First graders are preparing college wish lists. Fourth graders are taking campus tours. Recent news stories about college and career readiness programs in middle and even elementary schools have intensified the debate about how soon might be too soon to plan for life after high school. Parents ask all the time: When should my child start planning for college?

In some ways, the answer depends on where you sit. Only 9 percent of students from low-income families earn a bachelor’s degree – an increase of just 3 percentage points since 1970. During the same time period, completion rates for affluent students skyrocketed, from 40 percent to 77 percent. Sadly, the college completion gap is widening.

The statistics are reflected in competing narratives on the ground in classrooms and communities. We know that early planning can shift parent perceptions about affordability, foster high expectations, and support student aspirations. Yet some educators and parents argue that children already experience too much anxiety, with tough academic demands and “overscheduling” after school and on weekends in order to squeeze in robotics, soccer, coding, piano, language, or even yoga. “Shouldn’t we just let kids be kids?” they ask.

Through my work with K-12 schools and counselors, there are a few cross-cutting themes that savvy school leaders are using to shift the college planning conversation from “when” to “how” – improving outcomes without creating undue stress for kids and parents.

Start with strengths

Great college planning starts with helping students to explore their interests and think about what they do best. Starting with strengths encourages students to establish high expectations—and think critically about areas for improvement. The White House recently recognized schools in Howard County, Maryland, that have tapped Gallup research to implement a strengths-based approach to engaging and motivating students and staff. At one school, teachers, administrators –and even custodial staff –share their strengths with students to explain how their interests informed their choices and career path. Counselors at other schools are working to give extra support to help first-generation and homeless students prepare for college.

Build on aspirations

Students keep college and career options open if they make smart choices when they first have the chance to select language and math courses. Show them the big picture so that they understand how taking rigorous courses affects their path through high school. When students see challenging courses as opportunities rather than requirements, they become more engaged in school.

Connect the dots

Even young children can articulate career and professional aspirations. However, not all students see the path from middle school choices to career success. Cincinnati Public Schools’ My Tomorrow initiative has established dedicated time during the school day for seventh and eighth graders to explore jobs and college majors. Their counselors then help student begin to select courses, internships, and extracurriculars that connect to the career paths that interest them.

Go beyond test scores

School leaders can help parents and students understand that college access is about much more than test scores. Schools like High Tech High, in San Diego, emphasize non-cognitive skills like grit to help young learners solve problems, cope with stress, and learn how to improve areas of weakness. Although a significant portion of students come from low-income backgrounds or families who have never attended college, they are beating the odds—with 99 percent going on to college.

Look outside the classroom

Volunteer and community service requirements, summer camps, internships, and jobs motivate students and are powerful tools for career exploration. In Texas, the Ann Richard’s School for Young Women Leaders has a service program that helps students gain volunteer experience that colleges value, while developing important skills like teamwork and problem solving that will enable them to succeed once they get there.

While we still struggle to ensure that college remains affordable, accessible, and valuable for students, we are making progress on many fronts. Parents and schools are working together; middle schools are working more closely with high schools; and high schools are working more closely with colleges to smooth the transition to higher ed. Communities and businesses are getting involved as well, to make sure students are appropriately educated and trained for careers of the future.

When we shift the narrative away from a compliance-driven process—fulfilling school or state-mandated requirements or holding students to parent-driven ideals—toward a personalized conversation about aspirations and opportunity, students win.

In fact, even small children want to talk about their plans and their dreams. Because students are eager to explore their interests beginning at a very young age, it’s critical that all students have access to quality information that will help them later in life to make the best educational decisions. We recently launched Naviance for Elementary School to help educators foster a culture of self-exploration early on to increase college knowledge and career pathways for all students.

As students progress through elementary, middle, and high school, they are counting on grownups to help them connect the dots between learning and life. And we can’t let them down.

A version of this article first appeared on on July 30, 2015.

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