Bringing All Students Inside the Circle: DEI and Career Development in K-12 Schools

By Jennifer K. Strattman

School is among the first places where children learn career readiness skills and gain knowledge about self and others. The pandemic and recent school violence has underscored the need to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and school safety measures to provide resources and to protect the physical and emotional safety for all learners (Hall & Love, 2022; NASP 2021). With inequity, prejudice, discrimination, and school safety substantial concerns, it is probable that students of diverse backgrounds have limited access to optimal vocational counseling and opportunity. Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) work further provides disturbing implications surrounding self-concept, self-esteem, and career development.

Gottfredson’s Theory

Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) Self Creation, Circumscription and Compromise Theory asserts that the interplay between cognitive development, self-perceptions, and societal expectations result in young people eliminating initial career dreams for more socially acceptable or achievable goals. These decisions are often based upon societal representations of sex-type and prestige as well as their perceived intrapersonal attributes as they relate to potential careers. More specifically, Gottfredson asserts that children engage in circumscription (i.e., refuting previous career aims) and compromise (i.e., adjusting career goals according to what they believe is attainable) over four developmental stages: Orientation to Size and Power (ages 3-6), Orientation to Sex Roles (ages 6-8), Orientation to Social Validation (Ages 9-13), and Orientation to Internal, Unique Self (Ages 14 +). In the first three stages, Gottfredson argues that children often eliminate options—circumscription— and in the latter stage, they modify their options—compromise—based upon what they have already rejected. The concern then is the idea that children reject many opportunities before they possess the capacity to weigh their options.

Regarding DEI, implications are significant. If, early on, children build semantic categories for larger constructs, like “boy,” “girl,” “big,” and “small,” it is apparent that with maturity and with societal messages, learners become attuned to more subtle but damaging categorical representations—such as “rich,” “poor,” “able,” “disabled,” “us,” and “them.” By age nine, many understand “high” and “low” as related social status and therefore refute all options they view as outside of their “tolerable level boundary” as related to perceived socio-economic status, ability, achievement, and overall opportunity” (Gottfredson, 2022, p. 98). It is at school where children perceive the social status, ability, and academic achievement levels of themselves and those around them (Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981). For marginalized groups then, it is likely few options seem attainable.

Implications for DEI and Career Development in Schools

Gottfredson’s theory illuminates why disadvantaged and underprivileged students have a harder time reaching their vocational aspirations. To promote career development, schools have a role in advocating for DEI initiatives. They must consider how differences in race/ethnicity, sex, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, refuge/immigration status, disability, English proficiency, and religious affiliation—and potential intersectionality therein— impact student’s identity and career development (NASP, 2017). If the burgeoning self-concept is the working structure in Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981) model, individuals of marginalized groups are receiving negative and/or conflicting messages about themselves and the world around them.

In fact, recent research reveals that students of color, especially black and indigenous students, are frequently overrepresented in special education and are often victims of exclusionary discipline (NASP, 2021). The pandemic has also highlighted racial and socio-economic disparities where Black and Hispanic families were 1.3-1.4 times as likely as white families not to have access to digital resources and more than 2 in 5 low-income households had limited access (Simon, 2021). Taken together, these findings reveal that underrepresented and underprivileged students might be more likely to need more support and affirmation to facilitate identity and career development.

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Strategies for Integrating Career and DEI Practices in Schools

The following are suggested strategies for specific stakeholders in the K-12 school system.

School and Career Counselors: School and career counselors have an instrumental role in supporting all students. They need to grasp that through the circumscription and compromise processes, students have likely rejected multiple options. Learners must therefore have the opportunity to reconsider these options while balancing reality (e.g., local training programs, financial constraints, family commitments) with a new set of options that enhance their view of what they can do. Counselors can encourage students to gain real-world exposure to new experiences so students can ascertain their strengths and weaknesses and build upon what they know about themselves to compete in a preferred vocation.

Teachers and School Personnel: Teachers and school personnel can reflect upon the messages that school and culture send to students of varying backgrounds and identities. They have the chance to dispel myths about identity and to expand students’ repertoires at early ages about opportunities and how cultural mores and expectations can limit growth. Restorative circles—conducted in a developmentally appropriate manner—can allow for authentic and candid conversations about marginalization, privilege, and implicit bias (Abrokwa, 2022; Shaikh, 2021; Huang, Greer, & Downing, 2018). Overall, conversation and awareness are likely to mitigate and reverse the processes that have so negatively impacted career development.


Schools Can Help

Gottfredson’s (2002, 1996, 1981)’s Circumscription and Compromise Theory purports that students are likely to eliminate career opportunities before they can weigh their options. Despite disturbing findings about career acquisition and DEI, schools are in a unique position to reduce prejudice and discrimination while facilitating career development for all students by enhancing counseling supports, educating personnel about the harmful messages at work, and fostering open, honest dialogue.



Abrokwa, F. (2022). 6 Strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion at your school: Start with the premise that bias is normal. Education Week, 27.

Gottefredson, L. S. (2002). Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription, compromise, and self-creation. Career Choice and Career Development, 4th Edition. Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Sons.

Huang, G. A., Greer, A. Y., Downing, B. (2018). An examination of restorative interventions and racial equity in out-of-school suspensions. School Psychology Review, 47, 167-182.

Hall, C., & Love, R. (2022). School safety: Advocating for best practices in k12. Career Convergence. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/453539/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2017). Understanding intersectionality. https://www.nasponline.org/Documents/Resources%20and%20Publications/Resources/Diversity/Social%20Justice/2017-Intersectionality-Infographic-cmyk.pdf

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2021). Promoting just special education identification and school discipline practice. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-safety-and-crisis/systems-level-prevention/guidance-for-measuring-and-using-school-climate-data

Shaikh, S. (2021). Educators: When it comes to DEI, we can’t be silent. Ed Surge, 10. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-05-10-educators-when-it-comes-to-dei-we-can-t-be-silent

Simon, C. (2021). How COVID taught America about inequity in education. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/07/how-covid-taught-america-about-inequity-in-education/



Jennifer StrattmanJennifer K. Strattman, MS, CAGS, MFA, is a writer and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) residing in upstate New York. She can be reached at jenniferknappstrattman@gmail.com


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