Bringing Theories to Life in the Classroom: Super’s Life Span Life Space Theory

By Lisa Cardello, Barbara Parker-Bell, and Hongshan Shao

Defining Super’s Life Span, Life Space Theory

Super conceptualized a career as "the life course of a person encountering a series of developmental tasks and attempting to handle them in such a way as to become the kind of person he or she wants to become" (Super, 1990, pp. 225-226). This forms a differential-development-social-phenomenological career theory (Super, 1969). The key constructs of Super’s work include:

  • Life span: Career development is a lifelong process, encompassing developmental tasks in stages such as growth (childhood), exploration (adolescence), establishment (early adulthood), maintenance (middle adulthood), and disengagement (late adulthood) (Super, 1990).
  • Life space: Individuals vary in the extent to which they value work, reflected through their engagement in various life roles in the home, school, workplace, and community. "The simultaneous combination of life roles constitutes the lifestyle; their sequential combination structures the life space and constitutes the life cycle" (Super 1990, p. 288).
  • Life roles: Super identified nine major roles across a lifetime: (1) son or daughter, (2) student, (3) leisurite (a term coined by Super), (4) citizen, (5) worker, (6) spouse or partner, (7) homemaker, (8) parent, and (9) pensioner. These life roles are enacted in four theaters: home, school, workplace, and community.
  • Self-concept: Referring to how individuals perceive their roles and situations over time (Sharf, 2016).

The assumption underlying Super’s theory is that career choice is a developmental process spanning one’s entire life rather than a single decision (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2017).  Furthermore, Super’s theory emphasizes contextual factors influencing life-role salience, contributing to its application to a diverse population. Super’s Career Rainbow provides a visual representation of these career development life stages and roles. Counselor educators teaching Super’s life span-life space theory may engage students by incorporating the following interactive activities.

Interview and Accordion Book Creation Process

Parker-Bell and Osborn (2023) have engaged students in interviewing a friend or family member and creating an accordion book that creatively describes a person's career journey over several decades of their life span. The structure of an accordion book includes book pages that unfold like “accordion bellows'' between the covers. Importantly, an accordion book can be created with simple materials such as cardboard, cardstock, paper, and collage materials (magazine image cut outs, glue, drawing tools for embellishment) and step-by-step directions for creating one can be found on numerous websites or YouTube, including McMurdie’s (n.d.) offering from the Brightly website.

In this learning context, the book is designed to physically represent and resemble the unfolding of a career life story and emphasizes the interconnectedness of experiences throughout a lifespan. Each page of the book, which represents a career life chapter or developmental phase, is attached to the next. When the linked pages are expanded, all pages can be seen simultaneously by the viewer, inviting holistic review and reflection. Figure 1 shows one student’s completed accordion book based on the student’s career/life story interview with her mother.

Prior to creating the accordion book, students review Super's concepts and discuss them in the classroom setting. Subsequently, students are asked to select a person to interview, optimally a friend or family member with several decades of life/work experiences. Frequently, students select parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents to interview. On occasions when students may not have access to such a person, they are encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and projected life roles at different life stages.

For the interview which informs the book making process, students are instructed to ask the interviewee about significant roles, achievements, motivations, and meaning that they experienced over three to five decades. For example, students ask the interviewee what work/life experiences were like for them in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. After gathering this information, students represent the findings using collage or created symbols and text, utilizing one book page for each described work/life decade. 

When reflecting upon her final creation seen in Figure 1, one student wrote:

I designed this accordion book with consideration to my mother's careers throughout her life. Because my mother's career path was nonlinear and full of variation, I chose to use collage in order to facilitate a process of mental organization and meaning making. Further, the narrative style of the accordion book making process supported connection-building. I was able to find commonalities in her work overtime - while her job titles were distinct from one another, in multiple fields across multiple states, she carried the same values from workplace to workplace. The reverse was true as well, as she developed personal values from her work experiences, which she carried into her future endeavors.

Figure 1

Student Accordion Book Example: “Reflections of a Mother’s Work Stories”

Figure 1 Student Accordion Book Example Super

Note: Student sample and accompanying quote is included with student permission.


Students are asked to create an autobiography that traces the development of their career and life roles. They begin by drafting a timeline or narrative that highlights significant milestones, educational experiences, job transitions, and personal events. In their autobiography, students address how they have balanced various roles, as well as reflect on how their life roles have evolved over time and may continue to change. The instructor encourages students to identify the roles that hold particular significance and explore how these roles have evolved and impacted their careers.

In the classroom, collaborative learning is fostered by students sharing their autobiographies, focusing on sections related to major life transitions and career changes. Within dyads or small groups, students discuss specific instances of adversity or change highlighted in their autobiographies and identify coping strategies for adapting to future changes in career.

Life Roles and Work-Life Balance

Super’s Career Rainbow and life roles may be used to examine work-life balance (MindTools, n.d.). This activity involves creating three pie charts: one depicting the current work-life balance, another illustrating the ideal balance at present, and a third representing the desired balance in five years. The sections of each pie chart represent each of the student’s life roles and the time allotted to each. Students are asked to identify barriers, set goals, and develop strategies to achieve their ideal work-life balance, emphasizing the importance of aligning personal values with time allocation in various life roles. Printable resources can be found on the MindTools website.

Expanding Application and Learning

These theory-based educational experiences prompt students to examine their own life or the life of another through Super’s lens and affirm the importance of developmental and contextual considerations in career/life planning. Based on their own experiences, students will be afforded the opportunity to appreciate career complexity and may develop empathy for clients’ presented lifespan influenced career concerns and aims.



McMurdie, D. (n.d.). How to make an accordion book. Brightly. https://www.readbrightly.com/diy-accordion-book/

MindTools. (n.d.) The life career rainbow. https://www.mindtools.com/anzcujb/the-life-career-rainbow

Niles, S. G., & Harris-Bowlsbey, J. E. (2016). Career development interventions in the 21st century (5th ed). Pearson.

Parker-Bell, B., & Osborn, D. (2023). Art therapy and career counseling: Creative strategies for career development across the lifespan. Routledge.

Sharf, R. (2016). Applying career development theory to counseling (6th ed.). Brooks Cole.

Super, D. E. (1969). Vocational development theory: Persons, positions, processes. The Counseling Psychologist, 1, 2–9.

Super, D. E. (1980). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior,16, 282–298.

Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (2nd ed., pp. 197–261). Jossey-Bass.





Lisa Cardello 2024Lisa Cardello, EdS, is a doctoral student in the CACREP-accredited Ph.D. in Counseling and Supervision Program at Kean University. She also serves as the Executive Director of Career Preparation and Experiential Learning at Rowan College at Burlington County and an adjunct professor at Rider University and The College of New Jersey where she teaches graduate-level  counseling courses. Lisa is a National Certified Counselor, Board Certified Coach, Licensed  Associate Counselor (NJ), and Past President of the New Jersey Career Development Association. Lisa may be contacted at LisaMCardello@gmail.com.


Barbara Parker BellDr. Barbara Parker-Bell, PsyD, ATR-BC, is a Registered and Board-Certified Art Therapist, Professor, and Director of Art Therapy Programs at Florida State University where she teaches a career development course for art therapists and counselors in training. She has recently co-authored the book, Art Therapy and Career Counseling: Creative Strategies for Career Development Across the Lifespan, published by Routledge with Dr. Debra Osborn, also from Florida State University.  Dr. Parker-Bell is currently collaborating with Dr. Osborn on the development and research of the Design Your Career guide which combines Cognitive Information Processing Theory and art therapy approaches in an accessible creative guide for exploring career decision-making processes for adolescents. Barbara may be contacted at bparkerbell@fsu.edu


Hongshan ShaoDr. Hongshan Shao is an assistant professor of counseling at California State University, Northridge. She is a National Certified Counselor and Certified Career Counselor. Her research interests include career counseling and development with international students/Asian populations; cross-cultural training, counseling, and supervision; multicultural and social justice advocacy. Hongshan can be reached at hongshan.shao@csun.edu.

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