How Can Coaching Help Support Executive Function Skills Development for University Students?

Because of the malleable nature of the brain’s neural pathways, techniques to overcome executive function challenges can be learnt; one of the most effective and proven methods in strengthening executive function skills is coaching conducted by a well-trained practitioner. Our coaching model was developed by educational psychologists in the US and is based on three assumptions:
– Most people have an array of executive skills strengths and weaknesses.
– Identifying weaknesses can help to devise strategies to overcome those weaknesses.
– By repeated practising a new skill, with the support of a skilled professional, anyone can develop and hone that skill so that it becomes second nature.

An Overview of the Coaching Process

The transition to, and successful engagement with, university life requires an array of strong executive function skills many of which are new requirements for a young person and therefore take time and energy to develop.  Some students are able to master these skills with ease whilst others struggle to make the transition, this can lead to poor academic performance, and mental health challenges such as anxiety and may occasionally lead to students resitting a year or dropping out of their course altogether.  Support from a coach to help scaffold the development of these skills at this important time can help students to better meet the demands of their academic and social life, equipping them with essential life skills they can use beyond their time at University.

The executive function coaching programme begins by collecting information from the adults who support the student and the student 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 student is on board because we require the student 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 appraisal 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 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 appraisal session; 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 function skills strengths and weaknesses, interests and motivations, 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 increase lecture attendance within the next half of term or to improve their revision strategies before their prelim 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 shared with the parents, and we encourage students to discuss the findings and recommendations.

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.

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 depend on the bespoke plan and agreed-on 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 on 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 ongoing. 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 counterintuitive, 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.

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 the intensity of coaching will vary according to 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 upon with the parents beforehand.

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