Positive Psychology Techniques for K-12 Career Counseling

by Louis V. Paradise and Dawn Romano Ironside

Positive psychology approaches to counseling have been receiving widespread attention in recent years. Developed by Martin Seligman and his colleagues (e.g., Seligman, 1991; Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000), these efforts focus on the positive aspects of life over the negative, on individual strengths rather than weakness or deficiencies, and on the normal human developmental issues rather than the abnormal. Considerable research has shown that positive developmental approaches can be more useful than remedial approaches which are based on pathology or human deficiencies.

Much of what positive psychology is all about is rooted theoretically in the humanistic and person-centered approaches to counseling and therapy. The basic tenets of positive psychology are that individuals have, at their essence, goodness, basic signature strengths, and resources. It is argued by proponents of this approach that positive aspects of behavior should be the focus of attention rather than the negative traits and maladaptive behaviors that have characterized much of the helping professions in the past. Many of the techniques and applications used in positive psychology are drawn from cognitive/behavioral counseling. Thus, positive psychology seems to be where humanistic, cognitive, and behavioral underpinnings merge.

While positive psychology approaches provide optimistic solutions for individuals of all ages, we believe that they can be particularly effective for the K-12 population. Often the use of positive psychology approaches will focus on the emotional issues of the K-12 student: self-esteem, parenting problems, peer pressure, behavior problems, etc. For these problems, the cognitive-affective nature of positive psychology has been valuable. However, little attention has been given to applying positive psychology to career counseling with the K-12 student. All too often, as research by Osborn and Baggerly (2004) has shown, school counselors think in terms of classic trait-factor approaches, matching students' traits to job/career/work environment characteristic of the "square pegs-square holes" approach which has been employed since the 1940s.

Techniques based on positive psychology can offer the advantage of focusing on the whole student rather than only on the part that allows a psychometric match between person and career. Since the goals of career counseling vary greatly throughout the K-12 span, certain techniques are more appropriate to specific ages. All techniques, however, focus on the positive, optimistic aspects of the individual's career development. A sampling across K-12 is presented.

Early grades

  • Since career exploration and awareness of the world of work are the key for this age group, bring parents and friends who have unique work experiences to the classroom. Have classroom visitors talk about the positive aspects of work and its related values. Demonstrate how careers/jobs produce all kinds of benefits/good feelings. Be sure to brief the visitors on what aspects of their work they should discuss with the students. Have them blend the aspects of work values with how people feel about themselves.
  • This is an excellent time to focus on careers and self-esteem. Linking the world of work to self-esteem/self-concept issues is essential during this period of development. Accomplish this through play techniques that simulate work experiences and relevant videos/movies/books.
  • Help students develop resilience, assets identified that children need in order to grow strong and self-determined, by providing examples of ways to deal with age-appropriate problems. Resilience is a great strength and students need to maximize this asset at an early age.
  • Teach students how careers/work can contribute to a sense of well-being or happiness. Positive psychology holds that happiness can be taught. Focusing on the positive and rewarding and praising children for it, helps them develop important strengths.
  • Connect the student's signature strengths, those characteristics that make them unique and which contribute to feelings of well-being and success, to aspects of career development. For example, leadership, kindness, love of learning, to name a few, can be readily related to careers and jobs.
  • Do discussions or group exercises that allow the students to talk about their strengths and how these strengths might be useful for facing the demands of careers or everyday life (Steen, Kachorek, & Peterson, 2003).

Middle grades

  • Middle grades are the most important and most demanding in a student's development and potential for success. The most critical task, we believe, is to continue developing the signature strengths of the students. These strengths, linked to the world of work and values, will serve as "buffering agents" to facilitate children's positive development. Without certain strengths to buffer the negative forces of development, students will not be successful.
  • Similarly, this is the ideal time to introduce students to service learning experiences. Doing some good for someone else, especially if it is associated with careers and career exploration, will enhance one's own self-esteem and positive development. Field trips related to service learning projects with a career influence, no matter how short the duration, can build positive outcomes. Research on middle school students has shown how service learning experiences can build positive strengths (Scales, 1999).
  • Show, by using examples from history, current events etc., how people's careers are inextricably bound to their sense of self-worth and how happy they are in life.

Upper grades

  • Greater focus can be directed to serious career exploration and review. Detailed and directed assignments regarding career specifics and strengths can begin. Strength audits, taking stock of one's assets and buffering strengths are techniques that can be productive.
  • Linking expanded service learning experiences with career exploration can have ancillary positive outcomes. Educational requirements and the associated benefits of post secondary education should be explored.
  • Allow students to focus on interviewing individuals in particular careers; getting at the dynamics of career benefits from a positive perspective is a good technique for this age group. Help students to identify and use their signature strengths in the interview process.
  • Get parents and community members involved in planned evening events such as college nights and career nights, where specific interactions between the world of work/career and personal well-being/success are emphasized.

Overall, positive psychology counseling offers many new and exciting approaches to facilitate a positive career development experience throughout the K-12 years. By using techniques and approaches that focus on the notion that every child has strengths and resources, school counselors can be effective in their career initiatives.

Arman, J. F., & Scherer, D. (2004). Service learning in school counseling preparation. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education, and Development, 41 (1), 69-86.
Osborn, D. S., & Baggerly, J. N. (2004). School counselors' perceptions of career counseling and career testing: Preferences, priorities, and predictors. Journal of Career Development, 31, 45-59.
Scales, P. C. (1999). Increasing service learning's impact on middle school children. Middle School Journal, 30, 40-44.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York. Knopf.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihaly, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
Steen, T. A., Kachorek, L. V., & Peterson, C. (2003). Character strengths among youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 32 (1), 5-17.

Louis V. Paradise, Ph.D. is professor of educational leadership, counseling, and foundations at the University of New Orleans.
Dawn Romano Ironside , M.Ed. is a practicing school counselor and doctoral research associate at the University of New Orleans. Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to louis.paradise@uno.edu .

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