Career Development

How Early Do You Determine Your Career? How About Elementary School?

When do you think you start preparing for a career? When you choose your college major? When you take your first internship? How about when you’re five years old, using crayons to color in pictures of firefighters, bus drivers, and ballerinas? The truth is that, like it or not, career prep begins earlier than you think — and key factors like language acquisition and test taking skills are huge factors in determining what you do when you grow up.

Preschool children and the importance of language

One of the single best determinants of career success is your ability to use and manipulate language, whether your career involves speaking in front of people, writing thousands of emails, or programming and developing smartphone apps. This language facility begins early–literally, as soon as you are exposed to words.

This is why some parents get a head start by talking to their babies while the infants are still in utero; the language gap between children exposed to numerous words as infants, compared to children exposed to fewer words, affects these children throughout their lives and often helps determine how skilled they will be at using language in their future careers.

And yes, parents, the language gap starts immediately. Just this week, Stanford University released a study suggesting that the language gap begins as early as 18 months, meaning that some babies are already behind even before they begin to talk. By three years of age, some children have heard millions more words than their language-deprived peers, giving them an advantage that lasts a lifetime.

Elementary school and the initial sorting

At age 11, Harry Potter sat under the Sorting Hat and learned which path he would take as a wizard. Our elementary students don’t get the benefit of the sorting hat, but they still get sorted: gifted and talented programs for one child, remedial education for another. Reading groups are given fun names like Penguin and Lion, but it’s no secret that the kids in the lion reading group are moving much faster than their penguin and tortoise peers.

By the time children reach fifth or sixth grade — the same age Harry was when he sat under the Sorting Hat — they and their teachers have both already done the sorting: Andy is smart, Tyler is bad at math, Caitlyn is a natural leader, Devon doesn’t pay attention in class.

Racial, gender, and other biases

Not all academic and social-based sorting in elementary school is merit-based. Plenty of studies reveal that students operate under specific expectations based on race, gender, income, and other biases. Standardized tests, for example, are biased towards students with white, middle-class experiences, meaning that students of other races or socio-economic statuses have to develop additional test taking skills to keep up. These same students have to overcome biases from teachers and administrators who unconsciously equate certain types of behavior, style of dress, or speech as “less smart” than student peers.

This means that by the time high school begins, students can be behind in terms of a language gap, a classroom sorting, and an institutional bias. All of these factors work in tandem to affect a student’s future career, even if that student is not yet a teenager.

High school and the importance of college prep

College prep is supposed to be the great equalizer — providing opportunities for all students to find a school that is a good fit and take control of their own futures. This is anything but the case. Knowing that some schools provide better career opportunities than others, many parents hire outside help for their children, pushing them through college essay counselors and application advisors.

Luckily, there are options that all students can explore, even if they do not have the benefit of a private college application coach. SAT and ACT test prep is available to students at any income level. According to Huntington resources, students can build more test taking skills simply by reducing anxiety, developing a schedule, and being of sound mind (getting some sleep!).

Once in college, former teacher biases are, for the most part, removed. There’s no more penguin or lion reading group; instead, students can literally start fresh and make their own way in new educational system. However, for many students, the educational gap experienced over a lifetime still affects the choice of major, the internship and job opportunities, and the student’s eventual career.

That’s why parents who start language flashcards when their children are barely old enough to sit up aren’t being Tiger Parents or acting crazy. They’re simply helping their children prepare for as many future career opportunities as possible.

What about you? How have your childhood experiences affected your current career and job opportunities? Are there things you wish your parents or teachers had done differently? Let us know in the comments.

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