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  • Writer's picturedocschleg

Where Internships Fall Short

Part-time jobs and internships are one of the most effective ways to prepare a teenager or young adult for the adult work world. In my experience, the shift from being a full-time student to a full-time worker is usually harder than the average young person can manage, so easing them into adulthood and the work world through a job at a car wash or internship in an office makes a lot of sense.

Internships and job coaching for teens and young adults seem to be more routine these days, especially for individuals with disabilities. For the most part, these job placements are useful in the process of preparation for adulthood. Still, I have noticed situations where the internship or coaching is failing to bridge the gap effectively. From what I can tell, there are at least two common elements that internships and coaching leave out and thus fail to optimize the experience for the young person.


Scaffolding is a common practice in academic teaching these days. Teachers present progressively challenging tasks that build on the knowledge of the preceding task. This promotes engagement, meaning, and purpose in the learner. Scaffolding is linear and dynamic and is very effective for learning skills. Through scaffolding, the very first day of class is indelibly connected to the final day of instruction. Unfortunately, many internships with which I work offer the intern static jobs. Usually, the job can be learned before lunch and mastered by the end of the day. This immediately creates a sense of monotony for the intern, which itself must be mastered, but rarely is there scaffolding or training for managing the monotony.

One option is to train the intern to do lots of different jobs or achieve higher levels of ability on the original job. This is often not possible, considering the relatively simple nature of the work of most internships. However, more realistic and useful is to treat the management of monotony or routine as part of the job. Scaffold from specific job skill mastery to self-management skills. Can they listen to music while they shelve boxes? Can they ask for more work when they get done early? Can they converse with co-workers while they unload the truck? Internships and coaches should think about the time workers spend at work when they are not cognitively engaged in their work either because the work does not take cognitive engagement or the student-worker can quickly complete the work.


All of my clients' school teachers know my clients well. Some are explicit about it, but all of the teachers over the years have taken time to intentionally get to know my clients for the sake of building a relationship with them. In teaching, relationship building is essential, but not just because it is the right and moral thing to do. It is essential because it helps teachers do their job. Most teachers seem to really like working with children, but all of them (even the ones who don't seem to like kids) get to know their students because it helps them be good teachers. Teachers know things like the abilities, inabilities, and preferences of each child. More importantly, they build a rapport with the student so the child will volunteer information and answer questions about their experience (opinions, thoughts, feelings). Being able to access the inner experience of a student is essential for the sake of knowing what they understand from the instruction, how to modify or update the instruction, and numerous other things that help children achieve the purpose for which they go to school (and teachers teach): to learn.

When moving from a highly relational academic environment to a more impersonal work environment, teens or young adults often lack this relationship. In cases where the internship or part-time job was a failure, supervisors and coaches often struggle to understand what happened or even how they would do things differently. Most do not know how to effectively query the student-worker about their experience, even if they know how to modify the job. The result is they make changes to the job that often don't address the fundamental issues and results in frustration to the worker and supervisor alike. Supervisors can avoid much of this frustration through effective communication between the student-worker and supervisor, resulting in a useful relationship.

The solutions proposed to common problems in internships and job coaching situations are not simple. I would argue, however, that they are necessary. Good internships and coaches provide an environment where the worker is constantly building skills, and there is little to no "coasting" in their work. Also, effective supervisors and coaches know their workers well because they take time to get to know their workers' thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

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