fit with his personality. We had an action plan, and what had seemed overwhelming was now defined in manageable next steps. At the end of our talk he said, “Wow, you guys really know me.” That was music to my ears, and not an easy thing for a 17 year old to admit. Most importantly, he felt heard, appreciated and valued and learned that we were all on the same team to help him be successful.
Let’s fast forward to the present. My son attended a community college for a few years, and still lacked a clear calling or compelling direction. When we talked about updating his plan, he informed us of his desire to have more structure and self-discipline in his life. He chose to enlist in the Army, and while perhaps not the path we might have chosen for him, he has found a post-secondary environment that offers so many of the things that were important to him. He is utilizing his gifts and talents daily; his love of history and strategy, his artistic abilities, his fluidity of writing, and his computer skills are being put to use in his work as a Cavalry Scout assigned to a specialized intelligence team. And he has gained leadership skills, self-discipline and a sense of duty that have provided him with a great sense of meaning and contribution. We are so proud of his process of self discovery and look forward to seeing where this journey takes him.
And our younger son is now choosing a nontraditional path as well. He started college in the fall at a state university and loved the collegiate environment, but quickly realized that the curriculum was not providing the kind of intensity and focus he was seeking. He is an aspiring musician and music producer and now starting an alternate path through private instruction and community college courses to design his own future.
Many young people are burdened with the stress of rising costs of education, increasing debt and a decrease in job prospects. A bachelor degree does not afford the guarantee of employment it once did. It is not a very bright picture that is painted for them as they set out on what we have built up to be the most exciting time of their lives. Instead I see many of them feeling hopeless and jaded. Their cynicism is coupled with a belief, being products of the .com era, that they can create whatever they want in ways that break the traditional rules. I have to applaud their innovation, albeit it a stretch beyond my comfort zone. Our younger son, astutely remarked, “Even with financial assistance, I can not and will not put myself in a situation where I may have $40,ooo or more of debt as I am trying to start my career.” So yes, the rules have changed, as has the landscape.
I still believe that a post-secondary plan, of some sort, is essential! But we have to be willing to create new avenues to career success. I have learned from my sons how important it is for parents to let go of our pre-conceived notions of what success means for our children. We must invest more time and energy in really hearing and understanding what matters most to young people and help them connect with the support they need to achieve their dreams and be self supporting. I have changed my tune as a parent from expecting a four year college track to seeking post-secondary career preparation that comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
In our search for collective impact, how can we, as a community, create more opportunity for personal discovery to support young people as they explore and select post-secondary paths? I have found great promise in the Person Centered Review process and would love to offer this kind of support to parents, educators and students at scale. While this process emerged from the disability sector, its principles and outcomes can benefit all students. It is receiving increased attention in the United Kingdom and may be one more way for us, in the US, to empower young people to discover and create a plan that makes sense for them individually, as they prepare to leave the comfort of the school environment.
I know there are pockets of excellence where this kind of self discovery is allowed, encouraged and supported. In fact, Eileen Medina of SBCEO does a remarkable job implementing person centered practices with the students she supports. I would love to hear from others about what resources are out there and how you encourage the process of self discovery and action planning with youth!
To learn more about Individualized Learning Plans click here
To learn more about Person Centered Reviews in the UK visit Helen Sanderson Associates
Mary Beth is a certified trainer of the international Learning Community for Person Centered Practices. She has worked in elementary, secondary and higher education settings, providing student and family support. She is the owner of Pathways Facilitation Services and supports individuals, teams and organizations to work together more effectively to create change.