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Students are more than grades and scores. Discover three ideas to help K-12 students think about themselves and answer the question: What Defines You?

The few first months of a new year are opportunities to do some soul searching. We often think about the question of what defines us. The same may be said about our students. Students may be trying to understand the purpose of their education. Perhaps they are questioning their future and what they hope to become. It is a time to ask: “what defines me?” and to reflect on values, beliefs and goals.

The process of defining oneself is not finite, but dynamic. It is an opportunity to continually explore all interests so there is a better understanding of likes, dislikes, aptitudes, and other characteristics that are important to an individual. Identifying what one believes in, a future vision, and character traits that are important lead to stronger connections to goals and aspirations. It may be helpful to approach this like a storytelling process.

How can we help students tell their unique stories, thereby achieving greater self-definition while enabling others to know them beyond grades and test scores? Look at the different tools students encounter throughout the year. How can this information give an idea about who the student is? For example, students participate in a career inventory in high school. The results are often discussed, maybe researched, but then set aside. Why not have the student go back to their results and select electives that can support their interest in that career option? Have in-depth activities and conversations on the characteristics that the student identified that attracted them to that specific career. Just by building a relationship with our students, we can help them forge meaningful connections between seemingly disparate facets of their lives that may actually be very deeply related.

Certainly, maintaining good grades, graduating, establishing a post-secondary plan are important, but these achievements should not alone define a student. There is a missing link: understanding who the student is, as a learner and as an individual. As each of our students transitions in life, we, as educators, are proud to know their unique stories.

Here are some ideas on ways to help students think about themselves and tell their stories:

Ask questions

“As a counselor, I reframe questions that I have been asked in job interviews and adapt them for conversations with my students. For example, I want to learn about their summer interests, something that made them happy that specific day or week, what they value and much more. What do they like to watch, on any media outlet, and why do they like it? I strive to connect these questions to how they learn and their expressed career interests. In these conversations, I always close with the question: did anything I say make sense to you or spark your curiosity? In essence, I enjoy learning and connecting ideas.” – Deborah Hardy, EdD, Senior Advisor

Foster curiosity

“As an educator, I continually look for ways to connect the curriculum to the broader community. Whether it be a deeper dive into a career pathway course or developing an early post-secondary advising model. I encourage students to find opportunities that have embedded self-exploration. Find a course that has workplace learning as a requirement or a service-learning component.  Any activity that connects the classroom to the real-world, helps classroom content come to life and become enjoyable.  One of my most memorable moments as a counselor was when one of my students was torn between taking AP Spanish or trying something new. I encouraged her to take a course that was different from anything she had taken before. Six months later, I had the most beautiful art pieces laying on my desk with a thank you note for telling her to try a new experience. She said it was the best advice she had received. Never forget to make school enjoyable and foster the curiosity of new interests.” – Matt Liberatore, LCPC, Senior Advisor

Encourage listening

“As a high school teacher, I felt an important part of my work with adolescents was to help them overcome a common fear of failure by learning to push beyond their comfort zone and take some risks while the stakes are still relatively low. Each day I challenged them to see that they don’t need to have all the answers, either about the subject matter in class or about their life’s trajectory. The best way for students to fully internalize this in my class was by realizing that, even as their teacher, I didn’t have all the answers for them, but I would work with them to find answers or guide them to helpful resources. This not only helped students relax and open up more about classroom subject matter, but it also helped them open up about their plans beyond school. I enthusiastically encouraged them to listen to the stories of adults around them, whether other teachers, their relatives or friends’ relatives, and professionals they might engage during career days, after-school employment or through numerous other channels. What a sigh of relief — and reinforcement to listen to their hearts and “just go boldly” — for students to realize that 99% of these adults couldn’t have predicted their ultimate trajectory while in high school and probably dove into many pursuits before finding their current path!” – Patricia Gagnon, Senior VP, Programs & Practice

Deborah Hardy

Dr. Deborah Hardy is a senior advisor to Intellispark. She has 25 years of experience as a school counselor and is a former director of K12 school counseling services in New York. Currently Dr. Hardy works as a consultant and provides training for school counselors in developing the support for all students by embracing the whole child approach and personalized learning. Dr. Hardy works on topics such as implementing a comprehensive school counseling program, curriculum writing and technology for school counselors, multi-tiered of support processes, and other topics. Dr. Hardy is an adjunct professor at NYU, LIU and Western Connecticut State University. Dr. Deborah Hardy is also founder of GuidED Consulting.