“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.
Internalizing 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 it’s customary for graduates to celebrate the completion of school, the big question, “what’s next?” lingers. This pending change and the unknown can create concern and negative outcomes for undecided adolescents, impacting their overall wellbeing.
While global rates of mental illness are rising, studies have found that as many as 20% of youth will experience major depressive episodes 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. Given the endless number of options out there, deciding what to do after school can feel stifling. Therefore, there is a growing need for practical tools to support graduates in making these decisions.
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, 2017)
While there is extensive research within the field of Positive Education, less attention has been directed towards the specific transition from school to adulthood. IPEN (2017) noted the need for further research in this area to support and educate upcoming graduates with positive transitioning programs. But what exactly is positive transitioning?
According to positive transitioning expert Amba Brown (Finding Your Path Project, n.d.), positive transitioning is:
The study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions when undertaking the process or period of change from one state or condition to another.
In other words, positive transitioning considers how we can best prepare individuals, emotionally, practically, and socially, to navigate new beginnings. Further, the notion of ‘positivity’ is based on the overarching scientific meaning of positive psychology. This, according to Martin Seligman (2002), is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to flourish.
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 who is unsure about what they want to do. And as much as anyone would like to ease a child’s anxieties by offering an answer, they should resist the urge to make their decision for them.
Instead, parents and educators can draw on two strategies to help prepare students for what lies ahead after school — future-focused thinking and identification of key interests.
Students can also draw on Seligman’s PERMA model to help identify drivers of wellbeing during the transitioning process and begin pursuing goals that align with strengths and interests.
Encourage Both Positive and Negative Future-Focused Thinking
One thing psychologists struggle with 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 life scenarios, the ups and downs, and the difficulties and 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 is incredibly useful for making decisions. 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. These scholars note that it is most useful to assess options realistically when a decision has to be made. They explain that after the decision is made, reverting to an optimistic outlook is beneficial to encourage the person to continue working towards the chosen goal.
Duckworth et al. (2007) also acknowledge the benefits 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. Indeed, instant success is often sold to us (e.g., overnight wealth through trading, online virality), resulting in unrealistic illusions regarding the effort required to attain goals.
These unrealistic representations of success can often be damaging and deter a person from persisting through adversity.
While students should be encouraged to look towards the future in an optimistic manner, preparing them for possible difficulties is also valuable to mentally prepare them to consider how they could best overcome these obstacles if or when they arise.
“What do You Want to do After School?”
Inevitably, many school students get asked the age-old question, “What do you want to do after school?” And there is still a genuine social expectation that a student will have selected a single career path, to which they will dedicate the rest of their working life.
However, today’s reality is that it is common to have multiple careers concurrently or throughout a lifetime (Maree, 2019). In fact, with little to no experience in the world after school, it may even be unwise to commit to a single narrowly defined path in this way. 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 instead be 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 various career paths is also encouraged.
Sharing the belief that there is nothing wrong with not knowing your dream job when finishing school helps alleviate unrealistic expectations that a student 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 and support making a holistic decision.
Useful questions to ask can include, “What do you enjoy doing?” “What makes you happy?” or “What are your strengths?”
If a graduate does not know what career they wish to pursue, parents can support the graduate by reminding them that further investigation is always an option. Further to this, parents can help by explaining that there is always the option to change course in a chosen career and that there will still be time and flexibility to learn and grow from an initial first choice.
Using Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model for a Positive 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 drivers of wellbeing that can help students flourish, we can best explore how students can make informed decisions regarding their next steps after school.
P – Positive Emotion
Firstly, parents and educators can encourage students to focus on the things that they enjoy doing. Suggest they write down five things they do in their spare time or things they think about when their minds wander. These unassuming things that they enjoy doing are the very things that can make them happy and point to avenues for a career.
The health benefits resulting from an increase in positive emotions in our lives, such as optimism, joy, or satisfaction, are well reported. Therefore, this list can be used as a starting point for the student to investigate possible career paths that bring about these positive emotions. For instance, the response “I enjoy watching airplane videos in my spare time” may lead the graduate to consider jobs in the field of aviation.
Make sure this list only includes activities or areas of enjoyment, and pay particular attention to activities that invoke a sense of meaning or purpose. Likewise, the student should avoid listing items that bring hedonic pleasure, which occurs when we receive instant gratification for our survival, such as by eating or sleeping.
E – Engagement
What activities does the student find most engaging? As above, encourage the student to put together a list of activities that make them feel completely absorbed. Such activities are those that will use the student’s skills while also challenging them, bringing about a state of flow.
These responses are different for everyone. Some people experience high engagement levels when playing sports, while 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 wellbeing and is helpful as it brings one into the present moment.
R – Relationships
Maintaining positive relationships with others is one of the most significant contributors to wellbeing. These relationships will be particularly important for the student when making career-related decisions. These sources of social support may serve as sounding boards to consider different options and feelings and can also protect wellbeing during what may potentially be a stressful time.
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 the student to think more broadly will inspire their quest to belong to something bigger than themselves. Indeed, 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, this final component involves 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.
3 Useful Resources on Positive Transitioning
While the subject of positive transitioning is a fairly new avenue of research, more tools, studies, and practical resources are becoming available as awareness of the importance of positive transitioning has grown.
Finding Your Path Book Series
The Finding Your Path Book series by coach and positive psychology expert, Amba Brown, was created to support youth’s major transitions. This set of three books are geared towards three of the major transitions experienced by young students–the transitions associated with:
- Starting school
- Entering high school; and
- Finishing school
Filled with illustrative diagrams and practical exercises, the author’s goal in creating this series was to create fun, useful, and age-appropriate resources to help students thrive and overcome the fear of the unknown.
TEDx Talk – Amba Brown
In her TEDx talk presented at the Australian International School in Singapore, Brown outlines the principles of positive transitioning, new trends in student career trajectories, and a fresh approach to finding one’s career path, rooted in positive psychology.
Tap Into Your WIFI Worksheet
For a useful tool to help address several of the PERMA model criteria, the Finding Your Path Project provides a free worksheet called ‘Tap Into Your WIFI.’
This worksheet can help graduates identify areas where they may want to take their future careers, rooted in their interests, dreams, and ambitions.
The anagram, WIFI, spells out the following:
W – Watch Your Interests
First, graduates consider their primary interests, activities they enjoy, and traits that may inform their career direction.
I – Investigate Your Options
Here, graduates consider the next major step in their life plan, whether traveling the world, pursuing further education, or jumping into a new career straightaway.
F – Follow Your Dreams
Next, the student explores their goals for the next five years and considers setting ambitious goals.
I – “I’m interested in _____ & I’ll see where it leads me.”
As above, rather than committing to a single career post-school, graduates can explore their interests and remain open-minded about future pathways by setting a broad direction based on their interests.
A Take-Home Message
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.
To address this, many would argue that alongside traditional education, we should be teaching our students how to positively transition into the world – the first of many more adult decisions they will have to make throughout their lifetime.
By shifting the focus from narrow questions (e.g., “What are you going to do after school”) to teaching the importance of good decision-making skills to cultivate a fulfilling life, we can better prepare school-leavers for not only this immediate transition that lay ahead throughout their lives.
- Baumeister, R., Vohs, K., & Oettingen, G. (2016). Pragmatic prospection: How and why people think about the future. Review Of General Psychology, 20(1), 3-16.
- Cardemil, E., Reivich, K., Beevers, C., Seligman, M., & James, J. (2007). The prevention of depressive symptoms in low-income, minority children: Two-year follow-up. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 45(2), 313-327.
- Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M., & Kelly, D. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
- Gollwitzer, P., & Kinney, R. (1989). Effects of deliberative and implemental mind-sets on illusion of control. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 56(4), 531-542.
- International Positive Education Network (IPEN). (2017). The state of positive education report. Retrieved from https://www.worldgovernmentsummit.org/api/publications/document/8f647dc4-e97c-6578-b2f8-ff0000a7ddb6?mc_cid=7ba0f17ca8&mc_eid=7131579056.
- Kaplan Toren, N. (2013). Multiple dimensions of parental involvement and its links to young adolescent self‐evaluation and academic achievement. Psychology in the Schools, 50(6), 634-649.
- Maree, J. G. (2019). Handbook of innovative career counseling. New York, NY: Springer.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (p. 3-9). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.