Making Interest and Career Connections: The Race for Discovery

By Elaine Gould, M.Ed.
February/March 2013

Developmentally, middle school students are curious about the world and are constantly searching for ways to fit in and succeed (Repetto, 2012). These are promising traits when it comes to exploring future careers. While engaged in career exploration, the second phase in the career development process, students discover careers that match their interests, strengths, and future goals (Hanley-Maxwell & Izzo, 2012). In this phase, students benefit from engagement in school, home, or volunteer work-related experiences and learning about the required skills in a career of interest (Repetto, 2012; Sitlington, Neubert, Begun, Lombard, & Leconte, 2007). For example, Jordan, an exceptionally personable student with an intellectual disability, gained daily school-based work experience by delivering teachers’ mail to their classrooms. These experiences not only provided him with a regular job but also increased his workplace communication and behavioral skills (Hanley-Maxwell & Izzo, 2012). Similarly, Sophia, a student with Autism, gained work experience at home by engaging in weekly chores such as changing and washing the family’s sheets, vacuuming, and taking out the trash.  

Children tend to be drawn to careers to which they have had the most exposure. When teachers and families introduce them to additional career fields (based on their interests and strengths), students begin to broaden their thinking beyond possibly unrealistic career choices such as professional sports and entertainment (Repetto, 2012). Such experiences can also expand educators’ knowledge as they envision their students in careers outside those to which many students with disabilities are typically directed (custodial and food service jobs). For example, when Alexa presented her One Pager at her eighth-grade IEP meeting, the IEP team discovered her love of books and her strong organizational skills. Alexa explained to the team: I want you to know what I need. I want to talk about what I would like to learn so when I grow up I will have a good job. I have a hard time in my classes and sometimes it is hard for me to learn very quickly, but if I take my time and work hard, I can do it!!! Take your time with me and I WILL LEARN!  Alexa’s determination to become a “librarian assistant” has put her on a path to seek related work/volunteer experiences, to enroll in preparatory coursework, and to engage in transition activities that will support her in attaining her postsecondary employment goal.

Additional ways teachers and families can expose students to potential careers include:

• taking a child to work
• going on field trips
• inviting guest speakers to school
• creating school-based enterprises
• enrolling students in courses that are aligned with career interests
• arranging for students to participate in job shadowing experiences, and
• creating opportunities for students to volunteer in the community (Repetto, 2012; Sitlington et al., 2007).

Valuable transition assessment data can be collected as students participate in developmentally appropriate career exploration activities that match their interests, knowledge, and skills (e.g., visiting a career technical center or participating in community-based assessments) (Hanley-Maxwell & Izzo, 2012; Sitlington et al., 2007). Students also develop skills in decision making (e.g., selecting courses of study that prepare them to reach postsecondary goals) and begin to understand the relevance of their work in school and its connection to the achievement of their postsecondary goals (Repetto, 2012; Sitlington et al., 2007).

The A, B, Cs of Career Exploration and Planning for Middle Grades Students (Junior Achievement and the National Career Development Association [JA & NCDA], 2004) provides school counselors with a checklist (see below) to help students through the exploration phase of the career development process. Links to additional resources have also been provided to assist with completion of checklist items.


cb  A: Make the time to ask yourself:

c What do I like to do?
cWhat am I good at?
cWhat do I enjoy doing?
cWhat is important to me?

Helpful Hints: Have students:

  • Complete the One Pager, a self-awareness tool developed by the Virginia Department of Education's (VDOE) I’m Determined Project
  • Visit Virginia Career Viewa comprehensive resource for career information.

cbB: Notice what is happening around you:

cWhat do members of my family do at home and at work?
cWhat do my friends’ parents or families do?
cWhat are their hobbies and other interests?
cAsk people what they do in their jobs.

cWhat do you like/dislike about your job?
cWhat skills or training did you need for your job?

Helpful Hint: Visit the site Drive of Your Life, a free online career exploration game that will help students learn more about themselves, higher education, and careers. Students will learn about careers that interest them and then go on a virtual drive to learn more about each of those careers.

cbC: Make the time to ask yourself:

cWould I enjoy doing this type of job?
cHow will I know if I would enjoy doing this type of work?

Helpful Hint: Explore O*NET resources What Do I Want to do For a Living? or visit O*NET to explore career options; Visit Mr. Breitsprecher's Career Activities for a wealth of Career Exploration resources. 

Additional Resources for Teachers and School Counselors

a The Nebraska Department of Education has developed the Curriculum for Careers (C4C) career exploration lesson plans and resources for middle school students. There are step-by-step videos for teachers as they teach the curriculum to their students.
a provides numerous tools and videos to assist in engaging students in the career exploration phase (e.g., One Pager, Student Involvement in the IEP).

Middle school students have a variety of high-priority social interests (e.g., fitting in, making friends) that compete with planning for future careers. Educators can help students to understand that by thinking about and exploring career interests in middle school, they will increase their opportunities to enroll in courses and engage in experiences that will prepare them to reach their postsecondary goals (JA & NCDA, 2004).


Junior Achievement and The National Career Development Association. (2004). The A, B, Cs of career exploration and planning for middle grades students. Retrieved from

Hanley-Maxwell, C., & Izzo, M. (2012). Preparing students for the 21st century workforce. In M. Wehmeyer & K. Webb (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent transition education for youth with disabilities (pp. 139-155). New York, NY: Routledge.

Repetto, J. (2012). Middle school transition education planning and services. In M. Wehmeyer & K. Webb (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent transition education for youth with disabilities (pp. 266-270). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sitlington, P., Neubert, D., Begun, W., Lombard, R., & Leconte, P. (2007). Assess for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.