Teaching Teens to Take the Initiative

by Jennifer Applebaum

carla01 (c)In Commonwealth Corporation’s 2013 study of over 200 employers, initiative rose to the top of employer identified problems. 49% of employers agreed with the statement that “Teens have less initiative” as compared to other statements like “Teens take longer to train” with which only 9% of employers agreed.  Many employers also raise the specific concern that younger workers are less likely to productively redirect themselves during downtime As such, increasing students’ abilities to demonstrate initiative is an important objective for career readiness programs, and we have developed some strategies to help students build the practice of demonstrating initiative.

If we are going to motivate students to take initiative, they need to have a reasonable belief of their ability to succeed as well as an understanding of the benefit of the action. Last year I was visiting one of our partner programs and the students were quick to explain that they knew employers valued initiative, but as one student put it- “You have to understand, I have had an IEP since grade school and every time I try something new it turns out to be wrong or not good enough. So, when I go to work, I am going to do what I am told and that’s it.”  The others in the room nodded in agreement and shared stories of effort gone awry. Regardless of academic performance, most of the students were uncomfortable and unsure about how to demonstrate initiative in the workplace.  Our reluctant students are a clear example of reactions to understanding the benefit, but believing that success is unlikely.

One effective strategy for addressing this tension between importance and uncertainty is to provide opportunities for students to practice and develop confidence while also demystifying the work context. Here are a couple of ways to implement this strategy:

  • Acknowledge downtime within your own classroom and help students think productively about how to be proactive in undefined moments. This can include the practice of having students turn over an index card whenever they finish an assignment. The underside of the card should include prompting questions to get students to think about how best to use the free moment. As your group advances in this practice, students can begin to generate their own questions and prompts.
  • Use in-class projects as an opportunity for students to take on project management roles. Define the goal of the project, but have students brainstorm and define the steps and components of successful outcomes.
  • Encourage positive risk taking during class times. This can look different from lesson to lesson, but may include encouraging students to: provide direct instruction, generate project ideas or take the lead on facilitating small to larger group discussions
  • Peel back the curtain to the world of work. Expose students to case studies, articles and video examples of various jobs and careers. Once they are familiar with the general tasks of the position, have them think through how initiative might operate in that setting. Even for students with relatively little to no work experience, they can begin to draw points of comparison.

Ultimately, initiative can be one of the hardest skills to help students make progress on, but it is also one of the areas that has the most possibility for transformation and reward. Learning how to be on time and act professionally helps students get and keep jobs, but understanding how to effectively demonstrate initiative can often open the door to advancement and opportunity.

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