How can coaching help support executive function skills development?
Because of the malleable nature of the brain’s neural-pathways, techniques to overcome executive function challenges can be taught; one of the most effective and proven method being coaching conducted by a well trained practitioner. The coaching model we use was originally developed by educational psychologists in the US and is based on two assumptions:
- Most children and adolescents have an array of executive skills strengths and weaknesses.
- The primary purpose of identifying areas of weakness is to be able to design and implement interventions to address those weaknesses.
An Overview of the Coaching Process
What happens first?
The coaching for independent learning programme begins by collecting information from the adults who support the child and the child themselves (this will be carried out through a mixture of informal conversations and questionnaires).
Next comes getting the young person’s commitment to coaching: it is important that the child is on board because we require the child to lead the process with the support of the coach. If this commitment is not assured we might instead suggest a course of 6 metacognition building sessions complete with a bespoke report and plan in the place of our standard evaluation followed by intensive coaching. This gives the student a chance to learn about executive functions and brain plasticity, understand more fully their challenges and how they can impact upon their lives and the lives of those around them and also encourages them to develop a growth mindset around improving their executive function skills. Towards the end of the six sessions we will ascertain if they are ready to engage with coaching and if they are, we will then set goals and create a bespoke coaching plan for them based on an intensity they are happy with.
If the student is fully committed to the coaching process we will start with an evaluation session with your child; the session is about an hour and a half, but can be broken up over two sessions and can be conducted on Skype or face to face. The session involves the coach gathering background information from the young person about their executive skills strengths and weaknesses, their interests and motivations, their long term goals and medium term goals and then identifying the obstacles to achieving them. Together the coach and the young person devise a realistic plan with strategies to reach their goals using SMART objectives. For example, a young person’s goal could be to reduce disciplinary interventions (detentions) for failure to hand in homework within the next half term or to improve their revision strategies before their mock exams. The coach then produces a comprehensive report detailing the young person’s executive function skills strengths and weaknesses and a bespoke plan of how to tackle these challenges, starting with the most pressing. This plan is submitted to the parents to review.
The coach will also take into account any reports that have already been produced (for example an educational assessment by a Psychologist) and tailor the coaching according to the needs that have already been identified.
What does the coaching programme look like?
Working from the plan the intensive coaching sessions begin. The aim of these coaching sessions is to form good habits in terms of executive function skills; the exact content and format of the coaching depends on the bespoke plan and agreed objectives. The coaching sessions take place via online video chat and are usually between 15-20 minutes. The coach may also send reminders to the child via text. Once a week the coach and the young person have a longer session, which also involves going over a specific skill to support the young person to reach their goals. For example, a session could be based around writing an essay or revising for a test. Also, whilst our coaching programme is not therapeutic, sometimes we find that young people can develop unhelpful thought patterns about their executive function weaknesses; our coaches are trained to use tools to help children identify and tackle these unhelpful thought patterns. In between sessions the coach might need to liaise with teachers and parents or remind the young person about an upcoming task. The coach and the student regularly review progress against their SMART goals.
The intensive coaching phase usually takes about 4-6 weeks, during this time the child and coach work very closely often making contact more than twice a day. This intensive period of coaching is the most crucial part of the process; it ingrains core habits that will form the basis of all coaching work on-going. After this initial phase the sessions are then three times a week, and then twice weekly, normally for a further 6-12 weeks. Typically, the sessions will then decrease to once a week for 8 weeks and then once a month for 7 months to ensure that the young person is continuing to reach their potential. Research and experience tells us that despite maybe seeming counter intuitive, the less intensive support further along in the process is as important as the initial intensive habit forming support. This is because sustaining new habits and skills can be challenging.
How do you determine how intensive the programme should be?
Each young person has different needs and will progress at different speeds, and we will adjust the plan to suit their needs and commitment to the process. Levels of intensity of coaching will vary according the goals being worked on, what is happening in the student’s life (i.e. preparation for exams) and their schedule. Changes in intensity will be agreed with the parents beforehand.
Cameron 17 years old when we met him. His mother was desperate for help, she felt he was on a downward trajectory in terms of mood and could see that his chronic procrastination the root cause. During our evaluation process we learned that he struggled with planning and prioritising, task initiation, metacognition, organization and sustained attention. In addition, he experienced low mood and social anxiety and this was exacerbated by the high expectations held by his very academic school environment.
Cameron’s goals for coaching focused on working towards completing and submitting homework as well as developing a balanced routine, this included study time, establishing regular sleeping patterns, exercise and social activities. Practical strategies aimed at enhancing his executive skills included organization of schoolwork, time management and record keeping. We also integrated mindfulness as a strategy to help focus attention and emotional control. It was important to develop a supportive and trusting relationship with the student and meeting on a weekly basis was important. These meetings also provided an opportunity to observe how he struggled when completing his work, which enabled our coach to tailor the interventions to his needs. Our coach worked closely with the parents, which allowed a fuller insight into the impact of his difficulties as well as provided him with a supportive collaborative network.
Over the Autumn term the student successfully submitted homework on time, received positive school reports, his A Level predictions increased and he was more able to manage his own deadlines. He used social incentives, such as meeting up with friends on the weekends as a motivation to achieve his academic goals. Through this, he became more socially active, increased in hobbies and interests and his mood improved considerably.