A Research Paper By Rob Street, Education Coach, HONG KONG
The Idea of Child Coaching
As an experienced secondary school teacher, I have learned that the biggest blocks to a student’s academic progress are almost always in one of two areas. The first is:
- underdeveloped soft, or executive skills, also known as study habits, i.e. working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. (Understood.org, 2021).
The second area includes:
- misconceptions of the student’s ability
- learned helplessness
- other limiting beliefs.
Before becoming a coach I worked largely in the first area, strengthening executive skills. This was effective for some students, but many others did not respond well. As a coach, I now know that these students were not ready for skills training, and instead required a more fundamental, i.e. coaching approach. The purpose of this paper is to develop this idea, and understand how this kind of approach might work.
In the community at large, the idea of child coaching (and coaching in general) is not well understood. A quick search reveals many people offering ‘coaching’ services which are firmly in area 1, training executive or academic skills. This is not what I consider authentic coaching, and will not be discussed here.
There are also many authentic coaching examples, for example, one agency (Greator, 2021) explains that its philosophy and approach is that “every child already possesses the necessary resources to overcome challenges and achieve his or her goals,” and a 2019 Canadian study (Karmail et al, 2021) is looking into the efficacy of using coaching to help youths combat obesity. These are just two examples. A clear description of the range of coaching styles is given by Devine et al (2013), who discuss coaching by both teachers and student peers.
But How Does Child Coaching Help?
I was working with a 13-year-old girl, M, who experienced learned helplessness in mathematics. She rarely did any real practice, and always tried to do the absolute minimum she thought would avoid trouble. When I asked her about it, M explained that she knew she was going to fail and it was all too difficult, so what was the point in trying. I decided to try a coaching approach. I asked M several questions, including
- What makes you think you are certain to fail?
- What is the difference between yourself and another student?
- If anything were possible what would you like?
- What small steps could you do to start toward that?
- What have you learned?
This was throughout several, longer, sit-down conversations (coaching sessions), and there were many more questions than just these. The process allowed M to challenge her own limiting belief that she didn’t even know she had. At the start, M believed she was destined to fail. After coaching, she no longer believed that, and had shifted a long way towards a growth mindset.
Another example is K, a 15-year-old boy, who was often in trouble at school and home because of poor organization. It was common for him to forget equipment, homework, and other tasks. When I asked him about this he was extremely defensive, and hid behind statements like, ‘I always forget things’, and ‘whatever I try doesn’t work.’ Again, I decided to coach him. Key questions were the same as above, with the first question changed to:
What Makes You Certain That You Will Always Forget Things in the Future?
The purpose of the coaching was to allow the student to access his limiting belief, wrestle with it, and ideally come out of that with a new approach. In this case, it was successful, and K decided that organizing himself was difficult, not impossible. He went on to think about ways he could improve. It’s worth noting again that this is a shift towards a growth mindset.
The questions above are all drawn from standard coaching models, and as such are good examples of successful child coaching. Other examples can be found online, such as how Josie’s parents helped her understand why she fell out with potential friends on camp. The parent did this through a coaching method, which allowed Josie to understand the problem on her terms, and come to a solution the same way. (Healtyplace.com, 2021)
What Is So Special About This Method of Working With Children?
It is common for students to face the kinds of challenges described above, and equally common for them to never find solutions, and soldier on carrying the weight of repeated failure. Coaching can offer them a way out that advice cannot, as it allows negotiation with the issue on the child’s terms, just like when adults work with coaches. Standard teaching or advice may fail as it does not genuinely access the limiting belief the child has. Even though an adult may say ‘you can do it, it won’t make a difference if the child deeply believes the opposite. Only by the child accessing that belief can the change begin. The difference it can make to a student is wonderful – just imagine a student heading into school knowing he will get in trouble for forgetting things, opposed to a student heading into school knowing he has made progress with this issue. The effects can be far-reaching.
How Does It Work?
Before this analysis, note that the exact questions will change for any given child, according to age, and the nuance of the situation. However, the gist will remain the same and is laid out below.
- Work with the child to reveal core beliefs and how they relate to the child personally
- Challenge the beliefs – ‘what makes you think that’
Coaching is most effective with a student who is struggling with some long-term challenge. Exposing the thinking behind the challenge allows the child to begin negotiating with it. This section is likely to include follow-up questions digging into the detail. The child won’t be allowed to hide behind pithy statements like ‘it just is, or ‘it never works.’ Instead, the coach will push to investigate this further: ‘What makes you say it just is?’.
- Ask about the desired situation
Once the child has looked into the challenge deeply, it’s time to allow open thinking. This can be powerful as the desired situation may have been closed off until now – if K is always badly organized, he may never have thought about what it might be like if things were different. Looking into what could open the door to growth.
- Compare to others
This is meant to be done positively. The child might be asked about a friend who doesn’t suffer from this challenge. What does that friend do differently to you? How does that friend think and plan differently than you? The coach doesn’t have to do the work here – it is the child who must work.
- Return to the core beliefs and analyze
Tying the result of the questioning in (4.) back to the original problem allows the student to step further along the growth path. Finally, the child is asked to look into action planning:
- What could you do differently?
- What would that achieve?
The process can’t be rushed as the student will tend to fall back into the status quo that he came in with. The coach can work with the child to discuss how to avoid this trap.
Challenges to This Approach
It appears that for this to be effective, a significant amount of time needs to be spent with the child. Time is, of course, always at a premium. Teachers, in particular, have this tension – they are well placed to conduct this kind of coaching, but often lack the time to execute it effectively. That said, if time can be found, it is (in my experience) very worthwhile. Duggan, Duggan, and Duggan (2021) take a slightly different view, that smaller chunks of coaching can also be extremely valuable. I would agree, though my experience is that bigger challenges respond well to more focused coaching, whereas smaller challenges can bend with shorter, even 1-minute sessions. Other options include delivery by parents or dedicated coaches. The first case is ideal but few parents have the skill set required. Outside coaches, therefore, fill the gap.
- It is not a quick fix
Coaching can be extremely effective in the medium and long term. However, children (like adults) are likely to fall back into bad habits. Proper attention to this idea as part of the coaching can mitigate the problem but to be most effective it should probably be spaced out over several months.
- This kind of coaching is inefficient, as it generally only provides high benefits for one child.
Some researchers, for example, Devine et al (2013) note that if a teaching community, rather than individuals, can be trained in coaching techniques, the effect can be multiplied. The idea here is that many individuals are able and ready to provide coaching. This means there are simply more coaching resources available, so more to go around.
- When using outside coaches there is likely to be a cost
True. Unless it is taking place in school, the financial investment means this kind of program is going to be available only to the wealthy. It may be said that this is not fair, and I return to the note in (3.) above, whereby school communities may be trained as a whole in coaching techniques as a more equitable possibility.
Child Coaching Can Be Effective
Almost all the researchers agree that coaching children can be effective. This is because the approach allows a child to access his or her limiting belief, which in turn opens the door to possible change where none may have existed before. Furthermore, the coaching approach is likely to spill over to any similar challenges the child faces in the future – having overcome one already, there is more chance of doing so again.
Devine, Mary & Meyers, Raymond & Houssemand, Claude. How can Coaching Make a Positive Impact Within Educational Settings?. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences
Duggan, L., Duggan, L., and Duggan, L. Impact of Coaching in Education | Focus Education
Greator. Becoming a children's coach: Training, requirements, and tasks
Healthyplace.com Parenting Skills and Benefits of Coaching Your Child | HealthyPlace
Karmali, S., Ng, V., Battram, D., Burke, S., Morrow, D., Pearson, E., Tucker, P., Mantler, T., Cramp, A., Petrella, R. and Irwin, J. Coaching and/or education intervention for parents with overweight/obesity and their children: study protocol of a single-center randomized controlled trial.
Understood.org Executive Functioning: What Is Executive Function? | Understood - For learning and thinking differences