I recently had a conversation with a friend who works in higher education. We talked about enrollment rates and programs that are designed to get students out of poverty cycles and into college degree programs. Enrollment slumps are ubiquitous.
My comment was simply that we are not reaching students before they check out – right about the fourth grade. That’s right. I think a lot of kids make life altering decisions about where they fit and what they will do at that time, and they don’t even realize it.
Why does the fourth grade feel so important? What is happening in the development of a child this age? Simply put: burgeoning logic and awareness of others.
Fourth graders are recognizing where they fit with the world around them. Piaget’s famous list of milestones for this age group is instructive here, where these students fall right in the middle of what he called the Concrete Operational Stage. 
Children in this stage are:
Comparing and contrasting objects and people and then classifying them together.
Understanding problems with more than one feature – emergence of logic and organization.
Knowing others do not necessarily see the world as they do. Thinking about others and imagining what it would be like to be them.
But they are still concrete thinkers – so not good with the hypothetical or abstract. (Here’s a great little video on Piaget’s stages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhcgYgx7aAA in case you’d like more information.)
So your average 4th graders are constantly recognizing differences and similarities in the people and things around them. They are starting to imagine what it would be like to experience life from someone else’s perspective. They are imaginative but not yet able to hold abstract thoughts. In other words, they are deciding who they are and where they fit and using every example and experience around them to make those decisions.
That means we need to be providing a broad range of first-hand experiences for them. They need to hear from adults who are working in diverse career fields. They need to see and touch what those things might be like for them. They need tons of encouragement and support for creativity, so they do not limit themselves and self-select out of some opportunities because they don’t see how they fit there.
And if you are in higher education, then you should be thinking about how to reach those kids and their guardians with the practical information that can allow them to dream and explore.
Here are a few free ideas:
Engage with PTOs – every elementary school has one. They would love to have a university sponsor something.
Visit Title One events – breakfasts or after school meetings are common.
Partner with after-school care groups.
Whatever you do, make it personal. Make it hands-on. Make it matter. And remember what is happening developmentally for these kids.
The impact from this kind of outreach could be felt within ten years. Not exactly immediate, but as far as social solutions are concerned, not the worst timeline either.
I dare someone to try it.