“What do you want to do after school?”
More than a decade later and this simple question still makes my stomach turn. I remember the feelings of confusion and frustration. Internalising my indecision to mean that there was something wrong with me. Not to mention my misinformed belief that everyone else had their future figured out.
But while all graduates in today’s Western Society celebrate the completion of school, the big question “what’s next?” lingers above them. This pending change and the unknown can create concern and negative outcomes for undecided adolescents, impacting their overall wellbeing.
While globally mental disorders are rising, studies have found that as many as 20% of youth will experience an episode of major depression before they finish high school (Cardemil, Reivich, Beevers, Seligman & James, 2007). Ensuring a supported transition into life after school is paramount for completing a positive schooling experience.
Today, it is evident that while choice is a privilege – it can also be a burden. The very real first-world problem of making a decision after school, from the endless amount of options out there, can be stifling. The need for practical tools to support these graduates in making their decision is in high demand.
This article contains:
What is Positive Transitioning? A Working Definition
An important starting point to understand Positive Transitioning is to define Positive Education. The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) state:
Positive Education is an approach to education that blends academic Learning with character & well-being. Preparing students with Life skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, growth mindset, engagement and mindfulness amongst others. (“IPEN – International Positive Education Network”, 2017)
While there is extensive current research within the field of Positive Education, less attention has been directed towards the specific transition from school to adulthood. IPEN (The State of Positive Education Report, 2017) have also noted the need for further studies to be conducted in this area, specifically, Positive Transition Programs to understand and support this change.
The World Bank (2017) have also reported that they are undertaking examinations to better understand the potential effects of mindset interventions to support positive transitioning between education and employment. Despite Positive Education research for this transition being in its early days, there is no question regarding the need to learn more about positive transitioning skills to educate upcoming graduates. Not only to prepare this age group for the after school transition, but also for the many transitions that lie ahead.
The working definition for ‘Positive Transitioning’ can, therefore, be accurately obtained from a combination of the two words that it is comprised of.
Firstly, the word Transition is well established and clearly defined within the English language as ‘The process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another’ (“transition | Definition of transition in English by Oxford Dictionaries”, 2017).
Secondly, the word Positive can be taken from the overarching scientific meaning of Positive Psychology. According to Martin Seligman (2002), Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.
Put together, Positive Transitioning can be defined as:
the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive when undertaking the process or period of change from one state or condition to another.
Preparing Youth for the After School Transition
Educators and parents play an important role in preparing students for their big leap into the world after school. It can be overwhelming supporting a child that has no idea what they want to do. And as much as anyone would like to ease their anxieties by giving an answer, they should resist the urge to make their decision for them.
Instead, follow these two simple approaches to prepare students for the transition after school and then encourage them to decide for themselves using the PERMA model below.
Encourage Both Positive and Negative Future Thinking
The one thing positive psychologists struggle with most is explaining that the science of positive psychology does not simply involve being positive. This is far from being the case. Positive psychology involves dealing with all scenarios in life, the ups and the downs and the difficulties and the triumphs.
This same balance should, therefore, be implemented when looking towards the future. Baumeister, Vohs & Oettingen (2016) found that the ability to switch back and forth between optimism and pessimism would be most useful for making a decision. They stated, “Optimism feels good and sustains effort— but a more pessimistic outlook is useful when figuring out what needs overcoming.”
Gollwitzer and Kinney (1989) also explained the benefit of holding positive and optimistic illusions, to increase confidence levels and sustain effort — but when a decision has to be made; it is most useful to assess the options realistically. They explain that after the decision is made, reverting to an optimistic outlook is beneficial to encourage them to continue working towards the chosen goal.
Duckworth et al., (2007) also believe in the idea of maintaining a realistic future outlook, stating, “ we should prepare youth to anticipate failures and misfortunes and point out that excellence in any discipline requires years and years of time on task”.
This balanced approach is helpful in better preparing students for their lives ahead. In an age where generation X has grown up being constantly told to believe that anything is possible, and instant success sold to us, unrealistic illusions regarding the effort to attain our goals can be damaging.
While students should be encouraged to look towards the future in an optimistic manner, preparing them for possible difficulties is also helpful for mentally preparing them to consider how they could best overcome these obstacles if or when they arise.
Change the Way we Look at the Question “What do You Want to do After School?”
Despite the fact that we live in a choice-filled, multi-career dominated western society, many school students still get asked the age-old question, “What do you want to do after school?” And there is still a very real social expectation that comes with students providing a specified career path and endeavoring to fulfill their responsibilities.
However, the reality is that today it is common to have multiple careers, and with no experience yet in the world after school, they should not have to commit to making one decision. There are endless options out there – and students should be able to grow and learn, explore and change their minds.
As parents and educators, therefore, we should be encouraging a flexible mindset to answer this question. Children should be instead encouraged to respond with “I’m interested in _____ and I’ll see where it leads me.” Speaking openly about the reality that there are many options ahead and that they may wish to try out various careers paths is also encouraged.
Sharing the belief that there is nothing wrong with not knowing your dream job when finishing school, helps to alleviate unrealistic expectations that they must have life figured out. While asking this question, “What do you want to do after school?” can be helpful to understand a school-leaver’s current outlook, ensure that this question is also followed up by asking about the student’s interests, goals, and values to probe further discussions to support making a holistic decision. For example asking, “What do you enjoy doing?” “What makes you happy?” or “What are your strengths?”
Since previous research has repeatedly shown a positive correlation between parental aspirations and children’s success (Kaplan Toren, 2013), maintaining the belief that regardless if the child does not know what to do, further investigation will enable them to make the best choice for them. Further to this, explaining that if this decision turns out not to be forever, there is still time and flexibility to learn and grow from this first choice.
Making the Decision: Using Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model for a Positive After School Transition
Martin Seligman has conducted extensive research to understand the benefits of the inclusion of positive psychology in the realm of education. Various findings have supported Seligman’s belief that psychological immunization against depression can occur through positive education (Cardemil et al., 2007). Following Seligman’s PERMA model, which includes the five elements of well-being proven to help students flourish, we can best discuss how students can make a decision around their next step after school.
P – Positive Emotion
Firstly, encourage students to focus on the things that they enjoy doing. Suggest they write down five things that they do in their spare time or things they think about when their mind wanders. These unassuming things they that enjoy doing are the very things that can make them happy.
The health benefits resulting from an increase in positive emotions in our lives, such as optimism, joy or satisfaction, are well reported. This list should be used as a starting point for the child to investigate possible career paths. For instance, the response “I enjoy watching airplane videos in my spare time” could be used to consider the child moving into various jobs in the field of aviation.
Make sure this list only includes activities or areas of enjoyment, not items that bring pleasure. Pleasure is when we receive instant gratification for our survival, such as eating or sleeping.
E – Engagement
What activities does the student find most engaging? In the same respect as above, encourage the student to put together a list of activities that they feel completely absorbed in. These activities use their skills while challenging them at the same time, bringing about a state of flow.
These responses are different for everyone. Some people experience high levels of engagement when playing sports, others may find themselves absorbed when doing something creative such as pottery or knitting. Note that while this list can be helpful for considering post-school decisions, these activities should also be used as hobbies or suggestions for how students spend their free time. Creating space for these engaging activities adds to one’s overall well-being and is helpful as it brings one into the present moment.
R – Relationships
Holding positive relationships with others is one of the most significant contributors to well-being. These relationships will be particularly important for the student to depend on when making their decision. Providing the space for them to speak about their options and feelings, and relate with them by sharing an example of when you felt confused and unsure about the future. These types of relationships have been shown in many studies to have a positive impact on the mental well-being of the child.
M – Meaning
To encourage the student to search for meaning, ask questions such as, “What is one thing you would do to make the world a better place?” or “What would you do if money wasn’t involved?” Probing them to think more broadly will inspire their quest to belong to something bigger than themselves. The undertaking of finding and holding a purpose is fundamental to creating a life of happiness and fulfillment.
A – Accomplishment
After considering all of the above questions, this final component includes putting together realistic goals that the student can work towards achieving. These goals should be achievable with some effort. Once the student reaches their listed goals they will demonstrate their ability and find a sense of personal accomplishment. Teaching students the importance of purpose and drive to achieve these goals is crucial to their ability to construct an optimal thriving life.
A Take Home Message
As discussed in this article, the overwhelming amount of choice, coupled with the expectation that school graduates should know what they want to do after school can be enough for any undecided student to feel anxious or stressed.
I argue that in school, alongside traditional education we should also be teaching our students how to positively transition into the world – the first of many more adult decisions they will make. If we can shift the focus from asking the mere question “what are you going to do after school” to teaching the importance of having the skills to make a decision to create a fulfilling life, such as adopting a balanced outlook, a flexible mindset and utilising the PERMA model as the foundation for making this decision, we can better prepare school-leavers for not only this transition but for their future lives.
About the Author
Amba Brown is an Australian Positive Psychology Author, who holds a degree in psychology & sociology, with Honours in Positive Psychology. She is 31 years old, from Sydney, Australia, and has also lived in Asia and America. Being the eldest of six siblings, Amba is passionate about alleviating youth anxieties. T
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