Late Adolescence and the Life-span Construct

Our students are clearly at a crucial time in the building of their “life-span construct,” a part of our personality wherein we have a unified sense of past, present, and future – in other words, a sense of who we are over time.

Building this life-span construct involves creating “scenarios,” or expectations about the future, projections in which we imagine the possible outcomes of present events and activities. As we achieve (or fail to achieve) some of the goals we set in our scenarios, we begin to construct our autobiography or “life story,” organizing past events into a narrative. We fit new experiences into existing identity constructions (assimilation) and change our scenarios, life story, and self-concept to adapt to new experiences (accommodation).

Between the end of high school and the completion of university, a person’s self-concept will often be based largely on scenarios. Our students, for example, need to choose a course of CEGEP study, accommodate themselves to new information about that field as they pursue it (“Is this really what I want to do?”), either complete their studies here at CEGEP or choose a university program, and then continue to assimilate and accommodate new information and experiences.

Besides career choices, people at this stage of life also have to make decisions about their social and family lives (“Will I live at home or move out of the house?” “Will I stay with my high school boyfriend or play the field?” “Will I continue to invest my energy in my childhood friends or connect more with the people I meet in my program?”)

Some queer teenagers may find that CEGEP is the first place where they feel they have the option to come out or at least explore their sexual identity.

Also, students’ childhood and adolescent fantasies of being movie stars or NHL goalies may have only recently given way to more realistic objectives, and their life stories are showing the first traces of solidity – the choices they are making now really do have concrete repercussions for the way the rest of their lives will turn out. I see this in my office at least a couple of times per semester, when a student announces that he is changing programs, that she is dropping out of school or has decided not to drop out of school, that he is considering studying either English literature or medicine at university and can’t come to a decision, and so on. These are serious dilemmas, and I feel for these students and understand the pressure they are under.

CEGEP students are at a critical moment in forming their life-span construct. The scenarios they are building for themselves are influenced by every piece of information they receive at this time, however small. This includes information about my subject matter that I transmit to them, but also includes information about themselves that they receive from me – their grades, the expression on my face and the tone in my voice when I speak to them, the standards I expect them to live up to and the consequences I mete out when they do or don’t. On the one hand, this knowledge is terrifying – what if I make a wrong move and a student’s life story takes a nasty twist? On the other, it’s exciting to think that we can have an impact, and to know that if we are conscientious and caring, more often than not the impact will be positive.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)

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