Emotional resilience adviser Michelle Spirit explains why – and how – schools should improve careers support for the most able students.

Highly able students are not always a top priority for school careers services – and it’s easy to understand why. Students in this group are unlikely to appear short of options, and often assumed to be capable of sorting through the information independently to reach a decision.

But emotional resilience adviser Michelle Spirit argues that the most able students should be moved to the front of the line for careers support. She points out that highly able learners are often at the most risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information available, and the pressure of making the “perfect” choice.

“It’s about perfection, having to make the perfect choice. Not being happy with failure, and being overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment at the first hint of failure,” Spirit explains.

Providing the right support is essential not only to ensure all students have opportunities to fulfil their potential, but also to promote long-term wellbeing, Spirit says. “The rise in mental health issues – anxiety, depression – often links to not having that internal sense of control over what’s happening.”

Tackling information overload

This issue is not limited to the most able students. Information overload has become the new norm, with negative consequences for many young people, Spirit says. “To cope, many students are snatching at any career idea that feels ok, while others are disengaging from making career decisions, feeling overloaded with choice with little real understanding of options, or ways of making comparisons between them.”

But the most able, Spirit says, are often at highest risk of feeling overwhelmed and under pressure. In high demand among universities and employers, they’re especially likely to be targeted by marketing campaigns, while also tending towards perfectionism and fear of failure.

“For more able young people, there is a tendency to want to feel in control of everything, to get every single bit of information they possibly can in order to make this decision. But the information just goes on and on – how do you make comparisons, know who and what to trust… how do you actually make sense of it?”

For schools, the challenge is to become better at helping students identify the information which is truly relevant to them. “Reduce the quantity of information, and increase the quality. It’s about personalising it, so you’re narrowing down.”

In future, Spirit anticipates an increasingly tailored approach, in which careers software offers automatic recommendations and resources based on an individual’s profile, removing much of the noise and confusion.

Building confidence and capability

As well as being personalised, careers support should also be broadened, Spirit says. She advocates careers guidance training for all teachers, at both primary and secondary level. “If everyone understands some very essential principles, like how to help a young person identify their strengths, that would be very helpful.”

Starting at primary level, she says schools should focus on providing direct encounters and experiences as much as possible. “It’s not always about information; it’s about inspiration. So it’s about experiencing what careers would be like, would this suit me, what does this person do in an average day.”

Across all key stages, Spirit says, schools should help students develop the skills to reflect on their own strengths and attributes, explore possible career outlets for these, identify relevant information, and develop the confidence to make big decisions.

“If somebody knows what they want to do, they can go and get that information. The role of the school is building that confidence and capacity to know what information they want to get hold of, and to know how to go and find that.”

Ultimately, Spirit concludes, “Schools should aim to ensure careers information supports students, inspires them and increases their confidence and capability to make informed decisions throughout their whole life, not just at key decision points during their time in full-time education – so choices about the future are exciting, not scary!”

Find out more…

For more advice on this topic, join Michelle Spirit’s workshop at the NACE National Conference on 21 June. The workshop will provide practical guidance for teachers and school leaders seeking to improve careers support for the most able students, with a focus on reducing the cognitive burden and building confidence.

View the full conference programme.