Why developing brain pathways help students make better career pathway choices

Executive functions are conscious processes of the brain that directly affect students’ decisions, thoughts and actions. 

Why developing brain pathways help students make better career pathway choices


The brain goes through major physical and physiological changes throughout childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

From early childhood to early adulthood, a shift occurs from experiencing the world in a reactive and emotional way to becoming more thoughtful.

For teenagers their ability to self-regulate and stop-and-think is not fully developed.

This affects their ability to make long term decisions about their future or to take control of the steps along their career pathway. This is where executive function comes in.

Executive functions

Self-regulation and stop-and-think skills are called ‘executive functions. They include a range of cognitive processes such as:

  • planning
  • prioritising
  • verbal-reasoning
  • problem solving
  • sustaining and switching attention
  • multitasking
  • initiating and monitoring actions.

There are three core executive functions that are crucial for decision-making.

  • Impulse inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Cognitive flexibility


Impulse inhibition

An individual needs to be able to resist their instinctive responses to make effective decisions. Impulse inhibition is the skill we use to resist a strong inclination to do one thing in order to do what is most appropriate or needed.

Examples of impulse inhibition include putting aside delicious chocolate cake to eat fresh fruit if you are trying to control your diet. In social situations, the ability to inhibit impulses keeps us from saying socially inappropriate remarks.


How it helps career development

Even if a young person has appropriate levels of knowledge and motivation to follow a selected career pathway, without inhibitory control they are unlikely to be able to develop a plan, and even less likely to be able to stick with that plan.

Schools should develop students’ ability to effectively plan and think through their career pathways.


Working memory

Working memory is the ability to hold information and ideas and mentally work with that information over short periods of time.

Many of our conscious mental processes rely upon working memory. For example, if you try to multiply together 21 and 63 in your head, you would store these numbers in your working memory. Working memory is also the ability to hold information in mind despite distractions, such as remembering a phone number while you pause to listen to what someone has to say.

How it helps career development

Building working memory in children lays the foundations for future-thinking processes. Future planning and decision-making around career pathways can cause enormous demands on working memory.

Working memory is fleeting. The ability to hold information in mind makes it possible for us to:

  • remember our plans and others' instructions
  • consider alternatives
  • make mental calculations
  • multi-task
  • relate the present to the future or past.

Schools should design activities to improve students’ working memory to prepare them for the world of work.


Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives. It allows us to apply different rules to different settings. We might say one thing to a co-worker privately, but something quite different in the public context of a staff meeting.

Cognitive flexibility helps us to:

  • catch mistakes and fix them
  • revise ways of doing things in light of new information
  • consider something from a fresh perspective
  • to “think outside the box.”

How it helps career development

Cognitive flexibility helps us to consider alternative strategies or ways to correct errors while sticking to a long-term goal.

For example, the ability to resist earning money immediately post-school in a low-value job requires the cognitive flexibility to consider the alternatives and actively choose another career pathway.

To make effective decisions, it’s important to be able to adjust to new information or changed demands and priorities. In career development, this flexibility allows young people to think through how different the future might be from their current experiences and the potential implications of their decisions. Cognitive flexibility helps students keep options open.

Without that flexibility, young people tend to either continue to make choices that are not working or they withdraw completely.

Schools should help students develop the cognitive flexibility to consider whether their career goals remain desirable or achievable and, if so, how to achieve them.

Young people with high level executive functions can more effectively think about the future, determine where they want to get to, and plan how they are going to go about it.

How schools can help students develop executive functions 

For many young people, the world of work is unfamiliar territory. Exploring career pathways puts enormous demands upon executive functions. Schools cannot assume that students will be able to effectively interpret the information they receive and the experiences they have.

The extent to which young people have developed executive functions has been shown to profoundly affect their outcomes in terms of:

  • education
  • health
  • income
  • criminal behaviour.

Together, impulse inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility allow an individual to take control of their thoughts and actions.

Students with higher levels of cognitive flexibility can have the same experience multiple times but take something different away from it each time.

Students with lower levels of executive function will need repetition to reinforce their ability to effectively use the information given to them or to derive meaning from their learning experiences.

Your school should design career development interventions and resources that incorporate repetition to serve a wide range of students.