Career-Focused Courses: An Authentic Path to Social and Emotional Learning in the Middle Levels

It’s 10:42 a.m. on a Tuesday. A marketing director is meeting with their team to determine the target market for the company’s soon-to-be-launched product: solar-powered backpacks capable of charging mobile devices.

You can sense a productive tension among the group. They know getting this right is crucial to the overall success of their brand. But they also feel excited for the opportunity, each having recently been hired for their respective positions.

The clacking keyboard of an employee taking meeting minutes is faint as the data analyst speaks. “The percentage of middle school students who have mobile devices has skyrocketed,” she notes, and suggests crafting the promotional copy and images to appeal to this demographic. Her colleagues nod their heads and make sounds of agreement.

“What do you think?” the director asks, seeking the perspective of an assistant.

Cautiously, the assistant looks toward his manager, agreeing that the backpacks would appeal to this age group. He pauses, working up the effort to offer a counterpoint.

“But middle schoolers can be rough. If someone’s parents buy the backpack and it breaks, they won’t buy more. Should we target college students? They have bigger campuses to walk around, so they’ll be in the sun more. They’ll probably take better care of their stuff and be able to use their devices in classes more, too.”

A current of enthusiastic agreement ripples through the team, eyebrows raising in understanding. You can feel the department moving toward consensus as the social media manager offers a final point.

“That’s true,” she says. “My phone’s always at 100% by the end of the day. They don’t even let us have our phones out at lunch, let alone in class.”

If that last bit of dialogue seems out of place, it’s because this conversation isn’t happening at a well-funded start-up. It’s happening in an eighth-grade classroom.

Career Exploration and SEL

Students are leading conversations like this in career exploration and development classes in the middle grades. While this account is fictionalized, it mirrors the shape and breadth of conversations happening in every Virtual Enterprises’ Junior Ventures (VE-JV) classroom.

In career-focused courses, students develop skills they can apply to any work environment.  These skills increasingly reside in the social and emotional learning (SEL) sphere. A 2020 review of employer surveys conducted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) examined the skills employers seek. CASEL found that SEL skills are among the most in-demand, but also the hardest to find in employees. CASEL outlines five competencies that are the core of social and emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

What career development classes offer middle level students in general, and what VE-JV offers specifically, is authentic learning experiences in which these five competencies are essential elements of the curriculum rather than supplemental to it.

Competency 1: Self-awareness

Self-awareness refers to the capacity to make connections from values, ideas, and emotions to actions. A tangible example of self-awareness is one’s growth mindset.

Many middle-level students have prematurely decided which subjects they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in.  These pre-determinations inhibit students’ ability to access a growth mindset.  Students entering career-focused courses in the middle levels, however, likely have no preconceived notions about their abilities in that space. This presents a unique opportunity to shape new narratives about their potential for growth both in that course and all their classes.

Using Word or Docs to record minutes, the VE-JV student employee from the scenario above can tell immediately if a format they’ve attempted to apply doesn’t work and – without prompting from a teacher or classmate – quickly work to solve the issue.  The student employee authentically learns they have the capacity to grow and improve. In so doing, they are creating a self-confirming cycle of their abilities as a learner, a trait linked to short- and long-term academic success (Skinner et al., 1998).

Competency 2: Self-management

CASEL defines self-management as being able to manage “one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors” in order to “achieve goals and aspirations.” A particular indicator from CASEL notes that students should learn to demonstrate “personal and collective agency” as a component of self-management because the most impactful goals are rarely achieved alone.

Career-focused courses are hotbeds of engagement, and the connection between engagement and agency is well documented (Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990). Open-ended group work in middle level career courses engages and empowers students to develop personal and collective agency within the context of shared outcomes.

Each student employee in VE-JV has individual roles and responsibilities, from department heads to assistants. Coming together for a meeting, however, they are a single unit focused on one outcome – in this case, identifying a viable target market for their product. Each employee’s input is equally expected and valued.

What’s more, before the company or product is created, the VE-JV students determine the organizational chart and available positions. Each student is then required to apply and interview for desired positions. Personal and collective agency abounds when students have a meaningful say in their work as individuals and as a team.

Competency 3: Social Awareness

A crucial part of middle-level students’ development is shifting from seeing themselves as the focal point of their reality to finding their place in broader contexts.  Particularly for students in higher-poverty areas, those contexts are often dangerous, inviting them to roles that directly compete with their mental, physical, and academic well-being (Kowaleski-Jones, 2000).

Imagine, though, if students saw themselves as future entrepreneurs because they are already entrepreneurs.  How might the landscape of students’ lives change if they begin to develop a sense of shared belonging and mutually-realized outcomes in school rather than among the harmful influencers that often await them when they leave campus? How much more adept would they be at “recognizing situational demands and opportunities,” an indicator of CASEL’s Social Awareness competency?

The approval and belonging middle-level students seek can be found in their work in career development courses.  With authentic opportunities to lead – such as when the head of a VE-JV department guides a meeting of their classmate-colleagues with a shared goal – middle-level students need not look beyond their school for deep social belonging or to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Competency 4: Relationship Skills

High-stakes tests can dampen daily infusion of several of this competency’s indicators: practicing teamwork, showing leadership in groups, communicating effectively, and collaborative problem-solving. Tests are individual acts; thus, even in the most collaborative of core classes, a significant portion of time must be devoted to working alone in the interest of preparing students for success on exams.

Because careers don’t consist of employees taking a series of tests, neither do career-focused courses. The structure of typical career development coursework is aligned to tasks employees find in real workplaces, and the most successful workplaces are those in which employees are working as part of a team even when working alone. Relationship skills aren’t add-ons to career classes’ work: they’re the core of it.

Marketing, like all departments in a VE-JV class, is consistently working on solving problems collaboratively because that is what departments in the real world of business do. As with the assistant at the beginning, though departments have clear titular heads based on the student-crafted organizational chart, the shape and form of the work require all students to communicate effectively while providing multiple, daily opportunities to show leadership in groups.

Competency 5: Responsible Decision-Making

No matter the industry students eventually choose after high school or postsecondary education, opportunities abound to “promote community well-being” and “identify solutions for…social problems,” two indicators identified for this final SEL competency.

The biggest opportunity career development courses offer – aside from technical and workforce readiness skills – is helping future employees and entrepreneurs consider how their work can genuinely impact their communities. When students believe their learning has meaning, they are likely to extend effort and have academic success (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2006).

The thinking and conversation detailed in the opening is just one example of thousands occurring each year. Routinely, VE-JV students are identifying solutions that enhance the well-being of their communities and crafting product and service solutions that are both ethical and profitable. They are learning to make responsible decisions for themselves and their communities, shifting from being passive consumers of their environment to being active agents of change.

The Path Forward

Career development courses provide authentic contexts for SEL without the need for curriculum supplements or interventions that distract from content. However, middle level students can only benefit from these courses if they have leaders who prioritize offering them and have the will to ensure that those offerings are accessible to all students.

When given the opportunity to access programs like VE-JV, what will students learn about the potential of their futures? What will they learn about how they can serve their communities and change the world? How will their social and emotional well-being be impacted when students see that they – and their work – matter?

For more information on how VE-JV can transform your students’ futures, view our VE-JV webpage or complete a Get Involved Form.

Richard is the National Middle School Program Associate for Virtual Enterprises International. Richard previously taught high school Reading and AP English for fourteen years, focusing on accelerated learning and providing equitable access for students in one of the nation’s largest urban school districts. He then spent five years as an instructional coach for middle and high school teachers before joining VEI.


  1. I’m currently in an 8th grade science class in Kentucky. The school doesn’t allow students to have their phones throughout the day. The decision was made in response to defiant behavior and students consistently ignoring the rules. Since this, there’s been a shift in the learning in the classroom. All students have their own chrome book, eliminating the need for their phones to ‘look things up’ The students are in a critical part of their development and the overwhelming and controlling nature of social media runs their lives, so eliminating that in the classroom allows them the space to breath and be kids without the pressure of social media weighing over them. Additionally, since their communication is cut off, students are more likely to communicate in person to one another developing their social skills. The article refers to career centered class and teaching work place skills alongside of class content. The skills that stuck out to me are self awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. All of which are crucial skills not only for the classroom but also for any career. In my philosophy of education, a large portion contributes to helping students develop emotional/ social behaviors. I not only want to be an educator that leaves an impact on their content education but I also want to be mindful in the social/ emotional skills I teach. Call it modeling, explicit instruction, leading by example, etc. I call it being a mindful educator teaching mindful students.