By the time most children reach their teenage years, they've heard the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" more times than they care to remember. How can educators support students to explore this question at a time when the future holds little certainty?

Incorporate career guidance in classroom curriculum

Traditional career guidance practices — skills and personality assessments, preparation for the college application and admission process, exposure to employment options, direct experience of workplace situations through job shadowing and internships, developing career portfolios, resumes and cover letters — may not provide students sufficient preparation when factors like technological development and planetary changes promise to affect work options in the years to come.

While teachers can't be expected to predict the future, they can introduce lesser-known or emerging fields to help students envision a greater range of possibilities for themselves. Regular curriculum can be embellished with career content and guidance practices to facilitate connections between classroom learning and young people's aspirations.

Perhaps more importantly, educators can give students tools for researching and sorting through career options on their own versus passing out information that can easily be outdated in the blink of an eye.

Provide knowledgeable face-to-face support

Ideally, students receive such guidance in their exploration of career options at the middle and high school level. Nonetheless, underserved areas often lack resources to offer this crucial support.

Insufficient knowledge of available career paths and how to pursue them is a primary barrier to youth entry into the labor force according to research in several countries by the International Youth Foundation. Their experience shows that successful youth employment programs are built on both skills acquisition and the process of career choice.

"The most important factor in providing effective career guidance services is the presence of caring, competent adults in career guidance roles who help youth to make informed decisions and take tangible next steps towards their goals," according to foundation organizers.

Help youth define their life purpose

Choosing or designing a career path requires certain emotional skills and self-knowledge. Youth need to have a sense of who they are and what matters most to them. So guidance in looking within is indispensable.

New programs demonstrate the need to go beyond the typical career exploration methods to engage students in a process that leads them to discover a deeper purpose in their lives. They address students' need for greater personal context in planning for their future. Two such programs that have gained recognition are the QUESTion project and The Future Project.

The QUESTion Project was designed to provide a space where students can tackle fundamental questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life. The program is built on five pillars — choice, purpose, fearlessness, interconnectedness and a bigger picture.

The pillar of choice takes on new importance when you consider that today's youth are faced with more options than previous generations which can be overwhelming for many.

"Exploring choice in their own experience opens a sense of possibilities and gives them the confidence to deal with the challenges that confront them. It empowers and inspires them with a positive responsibility to forge their own lives and future," according to the website.

Success stories of students who have been through the program demonstrate how they have shaped their futures by proactively creating opportunities for themselves.

Self-determination, student engagement, collaboration, goal-setting, leadership and grit are among constructs promoted by the work of The Future Project. The program focuses on building will and skill in students and culture change in schools through coaching, teachings and courses. Students have to empowering opportunity to become leaders as part of a Dream Team where they can discover their potential and build the skills to change the world before they graduate high school.

These Dream Teams launch projects to increase student engagement, transform the physical environment of their school and shift attitudes among students and adults. The results reported on the program website are impressive — "98 percent of students who lead projects or join a Dream Team evince a sense of purpose along with goal setting and self-management skills to make accomplishing their vision and purpose possible."

Build student self-confidence through play

There is no need for students to wait until they are teenagers — nor is it ever too late — to embark on the quest to uncover who they are and where they want to go. Children build scenarios with Lego blocks in a course led by Armando Conca, a Mexico City-based executive and personal coach. As a certified facilitator, he uses the Lego serious play program to help young people gain self-knowledge and design their futures.

Participants play while talking about what they are doing and why — leading to an increased awareness of what they desire in terms of family, friends and/or professional life. They also begin to notice how their environment and people close to them have influenced the decisions they've made in the past.

With a new level of confidence in knowing what they truly want, they create an action plan to take the initial steps toward their realizing their dreams — in real life.

"This process highly motivates participants to share things about themselves that, in some cases, they may have never expressed before. They feel listened to and respected as intelligent and imaginative individuals," explains Conca. "Increased self-confidence reflected in their body language is often noticeable following the workshop."