Bringing All Students Inside the Circle: DEI and Career Development in K-12 Schools

By Jennifer K. Strattman

School is among the first places where children learn career readiness skills and gain knowledge about self and others. The pandemic and recent school violence has underscored the need to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and school safety measures to provide resources and to protect the physical and emotional safety for all learners (Hall & Love, 2022; NASP 2021). With inequity, prejudice, discrimination, and school safety substantial concerns, it is probable that students of diverse backgrounds have limited access to optimal vocational counseling and opportunity. Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) work further provides disturbing implications surrounding self-concept, self-esteem, and career development.

Gottfredson’s Theory

Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) Self Creation, Circumscription and Compromise Theory asserts that the interplay between cognitive development, self-perceptions, and societal expectations result in young people eliminating initial career dreams for more socially acceptable or achievable goals. These decisions are often based upon societal representations of sex-type and prestige as well as their perceived intrapersonal attributes as they relate to potential careers. More specifically, Gottfredson asserts that children engage in circumscription (i.e., refuting previous career aims) and compromise (i.e., adjusting career goals according to what they believe is attainable) over four developmental stages: Orientation to Size and Power (ages 3-6), Orientation to Sex Roles (ages 6-8), Orientation to Social Validation (Ages 9-13), and Orientation to Internal, Unique Self (Ages 14 +). In the first three stages, Gottfredson argues that children often eliminate options—circumscription— and in the latter stage, they modify their options—compromise—based upon what they have already rejected. The concern then is the idea that children reject many opportunities before they possess the capacity to weigh their options.

Regarding DEI, implications are significant. If, early on, children build semantic categories for larger constructs, like “boy,” “girl,” “big,” and “small,” it is apparent that with maturity and with societal messages, learners become attuned to more subtle but damaging categorical representations—such as “rich,” “poor,” “able,” “disabled,” “us,” and “them.” By age nine, many understand “high” and “low” as related social status and therefore refute all options they view as outside of their “tolerable level boundary” as related to perceived socio-economic status, ability, achievement, and overall opportunity” (Gottfredson, 2022, p. 98). It is at school where children perceive the social status, ability, and academic achievement levels of themselves and those around them (Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981). For marginalized groups then, it is likely few options seem attainable.

Implications for DEI and Career Development in Schools

Gottfredson’s theory illuminates why disadvantaged and underprivileged students have a harder time reaching their vocational aspirations. To promote career development, schools have a role in advocating for DEI initiatives. They must consider how differences in race/ethnicity, sex, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, refuge/immigration status, disability, English proficiency, and religious affiliation—and potential intersectionality therein— impact student’s identity and career development (NASP, 2017). If the burgeoning self-concept is the working structure in Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) model, individuals of marginalized groups are receiving negative and/or conflicting messages about themselves and the world around them.

In fact, recent research reveals that students of color, especially black and indigenous students, are frequently overrepresented in special education and are often victims of exclusionary discipline (NASP, 2021). The pandemic has also highlighted racial and socio-economic disparities where Black and Hispanic families were 1.3-1.4 times as likely as white families not to have access to digital resources and more than 2 in 5 low-income households had limited access (Simon, 2021). Taken together, these findings reveal that underrepresented and underprivileged students might be more likely to need more support and affirmation to facilitate identity and career development.

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Strategies for Integrating Career and DEI Practices in Schools

The following are suggested strategies for specific stakeholders in the K-12 school system.

School and Career Counselors: School and career counselors have an instrumental role in supporting all students. They need to grasp that through the circumscription and compromise processes, students have likely rejected multiple options. Learners must therefore have the opportunity to reconsider these options while balancing reality (e.g., local training programs, financial constraints, family commitments) with a new set of options that enhance their view of what they can do. Counselors can encourage students to gain real-world exposure to new experiences so students can ascertain their strengths and weaknesses and build upon what they know about themselves to compete in a preferred vocation.

Teachers and School Personnel: Teachers and school personnel can reflect upon the messages that school and culture send to students of varying backgrounds and identities. They have the chance to dispel myths about identity and to expand students’ repertoires at early ages about opportunities and how cultural mores and expectations can limit growth. Restorative circles—conducted in a developmentally appropriate manner—can allow for authentic and candid conversations about marginalization, privilege, and implicit bias (Abrokwa, 2022; Shaikh, 2021; Huang, Greer, & Downing, 2018). Overall, conversation and awareness are likely to mitigate and reverse the processes that have so negatively impacted career development.


Schools Can Help

Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981)’s Circumscription and Compromise Theory purports that students are likely to eliminate career opportunities before they can weigh their options. Despite disturbing findings about career acquisition and DEI, schools are in a unique position to reduce prejudice and discrimination while facilitating career development for all students by enhancing counseling supports, educating personnel about the harmful messages at work, and fostering open, honest dialogue.



Abrokwa, F. (2022). 6 Strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion at your school: Start with the premise that bias is normal. Education Week, 27.

Gottefredson, L. S. (2002). Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription, compromise, and self-creation. Career Choice and Career Development, 4th Edition. Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Sons.

Huang, G. A., Greer, A. Y., Downing, B. (2018). An examination of restorative interventions and racial equity in out-of-school suspensions. School Psychology Review, 47, 167-182.

Hall, C., & Love, R. (2022). School safety: Advocating for best practices in k12. Career Convergence. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/453539/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2017). Understanding intersectionality. https://www.nasponline.org/Documents/Resources%20and%20Publications/Resources/Diversity/Social%20Justice/2017-Intersectionality-Infographic-cmyk.pdf

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2021). Promoting just special education identification and school discipline practice. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-safety-and-crisis/systems-level-prevention/guidance-for-measuring-and-using-school-climate-data

Shaikh, S. (2021). Educators: When it comes to DEI, we can’t be silent. Ed Surge, 10. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-05-10-educators-when-it-comes-to-dei-we-can-t-be-silent

Simon, C. (2021). How COVID taught America about inequity in education. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/07/how-covid-taught-america-about-inequity-in-education/



Jennifer StrattmanJennifer K. Strattman, MS, CAGS, MFA, is a writer and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) residing in upstate New York. She can be reached at jenniferknappstrattman@gmail.com


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Miranda Lilly   on Thursday 09/07/2023 at 09:02 AM

Jennifer, I like how you explained that teachers and school personnel can reflect upon how the messages that school and culture are being sent to students of varying backgrounds and identities. As an aspiring school counselor, I know how important it is to be culturally aware and leave your bias when you step into the door. Other staff in the building need to take part in these types of conversations.

Courtney McEntee   on Thursday 09/07/2023 at 10:24 AM

Jennifer, I agree with your notion that there are cultural differences amongst career aspirations and knowledge and it is so important to be aware and take this into consideration. Allowing everyone to have the same opportunities.

Raquel Londono   on Saturday 09/09/2023 at 10:24 AM

One of the reasons I want to become a school counselor is described so well in this article. We have the task and obligation to advocate and include all students to provide them all with the same career and post-secondary education opportunities. It is up to us to create and promote multicultural awareness and DEI practices within our schools to ensure this happens.

Ashley Fleury    on Saturday 09/09/2023 at 12:26 PM

I really loved reading this article, and reading about the impacts that the pandemic has had on our students. I see it everyday in my own classroom. Having this understanding of DEI is so important for educators!

Lauren Berolini   on Sunday 09/10/2023 at 09:50 AM

Per this theory, it is heartbreaking that many students begin to reject career paths and roles at such a young age simply because of what they observe around them. Students need counselors who can guide them in seeing past these limited views.

Olivia Gasbarro   on Sunday 09/10/2023 at 05:40 PM

This article was really eye-opening. I feel as though school counselors, teachers, and other school personnel can work together to provide students who are underprivileged and disadvantaged more of a chance to explore their career options. We need to start early, and give students the chance to research and realize their dream career is never too far out of reach!

Diana Doorley   on Monday 09/11/2023 at 11:36 AM

Jennifer, you really touched upon a very important topic- students don't always pick the careers they're most passionate about, but ones they feel more forced to choose. This could be due to financials, societal expectations, familial expectations, or based on where they typically see people that look like them gravitate to in the workforce. As counselors and teachers it is important for us convince students they can do any job they want and the confidence to go after it!

Jaymie Johnson   on Monday 09/11/2023 at 01:06 PM

Thank you for highlighting such a pressing need within schools! As a future school counselor, I found it valuable to learn about Gottfredson’s Theory and how it applies to the development of students. I hope to take the information I learned from your article into my own practice by helping students revisit past career dreams and advocating for more equitable educational and vocational representation.

Brandyn Chace   on Tuesday 09/12/2023 at 07:16 AM

Outstanding information in this article, very informative. Being a special education teacher for 13 years, I have seen first hand over representation of students of color in alternate learning environments due to behavioral issues. As an aspiring school counselor I hope to be able to foster change and help students from underprivleged backgrounds reach their potential and change the narrative around these issues.

Jazlyn Contreras   on Wednesday 09/13/2023 at 09:10 PM

This was a very informative read, and this topic is something I have witnessed first hand during my experience as a teacher. With my future career as a school counselor, I will understand the need and importance of supporting all of my students and to provide the support to underprivileged students who do not believe they can consider all the possible jobs they can obtain in their future.

Alexis Arruda   on Wednesday 09/13/2023 at 09:13 PM

Thank you for sharing this article, it is very informative. This is such an important topic and I find Gottfredson's Theory oftentimes apparent within school settings, allowing many to adhere to these damaging categorical representations. As a school counselor, I plan to implement these strategies for integrating career and DEI practices in order for students to reach their true vocational aspirations.

Cassandra Giarrusso   on Thursday 09/14/2023 at 10:06 AM

Jennifer, I really enjoyed reading this article! I think that it is important for counselors to understand that they need to encourage students to think about all careers that are possibility for them and not just those that they think are easily attainable or the societal norm.

Rachel Harraka   on Thursday 09/14/2023 at 09:08 PM

It is disheartening to see that statistically students who are disadvantaged and underprivileged are less likely to meet their vocational aspirations than their privileged peers, although I am not surprised. As a future school counselor it is my goal to make sure to support all students, to follow their goals no matter how unachievable they seem. It is our job to advocate for them and give them all tools necessary for success. Making sure it is equitable for all students.

Marilyn Santomaro   on Saturday 09/16/2023 at 09:24 PM

I think you touched on such an important aspect, that schools and teachers need to be very aware of the messages students receive about diversity in the workforce. If we start breaking down those barriers at young ages, students might tend to aspire to work towards a career they wouldn't normally choose to otherwise.

Tomas McLaughlin   on Monday 10/02/2023 at 10:44 AM

I appreciate your practical suggestions for integrating practices into schools, involving school counselors, teachers, and school personnel. These strategies provide clear guidance on how to address these challenges and create more career development opportunities for all students.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.