Many adolescents frequently experience anxiety related to their academic performance. Achievement anxiety is characterised by excessive worry, nervousness, or stress related to the pursuit of goals or accomplishments.
For students, this could be reflected in the fear of not achieving a certain ATAR to get into the university course of their choice. There is also a competitive element amongst peers, which Michael feels ‘often weighs on young people a little bit more than it needs to’.
A resource Jill highlights is the Circle of Influence tool, which encourages people to focus their energy and attention on things they can control while letting go of things beyond their control.
‘I think with something like achievement anxiety specifically, a tool like the Circle of Control, Influence and Concern is a really good starting point so that kids begin to think about what they can control versus what they can't. They can reframe, “Oh, I have to get an A”, and kind of morph that into “I can do two hours of study, which will help me potentially get a better mark”. So really helping kids to be clear about the things that are within this circle of control really helps those anxious kids with that kind of stress.’
To Michael, this kind of anxiety is significant as a lot of school-based career development is centred around decisions. It involves selecting subjects, deciding on post-school destinations, and choosing career paths, all of which are immensely impactful choices with far-reaching consequences. Therefore, it is only natural that these decisions can trigger anxiety among young individuals if they lack confidence in their decision-making ability.
myfuture offers a wealth of resources designed to help students learn more about the different occupation pathways available, including Career bullseyes, My career profile and Career stories. Another useful myfuture resource Jill highlights is The Adventures of You, an animation series that explores the mental skills that underpin decision-making.
‘I think that [The Adventures of You] ties in really nicely into the work that a lot of schools are doing in increasing kids’ knowledge of how their brain works, and getting them to identify, “What's happening in my head and how do I make good decisions?”’
A helpful way to change students’ perspectives on career decision-making is to prioritise transferable skills over job titles. When students look at the kind of work they enjoy doing within a job, and can apply it to other jobs, they will get better at identifying their interests.
Michael shares, ‘In my experience as a career counsellor, it’s often been about trying to take the focus away from specific jobs and specific job titles, and talking more about those universal elements or transferable elements of wanting to help people, and in which way do you want to help people and which people do you want to help?’
Social pressure is the influence or coercion from one's peers or society to conform to certain behaviours, attitudes or expectations. For students reaching the end of their schooling careers, there are multiple social pressures they can face, such going to TAFE when everyone else is going to university, or pursuing a degree that is considered by some as less “useful”, such as Arts and Humanities.
Jill observes, ‘You've got worries about loss of a friendship group. You've got worries about what your friends think of you, what they think of your opinions. It’s a really timely reminder of how much is going on for students at this age, not only having to make career decisions, but having to face the end of something, the end of what's hopefully been a safe place for them and a good place for them for six years or longer.’
Michael believes that an effective way to help students overcome these social pressures is to encourage them to connect with people who are actively pursuing the courses they are interested in and start having conversations.
‘One of the things that I've found to be quite useful is connection with people. Introducing young people to someone studying that course, or taking a tour of the TAFE and seeing that the TAFE is a lot like the university in the sense that it's got social spaces, and that you will meet people and that there are services available.’
Parental pressure or parental expectations refers to the influence, expectations and demands that parents place on their children to meet certain standards, achieve specific goals or follow particular paths in life.
Michael shares, ‘We [as parents] are a source of some stress for our kids at times. And when it comes to career development, sometimes it is real pressure. So, kids often feel pressure to satisfy or to make their parents proud or to follow their pathway.’
To minimise this added stress on young people, it is crucial to provide a safe space for open conversation and maintain a neutral environment for the student. Jill believes ‘being able to feel trust, feel safe, [and] feel that unconditional love, is really central to flourishing.’ In a 2019 report by ARACY titled ‘Please just say you're proud of me’, students shared the messages of support they want to hear from their parents, carers or a support person as they navigate their final years of secondary school.
‘For parents, it's things like focusing on the positive, expressing pride in their achievements often, accepting who they are as a person, offering unconditional love, offering practical guidance and assistance in tackling stresses. And this doesn't always mean coming up with answers to problems, it means things like very active listening.’
General anxiety involves a sense of unease and apprehension that can affect a person's daily life and functioning. It could include excessive worry and anxiety about various aspects of life. Michael observes, ‘It's hard to pin down. It could be about everything all at once. It could be about nothing at all.’ The past three years in Australia have seen students experience an incredible lack of control over events, which can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and spiralling into nihilism.
A valuable set of resources on the Student Wellbeing Hub Jill highlights are the Interoception and Self-regulation activities, which were designed to help students feel more connected to their bodies, and to interpret and express their emotions helpfully. ‘What can I do with my body to help me calm down, feel what's happening to me, identify what's happening to me, notice it and do something about it?’ This resource has been researched and found to be effective for both autistic and non-autistic students, for use with the whole school or whole class, as well as with small groups or individuals.
Jill believes that we should help students understand that a little bit of anxiety is normal and is part of making career decisions and preparing for exams. It’s when students experience ‘big levels of anxiety’ that it becomes unhelpful. ‘You'll know that it can affect their sleep, their eating, their capacity to take information and relate to other people.’
Working with students to identify what is triggering their anxiety will enable them to be more prepared with strategies to manage their responses and potentially channel their energy in other ways.
Resources to support emotional challenges in career development
- Preparing today’s learners for uncertainty, myfuture Insights paper
- Managing career uncertainty and anxiety: the power of career conversations, myfuture Insights paper
- How emotions influence motivation and behaviour in career development learning, myfuture Insights paper
- The Adventures of You, myfuture
- Overcoming barriers to high-status careers, myfuture
- How your physical and mental health benefit your career, myfuture
- ‘Please just say you're proud of me’ report (educators), Student Wellbeing Hub
- Interoception and Self-regulation activities, Student Wellbeing Hub
- Circle of concern v Circle of control, Discovery in Action