Preparing gifted children for adulthood includes career planning; however, merely finding a job match should not be the goal. Likewise, focusing narrowly on academic ability and achievement is not adequate for making career decisions. The ultimate objective should be to help children create a satisfying life for themselves.
Gifted individuals often possess the ability to do not one but many things at high competence levels. Students with this ability, however, may view their multipotentiality as a mixed blessing. When they hear that “they can be anything they want to be” or “they are lucky to have so many options,” the choices may overwhelm them, or they may feel pressure to become someone different from who they are. When speaking with children about career options, we should emphasize their individuality and help them chart their own career paths. While their intellectual ability may be high across the academic spectrum, multipotential students, like all students, have predispositions and preferences for certain subject areas.
Those with potential in several areas are likely to change occupations during their lives.
Career planning is a lifelong process that requires self-awareness and self-development. Gifted students receive mixed messages when they are advised to be “well rounded” but then are pushed to make firm career choices at a young age. Those with potential in several areas are likely to change occupations during their lives as they explore new interests. Multipotential teenagers should be reassured that their first career choice is only a start, not an ultimate decision.
There is no one right answer to the question “What am I going to be when I grow up?” Parents can encourage career awareness in their children by helping them explore occupations, identity development, and decision making. A student with potential in several areas should be taught how to assess options as realistic, expedient, or practical and should be shown that career choices require self-reflection and are made across one’s life span.
Stages of Career Development and Activities
All children have their own developmental timetables; gifted children may advance through theirs quickly. The following guidelines can be helpful for parents.
Elementary School: Introductory Career Awareness
Young children’s knowledge about most careers and their occupational aspirations are heavily influenced by their geographic location, their socioeconomic status, the occupations of their family members, their relationships with their parents, and their parents’ attitudes toward school and work. Learning self-awareness is key at this stage, because by upper elementary school children have started to recognize the social values of certain occupations and to be influenced by the wishes and expectations of their parents and other important adults in their lives. To cultivate self-awareness in their children, parents should
- discourage premature single-mindedness about specific careers. Gifted elementary students are often uninformed about the demands of specific careers, and a too early focus might inhibit them from trying activities that link to other careers.
- recognize the link between interests and career-related goals. Because childhood hobbies and activities require specific intellectual abilities and call for task commitment, persistence, and intrinsic motivation, they often lead naturally to career choices.
- organize exploratory activities to enhance their children’s self-knowledge and to expose them to many educational and occupational alternatives and role models.
- encourage children to explore a wide spectrum of educational and occupational alternatives; avoid stereotyping occupations as masculine or feminine or labeling certain careers as more socially valuable or more prestigious than others.
- provide situations in which children can practice making decisions and accepting responsibility for them.
Middle School: Search for Personal Identity
Preadolescents and adolescents should continue to build self-awareness and career awareness while clarifying and adjusting their aspirations and expectations. At this stage they begin to learn important behaviors by working for pay or as volunteers for someone other than their parents. Decisions about specific courses to take and schools to attend serve as the first formal career choices children get to make. Through this process their parents can help them
- explore creative, cultural, and technical interests and activities;
- arrange job shadowing experiences or mentoring partnerships;
- become active in organized work-study programs, volunteer community service work, field trips, or career camps;
- understand jobs and work values by discussing them and talking about their consequences; and
- recognize their personal limitations so they can develop accurate self-concepts.
It can be instructive at this age for parents to take their children to work or to speak to their classes about the work they do. Parents can also have their children complete career inventories that are self-directed and require a forced choice (true-false, multiple-choice). By limiting users to one response per question, these inventories pinpoint their interests.
Senior High: Independence and Initial Career Decisions
Selecting a career that is compatible with the individual’s sense of self is most important at this age, as is the career’s adaptability to his or her desired lifestyle. Students become aware that they are making the transition to adulthood and will soon leave home for college or work. Adolescents’ abilities and role models, the media, and their parents’ occupations are major influences on their career choices.
Postponing or avoiding decision making is common at this stage, because some multipotential gifted students are unable to make a decision about life and their place in it. Gifted teens can experience enormous stress while trying to resolve personal identity issues, satisfy their psychological needs, and overcome their anxieties about leaving home and making ends meet. The internal and external pressures to pursue specialized academic training that will lead to a prestigious occupation can be damaging, especially for adolescents who are talented in areas other than traditional academics.
To help your teen cope:
- familiarize yourself and your teen with the changing needs for workplace skills and career competencies;
- encourage your teen to investigate cooperative education, internships, apprenticeships, or monitored work experiences;
- pay particular attention to girls, who tend to experience greater conflict than boys over how to combine career and family;
- relate your teen’s choice of college major to its career implications, focusing on postsecondary success, not on college admissions;
- respect your teen’s autonomy in choice making and allow him or her to find personal meaning in life; and
- encourage your teen to devise a backup plan in case things don’t work out as expected.
Six Career Guidance Tips for Parents
Understand That Career Planning Is Long-Term
Spread career investigation and planning over time so that you don’t add to the pressure and anxiety that your talented child may already feel about career selection. Help your child discover his or her own interests, abilities, career values, and needs.
Focus on Values and Needs More than on Strengths and Abilities
Especially for gifted children with high ability and interest across many domains, career development activities should be focused on values and needs. There is more to choosing a career than being interested in it or able to do it. Finding a career is about building a satisfying life.
Gifted children need help clarifying their values and goals. Use self-scoring career inventories, but do so judiciously, because most inventories focus only on eliciting interests. Multipotential children already have plenty of interests, so determining the degree of their interest in different career areas is more helpful than merely identifying a long list of potential interests. Remember that interest and intellectual ability are just two factors to consider. Help your children think about other factors that can impact their career goals and plans, such as desired lifestyle (salary range, travel requirements, geographic location), family issues (marriage, having children, child care arrangements), and personality type (independent, socially oriented, highly sensitive).
Prepare Your Child to Search for Purpose and Fulfillment
Many talented individuals are interested not merely in getting a job but in finding meaning in it. The central focus in your child’s career-life planning process should be the search for fulfillment, purpose, and a meaningful contribution to society.
Keep Abreast of Career Trends, and Keep Your Child Open to New Possibilities
At least one-third of four-year college graduates do not find employment that matches their degrees; people change careers every ten years, on average; and most who do will have to study for their next occupation while working in their current one. Parents who keep abreast of trends in business, technology, and employment can help their children prepare for future occupations and conditions.
Career information is accessible from
- magazines such as the Futurist, which discusses world trends in occupations and industries;
- the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, which describes occupations and occupational trends;
- computer-assisted career guidance programs and online self-scoring career assessments, available at most college, university, and public libraries; and
- guidance or career counselors at your child’s high school.
Get Familiar with the College Application Process
The application process can be stressful, time-consuming, and costly. Parents can guide their children through it by helping them evaluate college and university academic programs and how they relate to their career interests. Choosing an appropriate college is the first step students will take toward their adult career. College planning helps students develop skills that will be beneficial to them in making future occupational choices.
Explore Options Other than College and Traditional “Status” Jobs
Expand your idea of appropriate jobs beyond the usual selections (doctor, lawyer, engineer). Look at possibilities in unconventional, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial fields, especially if your child is talented in areas other than schoolhouse academics.
Help Your Child Develop Interpersonal and Decision-Making Skills
Interpersonal skills, such as working well with others, are also important career skills. Social and personal competences like teamwork, time management, goal setting, organization, and communication are essential for success in the workplace.
Decision making is a learned skill. Practice with your child by selecting cocurricular and extracurricular activities to join and academic subjects to pursue.
Gifted children and adolescents need to look beyond their academic capacities and cultivate their curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and ability to take risks—skills that are as important to develop as domain-specific knowledge if they are to be happy, healthy, and productive adults.
—Meredith J. Greene, PhD
Meredith J. Greene has worked for more than 20 years as a high school counselor, educator, curriculum developr consultant, and advocate of gifted students In Nova Scotia.