ENHANCING THE CAREER GUIDANCE AND INFORMATION IN A SPECIAL SCHOOL: A participatory research project

An appreciation of the specific needs of young people with learning difficulties is essential in planning and implementing a programme of career guidance for young people with learning difficulties. Jim Jordan has studied one such programme.

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Introduction

Career guidance and career awareness is now an accepted part of mainstream education. It occurs usually during the final years in second level. This period is seen as a difficult but critical time in the young person’s life—a time when one begins to take personal responsibility and break away from external controls such as parents and school.

Information concerning mainstream career options and further educational/ training opportunities for school leavers is very much in the public arena—through newspaper supplements, special radio broadcasts and interactive websites. This greatly facilitates parents, extended family and friends to assist and advise the young person in the area of career development. The mainstream student has developed skills in information sourcing and synthesis, decision-making, self-determination and self-assessment, usually within a stable school and community environment.

In contrast, their peer with a learning difficulty will not have developed these personal skills. He/she will typically have experienced a change of school, with subsequent stigma and isolation from friends and local community—a future no longer composed of familiar, predictable options. What lies ahead is a change of direction into a life with an unfamiliar, uncertain future. It is not surprising therefore that young adults with learning difficulties exhibit poor self-confidence, low self-esteem and a difficulty in setting goals and predicting consequences of their actions.

In a special school catering for the needs of students with mild learning needs it emerged that a gap existed in the preparation of students and their families for life after school. This gap was identified by parents when consulted to inform Individual Education Plans and through the efforts of staff to meet student needs through best practice. In response to this identified need, a Career Information and Guidance programme was implemented in 1999.

The research study outlined in this article was an evaluation of that programme after its initial two years, with a view to improvement.

The Career Information and Guidance programme

The active delivery of the Career Information and Guidance programme to students happens in the final year of school, although some focus on possible future options occurs during their second-last year. The overall aim is to make the students and their families aware of future options, to empower them to make decisions appropriate to the student’s needs. Options include further training opportunities as well as supported or open employment.

A planning group coordinates the delivery of the programme, sources relevant materials, timetables, activities and disseminates information on progress. All staff who work with this cohort of students are involved in programme-delivery, thus exposing students and families to several sources of information, to integrate the programme into other programmes and to spread the workload. A system of tutoring is also in place at this level in the school—a staff member volunteers to ‘look after’ three or four students. Tutoring involves checking on a regular basis to ensure that progress is being maintained and dealing with any issues arising. Much of the career guidance programme was delivered through the tutoring structure

Tools and strategies

The following tools and strategies are put in place as a means of delivering the programme:

  • CV preparation by the student, in conjunction with their tutor.
  • Self-administered interest inventory guided by a staff member. Two packages were used—a paper-based one called Look at Work and a software one on CD-ROM.
  • Guided visits to other agency facilities to see further training or work options.
  • Presentations to students and families by representatives of external agencies offering further training options.
  • On-site careers exhibition day for students and families, with personnel and displays from training agencies, employers and FĀS.
  • Positive Futures Planning meetings—with each student, his/her family and significant others in the student’s life, to map progress, assess the present situation and look to future options. Methodology of the participatory research study

In an effort to facilitate a participatory research methodology and to canvass as broad a view as possible, all stakeholders (students, parents and staff) were invited to participate. Students who were due to graduate in the year of the study, as well as those who had graduated the previous year and their respective parents/guardians were included. Two distinct groups of staff completed the total sample—those directly involved in delivering the programme and other more peripheral staff.

A formative evaluation model was chosen as a framework with an emphasis on qualitative data. Data collection instruments consisted of questionnaires, in-depth interviews and focus groups. Quantitative data were also gathered. A literature review was conducted in the historical and theoretical underpinnings of career guidance, the delivery of such a programme to a population with learning difficulty, and in curriculum and curriculum evaluation.

Some findings from the literature

The literature shows the need to consider preparation for adult life in a broader context, not just in terms of employment or career. The components of a successful transition plan must have:

  • Student involvement They should be assisted in learning how to be effective participants; their interests and preferences should be heard.
  • Family involvement Families should be encouraged to take part, to whatever degree possible, in identifying transition needs and goals. They should also be directly or indirectly involved in achieving goals.
  • Early start Some aspects of the transition programme can be started at an early age, with the teaching of life skills and career education.
  • Team approach Because preparation for adult life is multifaceted, a planning team consisting of the student, family member(s), teacher (in a broad sense of the word), a counsellor and significant others in the student’s life is the most successful approach.
Maturity and self determination

As previously outlined, career maturity is a developmental process and is linked to childhood activities like observation, imitation of work routines of role models and engaging in extracurricular activities or part-time employment. This may not be the experience of a person with a learning disability, owing to cognitive or environmental factors. In the case of many people with learning difficulties, ‘normal’ developmental stages or milestones are at best delayed. Self-determination and the capacity to choose are critical factors as one enters adulthood. In many instances these skills are lacking in people with learning disabilities—because of over-protection by families and exposure to a care model of service.

Some findings of the study

The programme studied sits within a broad curriculum in a special school environment. It has not been guided by, nor indeed hampered by, any set syllabus. It has been developed and revised in a piecemeal fashion in light of experience. All respondents praised the programme initiative, with staff describing it as a ‘vital part of our service’ and ‘a fantastic aspect of what we do here’. Parents felt it was particularly important, as ‘these students are starting out with a disadvantage and will find it more difficult to gain employment.’ One parent also recognised an unforeseen benefit: ‘I personally found this programme very helpful to my son; it opened him up more and made him very confident.’

Students themselves were agreed on the importance of the programme to them. Their comments varied from ‘very helpful’ to ‘brilliant idea’. One past pupil said, ‘It helped me to look at a lot of different things I could do after I left’. Another showed her preferred learning style, ‘Doing things is best—like going on visits.’

The all-staff approach was perceived as a good strategy and a positive aspect of the programme.

‘Using an all-staff approach gives the benefit of their combined knowledge of any particular student—their capabilities, likes, dislikes etc’ (parent).

‘It is better to have a lot of staff working on careers because everyone would have different opinions and ideas on what you could do.’ (student)

‘… because if you don’t like one person, you can talk to another one.’ (student)

‘It is better to work as part of a team’ (student)

Parents themselves expressed satisfaction with the existence of such a programme and highlighted areas that could be improved to help them.

‘Parents should encourage children to broaden their thinking and expectations on future work.’

‘My son learned that he is not alone, there is plenty of help and careers out there.’

‘We were very pleased to learn that our son could have further education.’

‘It made me realise about his future that it would not be anything in the way of figures or words but with his hands, he is more manual.’

‘He learned that there was great hope for employment and he didn’t have to take the first job that was offered.’

Timing

Opinions varied among the students about the best time to implement the programme:

‘Starting earlier would give me more time to think.’

‘Should start in first year.’

‘Don’t start about jobs and training too early, we’re not interested. Do more going out to get us ready for leaving.’

Outcomes for students

Staff evaluated the students’ outcomes:

‘Most students had plans in place for summer and/or September, they have a knowledge of options.’

‘Graduates are focussed this year. They have made decisions based on available options.’ ‘Students in final year are able to say what they want and don’t want.’

‘Students I have spoken to are aware of what their fellow students are planning to do when they leave.’

Follow-up

A career information and guidance programme can only hope to meet the needs of students at the time of participation. It cannot aspire to address issues that will inevitably arise in future stages of the developmental process. However, most of the student participants felt it was important to continue a link post graduation.

‘Youse should check up on students after they leave, sometimes they won’t come back if things are going bad.’

‘…at least I know I have someone to talk to.’

Staff training needs

A further unforeseen outcome that emerged was the identification of training and development needs by those delivering the programme.

‘We need to inform ourselves about the options that are out there.’

‘I would really like to see all staff (teachers especially) getting the opportunity to visit other agencies etc. so they are familiar with them.’

‘Some training in interview skills is needed for us so we can help them.’

Conclusions

All respondents agree that the introduction of the Career Information and Guidance programme was a correct response to an identified need. Students are considerably more successful in pursuing both work and training opportunities post graduation. Student dropout is uncommon, and when it happens it is usually done to access employment. Parents are active stakeholders and are involved in supporting their child by participation in the programme planning process.

This study contributed to the identification of successful aspects as well as areas for improvement.

The following recommendations were proposed:

  1. Writing-up of the programme. The Career Information and Guidance programme had developed in an ad hoc fashion, but it would be advisable to formalise it into a written document, in order for it to become a tangible part of the curriculum.
  2. Programme expansion. In many ways the Career Information and Guidance programme has a narrow focus, in that it concentrates on futures that involve work or further training. There are many facets to the needs of adolescents (particularly those with a learning difficulty) as they move on from the school environment. Some thought should be given to developing a more comprehensive programme to help with this transition.
  3. Programme evaluation. An integral part of the above process should be a facility for regular and continuous evaluation.
  4. Education and training of staff. The ability of all members of staff to deliver the Career Information and Guidance programme is limited by their level of knowledge and experience of the subject. It has emerged from the study that education is needed in aspects such as career development theory and key stages of career growth. Training is needed in practical skills such as interviewing techniques. A specific training needs analysis would help to identify further areas.
  5. Specific evaluation and development of the role of parents. It is apparent from this study that parents seek to be more actively involved and staff and students see the role of parents as hugely important. Parents can sometimes feel intimidated by service-provider professionals, or inadequate in an unfamiliar arena. They need assistance in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to play an effective role, perhaps through training similar to that given to staff or at least through improved communication with families.
  6. Input from programme support staff—i.e. psychologist, social worker, speech and language therapist, etc. are an under-utilised resource in relation to the Career Information and Guidance programme. Liaison should take place with a view to sourcing assessment materials related to stages of development.
  7. Early start. A committee should be set up to investigate the implementation of a programme appropriately adapted for a younger pre-vocational group, to focus on developing core skills of self-awareness and self-determination.
  8. Appointment of a coordinator. The Career Information and Guidance programme has developed as a solution to a perceived need. It has been directed by a group of staff in addition to their normal workload. It has been ‘piloted’ for a two-year period and has been successful. In order for it to develop and evolve effectively, it needs a coordinator with time to improve and expand the programme as needed.
Summary

It is apparent from the literature that, concentration on career alone is perhaps too narrow a focus in the preparation of young people for life after school. It is also apparent that while pressure for changes in legislation is a worthy and necessary activity it doesn’t automatically mean improved services or observation of best practice in the field.

The area of career development is very much linked to life development and cannot be seen merely as a piece of work to be done at a particular life stage, e.g. in adolescence. It is important to be aware of the theoretical underpinnings in order to understand the developmental process in general and its relevance to careers in particular.

An appreciation of these issues is especially important in planning and implementing a programme of career guidance for young people with learning difficulties given their cognitive ability and developmental delay.

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