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Career Exploration in Elementary Years: It’s Not Too Early!

Community-based and parental involvement in career exploration throughout a child’s educational development can make a significant difference in their career engagement

By Kathy Levine, Dawn Sutherland and Darrell Cole

Over the past decade in Canada, there has been increased interest on the part of educators, academics, labour market specialists and federal/provincial policy analysts in career exploration programs for youth. This awareness may be partially attributed to the career education paradox of the 21st century. At a time of an ever-increasing number of post-secondary choices available to students, approximately 190,000 youth are unable to access any of these programs due to dropping out of high school (Statistics Canada, 2010). In addition, for those students who do complete high school and move on to post-secondary education, approximately 35-50% of students drop out prior to program completion, partially due to not liking their program or feeling that it did not fit with their interests (Parkin & Baldwin, 2009). Given this situation, the need for innovative programs that can facilitate greater career awareness for students is unquestionable. Much of the current knowledge uses mainstream developmental norms to determine when career exploration experiences should occur, typically in adolescence. There is however an emerging understanding that early intervention directed toward career awareness can have significant benefits for children, and career exploration programs can play an important role in facilitating children’s career exposure through integrating a “career focus” at different stages of children’s lives.

Children’s career exploration programs may be accessed in academic, community-based and computer-based or online environments and provide a diverse range of career-related activities. These include watching online videos of individuals describing and/or working at particular careers, completing a variety of trait-based measures that suggest positive occupational “matches,” and providing information about specific careers, including current labour market needs, educational requirements and potential earnings. Experiential career exploration programs are another vehicle through which children can be introduced to different careers. The nature and extent of these programs vary; the main differences are related to whether they are provided within school or community settings, and the degree to which the children experience the tasks of the particular career. Community-based programs provide a unique opportunity for exposing students to career exploration, particularly for children who may need additional supports to explore their career interests in an era when the school day is occupied with academic material.

One example of a community-based program is Career Trek; an early intervention, social inclusion initiative in Manitoba that is targeted toward students who, due to social economic or family structure disadvantages, may not successfully transition to post-secondary education. The intent of the program is to increase students’ and families’ knowledge about careers that are accessible via post-secondary education through experiential career exposure, the provision of information about post-secondary institutions, including admission and eligibility criteria, applications and  financing, and by encouraging parental involvement in the program. During the academic term, participants attend one of a number of post-secondary institutions, including the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, Brandon University, University College of the North, Red River College, and the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology to learn the specific skills, knowledge and abilities, as well as the post-secondary pathways, associated with a range of  careers in different disciplines: Engineering, Education, Political Studies, Biology, Geography, Native Studies, Dental Hygiene, Commercial Cooking, Graphic Arts and Design.

Although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that exposure to career exploration during the earlier years of children’s education has been associated with future aspirations through middle school and even high school graduation, it is important to examine whether these outcomes can be demonstrated empirically. As part of a larger project to further develop knowledge about children’s career development, we conducted an evaluative study to address three questions: (1) How do children and adolescents perceive careers and career exploration (2) How do children and adolescents engage in career exploration and decision-making, and (3) What is the role of career exploration programs in this process?

A total of 1,400 students across four Manitoba school divisions completed a series of measures that assessed career outcome expectancies, career self-efficacy, parental involvement in career exploration, and relationships with family, friends and school. The data was analyzed to compare students who participated in career development programming to those who did not. The key finding was that Grade 5/6 Career Trek participants scored higher on measures of curiosity, interest, planning and self-concept compared to the non-program group. Additionally, Grades 7-8 Career Trek participants reported more curiosity in school, greater awareness of their academic interests, felt that they had greater control over their school-related activities and behaviours, attributed more importance to planning their future, and had clearer self-concepts than the non-Career Trek group.

Given that there is a significant body of research that suggests that the transition to middle school is a period in which there is a negative shift in adolescents’ academic, social and emotional self-concepts (Duchesne, Ratelle, & Roy, 2009; Forrest et al., 2013), the finding that participants in career exploration reported better outcomes suggests that this type of programming can mediate the negative impact of transition to middle school. This supports previous work by the research team that has suggested that Career Trek provides an academic retention effect when students undertake the transition from elementary school to middle school. Interestingly enough, Career Trek students also report less school satisfaction – this may be due to their perspective that their educational needs and interests are not always being met in the context of their educational programs.

What are the implications of these findings? The diminishing career interest and exploration behaviours, as suggested by the decrease in interest, curiosity, planning and control scores between non-Career Trek elementary and Grade 7/8 students suggest a need for more direct intervention during this period. One possible response may be to provide information to parents about the impact of their involvement on the career exploration behaviours of adolescents. In collaboration with community-based organizations that are targeted toward positive youth development, a series of school-based educational sessions could be developed that highlight the personal, social and academic benefits for students that occur as a result of parent-initiated conversations and activities in regard to career exploration. Some parents may simply need to be educated about how their awareness of their adolescents’ career exploration interests and activities can impact adolescents’ sense of psychological well-being, especially in the areas of self-efficacy and self-concept.

Perhaps the most important implication of this research is the importance of making community-based career exploration opportunities more accessible, particularly for elementary year students. In addition to providing career exploration for students outside of the school day, community-based programs may work to promote students’ academic engagement connection to school (Anderson-Butcher, 2010). Currently, there are few programs focused on facilitating middle school children’s career exploration through developmental intervention. This remains an understudied area for programming, however, as we have learned, it’s never too early!

Learn more about this research in the project report at


Anderson-Butcher, D., Lawson, H. A., Iachini, A., Flaspohler, P., Bean, J., & Wade-Mdivanian, R. (2010). Emergent Evidence in Support of a Community Collaboration Model for School Improvement. Children & Schools, 32(3), 160-171.

Duchesne, S., Ratelle, C. F., & Roy, A. (2012). Worries About Middle School Transition and Subsequent Adjustment: The Moderating Role of Classroom Goal Structure. Journal of Early Adolescence, 32(5), 681-710.

Forrest, C., Bevans, K., Riley, A., Crespo, R., & Louis, T. (2013). Health and School Outcomes During Children’s Transition Into Adolescence. Journal Of Adolescent Health, 52(2), 186-194.

Parkin, A., &  Baldwin, N. (2009). Persistence in Post-secondary Education in Canada: The Latest Research. Research Note #8, Canada Millennium  Scholarship Foundation.

Statistics Canada (2010). Trends in Dropout Rates and the Labour Market Outcomes of Young Dropouts. Ottawa, ONT: Author.


Dr  Kathy Levine is an Associate Professor with the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba and co-recipient with Dr Dawn Sutherland of the Manitoba Career Development Award of Excellence in the Research and Innovation Category. Her research areas include child and adolescent mental health, interventions for individuals with intellectual disabilities in conflict with the law, and working with at-risk youth and their families. With the support of CERIC, she continues to research career exploration and career development needs of children and youth and their families.

Darrell Cole (Waabishki Pinesi Kinew Inini) is the founder and current Chief Executive Officer of Career Trek Inc. a not-for-profit organization based in Winnipeg, MB. Career Trek’s work is dedicated to helping young Manitobans achieve their educational, career and life potential through the provision of its unique holistic and experiential programming. 

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