In July 2023, our team published “People-powered pathways: Lessons in how to build students’ social capital through career-connected learning.” In the report, we describe successes and challenges in bringing social capital–building strategies to a variety of educational settings. Our observations draw from an 18-month pilot during which we leveraged our social capital playbook to provide direct support to a group of three intermediary organizations—Education Strategy Group, Generation Schools Network, and Hawai‘i P-20—collectively supporting 20 sites in the K–12 career pathways space. In the course of the pilot, we sought to understand how schools and nonprofits can make social capital-building an explicit, effective, and equitable component of existing career-connected learning models.
Recent research on the drivers of social mobility suggests that social capital, or access to and ability to mobilize networks, strongly predicts whether students will move up the income distribution ladder. But because students inherit unequal networks, schools and other youth-serving organizations (YSOs) play a critical role in providing those connections and building students’ skills to cultivate them.
Our pilot revealed that playing both roles—communication skill builder and relationship broker—is easier said than done.
When it came to putting these ideas into practice, teachers and staff had a chicken-and-egg problem. Giving students access to working professionals is one way to build communication skills, but students need those skills before they can effectively communicate with professionals about their career interests. Without a certain level of foundational know-how, students often leave career conversations with adults feeling overwhelmed and unconfident in themselves.
When asked about this issue, 83% of site staff who had been implementing social capital-building for three months or more felt that their students weren’t confident in their ability to communicate with adults about their career interests and that this was a significant or moderate barrier to the work. As one program facilitator noted, “I’ve been in workspaces where adults expect young people to know how to interact as though they are adults. They’re not developmentally ready for that.”
Low-stakes for high yield
In light of this concern, helping students build communication skills via low-stakes activities like role playing, class dialogue, and other exercises may increase program facilitators’ and students’ comfort with social capital–building initiatives.
At the same time, pairing that with efforts to rightsize employer expectations is key. One nonprofit staff member shared, “We have to educate some of our seasoned professionals with excellent intentions to sort of adjust their expectations on how to develop a young person and what a young person can actually do in the workplace.”
Example in action
When thinking about how to prime students for interactions with employers, Generation Schools Network—a nonprofit involved in community and career-connected learning—sought to reduce the intimidation factor that often makes it difficult for young people to have conversations with adults. Pairing this aim with the goal of offering engaging student activities, they provided teachers with a series of communication lessons that were designed to be fun and relatable to students’ experiences.
While the topics they covered (e.g., verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening, finding commonalities, public speaking) were not new for students, it was the way they were taught that resonated with youth.
Teachers were encouraged to bring creativity and imagination to the lessons and to use real-world examples to make content more relevant. One activity asked students to role-play scenarios, such as how they would convince an Instagram influencer to mention them in a post or how to persuade a parent’s friend they met at a jazz concert to lend them five dollars. Other activities encouraged students to engage in conversations with their teacher and peers to uncover similarities with respect to topics such as education, hobbies, current events, and places they’ve been.
The lessons also created space for teachers to facilitate dialogue with students about how nerve-wracking it can be to talk with someone they don’t know. In one activity, students were given 20 seconds to point to objects in the room and call them the wrong name (e.g., point at a chair and call it a rock or point at a desk and call it a cloud). The goal of this activity was to launch a dialogue about the need to be kind to oneself—acknowledging that people often put pressure on themselves to “perform,” but when they talk freely without pre-planning or over-rehearsing, they often appear more genuine and authentic.
In addition to thinking about “what” and “how” communication skills were taught, teachers made intentional choices around the “who.” A number of teachers scaffolded communication practice by having students talk and practice with multiple groups of their peers before branching out to students in other grades, other adults in the school, or external professionals.
Even within the classroom, teachers were strategic when it came to grouping students. One teacher described how he paired students with different peers and watched as they learned how to change their tone of voice and be “a little more caring and compassionate” with peers who weren’t their friends.
Practicing these communication skills with both peers and trusted adults prepared students with the knowledge, composure, and confidence to communicate with professionals.