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Helping Young Children Decide What To Be When They Grow Up Starts Early

John Almarode, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education, College of Education, James Madison University

At first glance, the connection between the experiences in an early childhood center or classroom and the eventual career or occupational choice of an adult seems like a bit of a stretch. It is hard to imagine that what happens during circle time, a read aloud, or playtime likely has a strong influence on what children decide to be when they grow up. Yet research indicates that early experiences play a major role in the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral trajectory of a child (Campbell, Pungello, Miller-Johnson, Burchinal, & Ramey, 2001; Campbell et al., 2012). This includes the decision about what they want to be and will be when they grow up (Watson & McMahon, 2005). This article presents an overview of the research on the development of career aspirations, why it is imperative that time and effort is devoted to the development of career aspirations in early childhood classrooms, and finally, strategies and ideas for your center or classroom.

When you ask a child what s/he wants to be when grown up, some answers might include: a fire fighter, doctor, or a list of super heroes such as Spiderman, Green Lantern, or any member of the Avengers. Similarly, if you observe a group of children in your center or classroom, they often engage in dramatic play, taking on and acting out various roles such as a police officer, teacher, race car driver, professional athlete, or a mom and dad as they play "house." The common element in what children want to be when they grow up and role playing is that they have to have "seen" the career or role in order to name it or act it out. That is, they must have had a direct experience with such a career or occupation.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of The Children's Defense Fund, once said, "You can't be what you can't see." A child "sees" various careers, occupations, and roles from many sources: the surrounding community (i.e., supermarket, hospital, or place of worship), home (i.e., interactions with parents/guardians, siblings, and extended family), media (i.e., television, radio, books, and video games), and most relevant to this article, their teachers and peers at school. Research strongly suggests that early career aspirations are highly predictive of a child's ultimate career choice (Trice, 1991; Trice & McClellan, 1993). What they aspire to be at age three is often associated with what they select as their career or occupation at age twenty-three. Therefore, it is imperative that early childhood educators provide a variety of opportunities for children to "see" a wide range of careers and occupations.

The experiences that we should offer to children to enhance their awareness of careers and occupations are not all that different from the experiences we offer them in other content areas. Just as a child's knowledge and understanding of traditional school subjects (i.e., science and mathematics) develop over time, understanding of careers and occupations also develops from simple to complex and becomes more comprehensive and detailed (Edwards, Nafziger, & Holland, 1974; McCallion & Trew, 2000; Seligman, Weinstock, & HeXin, 1991; Seligman, Weinstock, & Owings, 1988; Goldstein & Oldhams, 1979). Young children, just like the ones we interact with on a daily basis, most often describe careers in terms of activities and behaviors (Borgen & Young, 1982). In other words, a child may describe a police office as someone who "keeps us safe," a fire fighter as someone who "puts out fires," and a doctor as someone who "makes people feel better." A child may also engage in behaviors like "playing school" and imitate the behaviors of a teacher. Over time, this activity and behavior-based view of careers and occupations becomes more focused on personal interests, aptitudes, and abilities (Helwig, 2001; Helwig, 1998; Borgen & Young, 1982). However, in order for children to make this progression from activities and behaviors to personal interests, aptitudes, and abilities, the children in our classrooms must have exposure to many careers and occupations in such a way that allows them to "see" and experience the activities and behaviors associated with those careers and occupations.

How can we provide these experiences to students in early childhood classrooms? Here are a few suggestions that will fit right into developmentally appropriate practice while at the same time offering a wide range of experiences that help children develop their career and occupational aspirations.

Classroom Duties and Responsibilities.
Given that careers and occupations come with duties and responsibilities, one strategy is to align your classroom duties and responsibilities with authentic career options for your young students (Jensen, 2012). The line leader, pencil sharpener, chair stacker, and attendance monitor are not authentic occupations with real-world duties and responsibilities. Instead, assign names to the classroom duties and responsibilities that correspond with authentic career options. For example, make the line leader the tour director or chief executive office, make the pencil sharpener or supply monitor the lumberjack or civil engineer, make the chair stacker the maintenance coordinator, and make the attendance monitor the human resources director. These new, real-life, and authentic duties and responsibilities will spark discussion and dialog about potential careers and occupations.

Children's Books.
In an early childhood center or classroom books are everywhere. A slight tweaking of the types of books may make a significant difference in the career and occupational aspirations of the children. Select books that offer listeners and readers information about various careers. For example, What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn, Say "AHHH!" Dora Goes to the Doctor by Phoebe Beinstein and A & J Studios, or If I Were an Astronaut by Eric Baun and Sharon Harmner. Make sure that the books represent males, females, and different races and ethnicities. The goal here is to allow students to see themselves in these careers or occupations through the books.

Career Day and Birthdays.
This strategy is one of my favorites. Celebrate the birthdays of prominent individuals by highlighting their jobs. For example, Dr. Ben Carson, September 18; Marian Wright Edelman, June 6; or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, June 25. Much like the selection of children's books, the goal here is to allow young students to see themselves in various careers and occupations. In addition, the celebration of birthdays should focus on the hard work and effort to reach prominence in each person's field. The focus on effort rather than accomplishment encourages the development of intrinsic motivation (Medina, 2010).

Using children's books and the celebration of birthdays is particularly important for children from low socio-economic backgrounds and minorities. A significant body of research points out that students from low socio-economic backgrounds and minorities experience a much smaller range of career occupations and thus are more likely to be motivated by role models. This motivation starts in the early childhood center or classroom.

Providing young children with the opportunity to "see" a wide range of careers and occupations is important to the development of interest and motivation for these young learners. As far off in the future as it may seem, career exploration in the form classroom duties and responsibilities, children's books, career days, and the traditional forms of dramatic play are important components in the cognitive, emotional, and behavior trajectory of young children. The most exciting implication of the research on career and occupational interest is that that early childhood educators can add this task to their already long list of ways they influence the growth and development of young children.


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Campbell, F. A., Pungello, E. P., Miller-Johnson, S., Burchinal, M., & Ramey, C. T. (2001). The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology, 37(2), 231-242. doi:10.1037//0012-1649.37.2.231.

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