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What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? Supporting Early Career Conversations

There is tremendous value in starting career conversations early and connecting students’ current interests and skills with future plans

SchooLinks Staff
SchooLinks Staff

Jan 13, 2022

Elementary students like to imagine and dream about what life will be like when they are older. They get excited to answer the oft-asked question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with their current hope for the future. From “I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up” to “I am going to be a construction worker,” these dreams reflect their growing understanding of who they are and what they see as possible. Oftentimes, the conversations around future hopes end after these declarations. Many adults overlook deeper career planning at this young age because they recognize that those dreams will shift and change for most students as they grow. 

However, those who work with young students can use these childhood aspirations to facilitate deeper thinking, planning, and understanding about career exploration. Educators and counselors can help students recognize their passions and interests and connect those areas of interest to possible career opportunities, while building an understanding of the necessary steps and effort to make these dreams a reality. Doing this at a young age establishes a productive mindset and builds the foundation for more meaningful and thoughtful college and career exploration during middle and high school.

Using Student Interests to Fuel Career Conversations

The career aspirations of elementary students are often limited to jobs held by family members or ones they have seen on television (which include those career paths only a select few find success with). This approach to career thinking often constrains a student’s understanding of the vast number of career opportunities available to them and often frames the thinking around what they see as options rather than career paths driven by their interests and skills. 

Teachers and those that work with students within a school can help students to expand their thinking beyond what they know from family members, lived experiences, and television influences. These conversations can happen as part of explicit career exploration activities or, more commonly, as a subtle sharing of information as students learn, play, and explore. When teachers or counselors observe a student enjoying the process of creating and building with materials, they might talk about someday using those skills as a welder or construction worker. If there is a student who is particularly caring and thoughtful when friends need help, an educator might talk about how integral those qualities are for a nurse or a doctor. And for a student who loves to play and watch sports, a teacher might talk about physical therapy or athletic training–roles that would put them side by side with athletes. Doing this is possible even if teachers do not have a wealth of knowledge about particular career paths; they can ask questions of their students and provide them with supported exploration to investigate various career paths.

Framing career exploration conversations around a student’s passions and interests and extending the dialogue to include details about particular jobs and the paths to attain them establishes a more meaningful long-term approach to career planning and exploration. When these conversations happen as students are figuring out who they are, it helps to create a powerful sense of self that they can use to guide future decision-making.


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Career Experiences for Elementary Students

Elementary educators and counselors can extend this exploration by giving students first-hand models and experiences with a wide variety of career opportunities. Schools might bring in professionals from the local community to talk with students about why they chose their career, the steps they took to get there, what they do each day, and what they like about their job. Schools might consider field trips to local businesses or government offices such as a restaurant, a bank, a research lab, or a courthouse. These types of experiences give students an up-close look at particular careers in their communities and immersive learning experiences that can inform their thoughts about the future.

Helping Elementary Students Think About College and Post-Secondary Learning

When young children share about what they want to be when they grow up, the adults listening often smile and nod, not giving much credence to what they have shared and knowing that each “dream job” is likely nothing more than a phase. However, even though children regularly shift and change their thinking about how their future might look, there is still value to extending the conversation and connecting it with post-secondary learning. 

Educators might respond to young children’s career ambitions with questions that encourage them to think a little deeper about their plans and the requisite coursework, degrees, or certifications needed to achieve their goals. When students share what they want to do when they get older, educators might immediately follow up with a conversation about whether they will need to go to college to do that job, and, if so, what colleges they might consider. If the job requires a different type of learning or training, they might share those details with students. Communicating to students early that their dreams and ambitions are possible with hard work, dedication, and focus can extend the short- and long-term impact of career exploration conversations.

It’s Never Too Early

Districts and educators often focus career exploration activities, resources, and programs on the secondary grades. However, there is tremendous value in starting these conversations early and connecting students’ current interests and skills with future plans. Talking about future goals at a young age helps students understand the necessary steps and encourages hard work and commitment. 

Even if children change their minds about career aspirations, this early dialogue plants important seeds about post-secondary planning and gives students a sense of agency about their future. And time spent in elementary school on career exploration amplifies the effectiveness of deeper college and career planning in the secondary grades as students develop a familiarity with the language and resources and a more critical understanding of all they need to consider. All of these conversations and activities work to expand what students see as available to them–increasing opportunity and helping students to more actively match their passions and skills with fulfilling careers.


Exposing students to careers early starts with having the resources to do so. SchooLinks is built with robust features, with students in mind. See how we can support your students' career explorations and aspirations.

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