In Partnership With

American Student Assistance
Career Exploration in the Middle Grades

Career Exploration in the Middle Grades: Playbooks for Educators and Students

Middle grades educators have the exciting opportunity to interact with students at a pivotal time in their development. The middle grades are “the finding place” that invites young adolescents to be adventurous explorers. Career exploration is a cornerstone of this process and is associated with both positive educational and employment outcomes, keeps students engaged in school, and helps them develop a better sense of self.

That’s why ASA and AMLE have teamed up to create two playbooks that equip educators and young adolescents with roadmaps for effective career exploration. In the educator guide, you will find helpful resources like implementation guides, case studies, and program sustainability resource to help you map your journey from beginning initiatives to school-wide practice. In the student playbook, you’ll find a variety of activities and materials for use directly with kids to help them learn about themselves and think about their futures.

Templates and Resources


Teacher Action Guide

Are you a teacher ready to kickstart career exploration at your school? This guide provides a helpful checklist and guiding questions/tips to aid in your planning process.

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Counselor Action Guide

Are you a counselor ready to kickstart career exploration at your school? This guide provides a helpful checklist and guiding questions/tips to aid in your planning process.

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District Leader

School and District Leader Action Guide

Are you a school or district leader ready to kickstart career exploration at your school? This guide provides a helpful checklist and guiding questions/tips to aid in your planning process.

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Sustainability Action Guide

All members of the team should plan with an eye toward sustainability. This guide provides a helpful checklist and guiding questions/tips to keep you on the right track.

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Year at a Glance

Programming Year at a Glance

Mapping programming across the school year can help you visualize your program and support accountability. Completing this calendar template will help you keep tabs on your program goals and keep program objectives top of mind.

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3 Year Program Goals

3 Year Program Goals

Programs are only as effective as they are sustainable. Using this worksheet to create three-year goals will help you prioritize outcomes and determine appropriate strategies and activities for programming.

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Programming Outcomes

Programming Outcomes Worksheet

Measuring and evaluating your program is key to sustained success. This worksheet offers a helpful step-by-step guide to establishing an actionable measurement approach.

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Observations Form

Observations Form

You will want to draw from a variety of data sources to measure what is working well and what might need more attention. This observation form can help you collect data from a variety of perspectives to help inform program effectiveness.

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Budget Template

Budget Expenses Form

Depending on the type of program you create, funding needs can vary significantly. This helpful budgeting form will help you visualize the total funds you will need to successfully execute your program.

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Funding Icon

Funding for Programs

Funding can be an important factor in helping to sustain or expand current programming to create new ones. This guide provides tips for standing out in a grant application and a list of possible sources of funding.

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Grant Proposals

Components of a Grant Proposal

Many schools combine public funding with additional grant funds to support programming. This document was created to aid educators across roles in writing successful proposals.

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PD Planning

Professional Development Planning

Professional development is crucial to program sustainability. This template will help you design professional development activities to support program implementation.

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Case Studies

Every Day Should be Career Day

Every Day Should be Career Day

The bell sounded, signaling the start of another class period. I hear the girls behind me talking, purchasing an Air Heads candy from a classmate who secretly sold them. My favorite was the white Air Heads, and I was a loyal customer; savoring its sweet flavor was my only saving grace during math class. The

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Navigating a Critical New Frontier in K-12 Career Readiness: Middle School Work-based Learning

Navigating a Critical New Frontier in K-12 Career Readiness: Middle School Work-based Learning

When you think of “work-based learning” — that is, hands-on career education experiences like internships, apprenticeships, and job shadowing — what age group comes to mind? Odds are, you’re thinking about college or perhaps even high school. But as research conducted by American Student Assistance shows, middle school is the prime time to begin engaging

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Team Passion Project - The Importance of Offering Student Choice in the Middle Grades

Team Passion Project – The Importance of Offering Student Choice in the Middle Grades

Save the bees. That was the aim of Team Passion Project, the winners of the second annual Solve Together Challenge, a national competition designed to encourage career exploration and skill-building for middle school students. The team, comprised of seventh grader from Franklin Avenue Middle School, could either select from a list of real-world problems or

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ASA’s Middle School Exploration Program

Free digital ten-lesson curriculum in which students can discover their skills and interests, learn about career clusters, and explore different educational options. Students will leave this program with a better understanding of how to approach decisions regarding their future plans, their skill development, and their career preferences.

Exploring Self

Unit 1 (Lessons 1-4): Through a range of individual and group-based activities, students will explore their own skills, interests, values, and learning styles in relation to others’. By the end of the unit, each student will be able to confidently summarize their own strengths, passions, and attributes.

Understanding Options: Career Exploration

Unit 2 (Lessons 5-7): Now that students understand themselves, they will begin to envision their futures and learn about careers that align with their goals. Games, sorting activities, and presentations fuel the exploration process, helping students gain a clearer picture of the man professional possibilities available to them.

Informing Future Decisions: Education Pathways

Unit 3 (Lessons 8-10): Does every career require a college degree? Students will look at all the post-secondary options available –including college—and discover how to prepare for next steps after high school. Every student will leave understanding their strengths, programs that fit their goals, and growth areas to pursue.

Research in Support of Career Exploration in the Middle Grades

ACTE & Career Cruising, 2018.  Career Exploration in Middle School: Setting Students on the Path to Success.

An evidence-based overview of why career exploration is important in the middle grades as well as some of the strategies that can be used with this age group.  Includes enumerated recommendations for practitioners.

ACTE & Xello, 2020.  Starting Early: Career Development in the Early Grades.

A brief report outlining the value and benefits associated with career exploration & career development in the elementary and middle grades.  Includes case studies and recommendations for getting started.

Grant, Springer, Tuttle, & Reno, 2021.  Small-Group Counseling Intervention to Support Career Exploration of Rural Middle School Students.

A paper proposing a small-group counseling-based intervention to assist students from rural areas in their career exploration and identity development.

Ginevra & Nota, 2017.  ‘Journey in the World of Professions and Work’: A Career Intervention for Children.

An article describing a 10-unit course intended to boost students’ career adaptability.  Compared to non-participants, participating students (10-11 years old) demonstrated significantly more hope, optimism, curiosity, exploration, occupational knowledge, information, planning, and time perspective.

Godbey & Gordon, 2019. Career Exploration at the Middle School Level: Barriers and Opportunities.

An essay describing the importance of career exploration at the middle level, the opportunities for policy and practice, and the barriers to advisement and engagement.  Includes recommendations for school leaders and practitioners.

Mupinga & Caniglia, 2019. What Middle School Students Know About Careers and the Influences Surrounding Their Choices.

An article outlining ways to support middle school students’ career knowledge and their ability to make informed decisions about their future.  Includes resources for teachers in the middle grades.

Glessner, Rockinson-Szapkiw, & Lopez, 2017. “Yes, I Can”: Testing an Intervention to Increase Middle School Students’ College and Career Self-Efficacy.

An article examining the impact of a hybrid (virtual & in-person) intervention in Florida on students’ career and college self-efficacy.  Results suggest that participating students exhibited higher self-efficacy beliefs.

Grigal, Cooney, & Hart, 2019. Promoting College and Career Readiness With Middle School Youth With Disabilities: Lessons Learned From a Curriculum Development Project.

A study of a College & Career Readiness [CCR] program for middle schoolers, with and without disabilities.  Includes online resources arranged by topic as well as considerations for universal design, technology access, and the need for developmentally appropriate content.

Perna, 2019. Why Career Exploration Must Be a K-12 Priority and One Way to Make It Happen.

An opinion piece suggesting that career exploration must be holistically integrated into schooling throughout the curriculum and throughout the K-12 spectrum.  Includes a link to the author’s Career Tree framework.

Center for American Progress, 2020. Creating Strong Building Blocks for Every Student: How Middle Schools Can Lay the Foundation for Rigorous High School Pathways.

A long-form article outlining the challenges and inequities associated with access to CTE and high school pathways.  The authors discuss the added barriers introduced by COVID-19, the promise of Perkins V, and the opportunities for middle school programming.  Includes a nationwide policy landscape analysis and “5 Key Components” of successful middle school pathways.

Hanover Research, 2020. Best Practices in Middle School Career and Technical Education Expansion.

A report outlining best practices in implementing CTE in middle school.  Includes 3 case studies, a framework with target outcomes, equity considerations, and major challenges & barriers (esp. related to rural settings and technology access).

Advance CTE, 2019. Putting Afterschool to Work: Career Exploration in Out-of-School Settings.

An article outlining the promises of after-school career exploration programming.  Includes a case study and policy considerations.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

A webpage from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with resources for career exploration, games, Q&A, and resources for students and teachers in the K-12 arena.