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Evidence Based Coaching for Resilience in Teens and Emerging Adults

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the core of our work — evidence-based coaching for teens and emerging adults, and why it matters. I’ll begin by offering some highlights of who we are and the work we’ve had the pleasure of doing since 2013:

Youth Coaching Institute, LLC

We’re a community of social change agents who experienced our share of struggles as adolescents. We managed to overcome, learn to thrive, and establish lives we can be proud of. Now, we’re committed to reaching back and supporting the next generation of underserved young people who’ve yet to see the light on the other side of their struggle. We make a difference through evidence-based coaching grounded in behavioral science. 

Mission and Goals

Our mission is to mitigate risk for teens and emerging adults with a history of adverse childhood experiences by empowering them to leverage and build protective factors, both internal (personal growth and wellness) and external (constructive social and structural supports). We equip caring adults as effective social supports by increasing access to rigorous, research-based coach education and credentialing in service of this mission. 

Our Overview of Coaching

Coaching is a non-directive, person-centered, growth-oriented support service to help functional clients achieve meaningful goals. Coaching promotes self-concordance, pursuing goals aligned with personal values and interests. The coaching relationship serves as a structural support that offers three factors vital to promoting positive outcomes for youth: a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult, competency building, and time intensity. The coaching approach emphasizes autonomy, voice, and choice. Individuals come to coaching with an interest in self-improvement or measurable progress. Through coaching, they find insight and direction to identify practical means to reach their goals. The coach guides and supports the coachee’s planned, intentional, and purposeful action toward achievement from a place of openness, acceptance, and non-judgment. Coachees are ready, willing, and able to do the work inherent in the coaching process. They are committed to leveraging their internal and external resources to achieve the outcomes they seek.

Peer-Reviewed Coaching Definitions

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) and the Center for Credentialing & Education (CCE) are two of the agencies currently serving as “governing bodies” for the coaching industry. They set ethical codes, approve or accredit coach training programs like ours, and work to advance the coaching profession. The CCE (2010) defines coaching as, “a career in which professionals have specialized education, training, and experience to assess needs of clients, collaborate with clients on solutions, and offer strategies that assist individuals and organizations in reaching identified goals.” The ICF (2019) defines coaching as, “partnering with Clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Coaching researchers have offered various definitions of coaching over time. According to Grant (2003), “life coaching can be broadly defined as a collaborative solution-focused, result-oriented and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of life experience and goal attainment in the personal and/or professional life of normal, nonclinical coachees.” The Australian Psychological Society (2020) defines coaching psychology as “the systematic application of behavioral science to the enhancement of life experience, work performance and well-being for individuals, groups and organisations who do not have clinically significant mental health issues or abnormal levels of stress.”

Our focus is evidence-based coaching defined as, “the intelligent and conscientious use of best current knowledge integrated with practitioner expertise in making decisions about how to deliver coaching to individual coaching clients and in designing and teaching coach training programs” (Grant & Stober, 2006, p. 6). According to coaching specific researchers, evidence-based coaching interventions enhance goal setting, goal striving, goal attainment, self-awareness, self-regulation, mental health, resilience, well-being, and hope (Grant, 2003; Green et al., 2006; Leach et al., 2011). Grant (2016), the late coaching psychologist, offered a two-by-two framework for evidence-based coaching that combines professional wisdom and empirical evidence. According to this framework, professional wisdom derives from the coach’s personal experience and group consensus. Empirical evidence includes both coach-specific research, studies designed specifically to investigate coaching; and coaching-relevant research, studies or a knowledgebase that can be applied in a coaching context (e.g., psychology, any other behavioral science, education, or management). This article, and our coaching programs, are continuously developed through a combination of both.

Distinctions of the Coaching Approach

A key distinction of coaching as compared to other support services is where it falls on a directive versus non-directive continuum (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012). Directive interventions are those wherein the professional analyzes the individual, their situation, processes, and/or performance and provides expert advice or solutions for issues they are facing. The directive professional tells the individual what to do and how to do it. Examples are a teacher, who provides instruction, direction, and manages student learning; a mentor who identifies a mentee’s needs and offers advice from personal experience; a therapist or doctor who diagnoses and treats the patient’s ailment; or a manager who trains a new-hire by teaching skills, providing oversight, feedback, and direction around how to improve performance.

Coaching is a non-directive process. Non-directive interventions are those wherein the professional facilitates the individual’s process as they identify their own solutions and actions. The non-directive professional does not give advice or tell the individual what to do. They would use communication skills, like active listening, open-ended inquiry and reflection, in the dialogue to support the individual as they identify what they want to achieve, understand where they are currently in relation to that goal, identify resources and opportunities to address the space between, and identify relevant actions they may take for growth or progress. In a non-directive support service, the individual owns the process, actions, and outcomes.

Why Coaching Works So Well With Teens & Emerging Adults

Adolescence is the developmental stage between puberty to about the mid-20s. The term “emerging adults” is a relatively recent term used to distinguish adolescents in the latter half of this stage, between 18 and the mid-20s. Adolescence is the stage wherein we experience the greatest biopsychosocial changes in life. Some of those changes are puberty with related growth spurts and hormone surges, rapid development in the social brain, and more complex environmental demands while executive functions in the brain responsible for self-regulation are still under-developed. This mix contributes to more impulsive behavior and risk-taking that can mean greater vulnerability to negative outcomes with long-term effects while also enhancing their chances of creating the beautiful future for themselves that may only be found through willingness to explore and engage with novel people, places, and experiences. These changes also contribute to higher sensitivity to stress and higher vulnerability to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. They are at an age when they are wired to begin striving for more independence and pushing beyond their comfort zones, but still need the support of caring adults to navigate daily challenges and cope with stressors.

Adolescents’ rapidly developing social cognition leads to greater sensitivity to others’ judgments about them. They experience more self-consciousness as they’re developing their identity and trying to decide where they fit in. A non-judgmental approach is healthy for all humans but needed so much more in this developmentally vulnerable stage. The non-judgmental ear can make the difference between if they reach out for help when they’re struggling or get the support and guidance they really need as they navigate toward healthy independence. The non-directive approach is a way to respect their need to develop their own voice, choice, and self-confidence. Stay tuned for a youth life coaching case example below.

Coaching versus Therapy

One of the easiest ways I have heard a professional describe the difference between coaching and therapy was in conversation with a therapist friend of mine, Jason Hughes, LPC-S (2014). Paraphrasing the discussion, he explained to think of wellness on a continuum. Zero represents normal functioning (in the center of the continuum), negative numbers represent dysfunction (to the left of the continuum), and positive numbers represent thriving (to the right on the continuum). Therapy helps individuals address dysfunction to bring them back to normal functioning — back to zero. Coaching takes individuals from zero into positive numbers to thriving.

We help coachees take a proactive role in their lives, to set and pursue goals that align with who they are and how they want to show up in the world — to learn to thrive by intentionally working to enhance and sustain their well-being and life satisfaction as a lifestyle.

Another key difference is that coachees are ready, willing, and able to meet the demands and do the work inherent in the coaching process. They are ready to stretch outside of their comfort zone, contend with uncertainty, and fumble with the learning experience to make the progress they want to see. They are willing and able to show up for the coaching experience. They are willing and able to engage with that process to explore who they are, the goals they aim to pursue, their current situation, the space between where they are now and where they want to be; to brainstorm feasible actions for progress, plan a path forward, and follow-through with executing commitments. This requires the coachee to have the capacity to manage the stretch- and challenge-related stressors inherent in the process. Therapy patients are often struggling with states that interfere with their readiness, willingness, or ability to engage in the inherently challenging nature of the coaching experience. The therapist may support them as they address becoming ready, willing, and/or able to manage the coaching experience as a next level growth opportunity.

Coach as a Scaffold in Learning and Growth

Individuals seek coaching for support in their next level goals or next level development. Typically, because they’re struggling to get there on their own, or they don’t know how to get there on their own. An understanding of Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development is helpful here. The zone of proximal development is formally defined as, “the distance between the actual developmental level, as determined by independent problem solving, and the level of potential development — as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978 p. 86). It is the zone between what a learner can and cannot do — it is what a learner can do with help. Scaffolding is a temporary support to aid next level development in this zone. In the coaching relationship, the coach is a type of scaffold. The coach uses coaching skills to challenge clients to think further, broader, and deeper than they would without the coach present. In doing so, they support the coachee’s learning and growth in whatever area is important to them, meeting them where they are, and honoring their individual journey.

Teen Life Coaching Case Example

The following is a real-life case example of the coaching dialogue and process with a coaching client who completed a full 12-session coaching plan. This is an overview of session six of 12.

Client Profile: 16-year-old senior in high school

o Determined to succeed

o Cares about what other people think of him

o Puts on a happy face even when he’s struggling

o Outgoing and optimistic

o Procrastinates a lot, which he experiences as increasing his stress and anxiety

Session Goal: Developing better time management skills to reduce unnecessary stress.

Coaching Plan Overview and Session Context: By the time we came to this, we’d spent five sessions understanding who the client is, his current situation, and coaching around motivation issues. We’d worked through understanding his sense of self, personality, values, interests, goals, meaning, and purpose to tap into his intrinsic motivation for performing well in school. By this session, he felt like he had a good grasp on why he wasn’t motivated before and how to motivate himself now.

Session Process: We began the session exploring his time management issue.

Coach: What aspect of your life do you believe is most important to develop time management around?

Client: School assignments

Coach: How do you manage your time now?

Recapping his responses: He thinks about how much he has to get done. Thinks it’s a lot. Tells himself he’ll just do it later. Then he wastes the time away with other things like YouTube, games, or socializing. He eventually gets to the assignments at the last minute.

Coach: Tell me about the time period between the moment you decide to put the schoolwork off to the time you do it at the last minute. What’s going on during that time?

Client: I do whatever I decide to do and as the day goes by, the stuff I know I need to do keeps popping into my head. I start to feel more stressed as the time passes until I finally do it. Then, I’m really stressed until it’s done.

Coach: What do you think would be a more effective way to handle your school assignments?

Client: To get them done right away. Today, I have a calculus assignment I need to do. It’s the last of my homework for the weekend. I plan to do it right after this call, but I’m also thinking maybe I’ll just do it later and play a game first.

Coach: If you did it later, what time do you think you’d do it?

Client: Right before bed

Coach: What time do you go to bed?

Client: 10 pm

Coach: If you did your calculus first, right after this call, how do you think that would affect the rest of your day?

Client: I think I’d be more relaxed. I know I’m done with everything, so I can just enjoy the rest of the day.

Coach: If you did your calculus right after this call, how long would it take you?

Client: About 30 minutes

Coach: So, if you did your calculus right after this call, you’d be done in about 30 minutes. Then, you’d have 9 ½ hours of stress-free time in your day to relax and enjoy the end of your weekend.

Client: Yes

Coach: But, if you put it off until the last minute to play games now, you’ll have bought yourself 9 ½ hours of self-inflicted stress that increases throughout the day until you knock out that final assignment…. Like this..(Coach draws a visual depiction of what each option looks like showing the comparable levels of stress)

This is what option one looks like…(Draws a line depicting higher levels of stress for 30 minutes followed by low levels of stress and relaxation for the remainder)

This is what option two looks like…(Draws a line depicting higher levels of stress throughout with stress building up throughout the day)

This is a major “aha” moment for the client. He never realized he was contributing to his own unnecessary stress and worry. He was a senior in high school preparing to graduate at the time. He sat back in his chair and said:

Client: I can’t believe this. I’ve been doing this to myself since 7th grade!

He’d known he needed to prioritize his homework before entertainment. He knew that the whole time he wasn’t doing it but at this point he also understood why it was so important to his well-being. He understood why it directly related to all pf that stress and worry that he couldn’t figure out before. So, now he knew what he needed to do, and he knew what he was doing to himself if he didn’t do it but, we still needed to address that decision-making step — where potential obstacles would come in. The moment he’d come to a decision each day to do his homework first or put it off.

He had to prioritize. That was the doing part, but the decision would come before the doing. Prioritizing was identified as the skill gap to address around time management and he identified his “why” through the exploratory process. His “why” was to reduce self-inflicted stress and enjoy his time off. The next step was the cost/benefit analysis — a ridiculously simple exercise we can use to help clients with that decision-making process.

His cost/benefit analysis looked like this:

Coach: If you were to do your homework first, what would it cost you?


o 30 minutes of delayed gratification

o And immediate entertainment

(That’s all he could come up with.)

Coach: If you were to do your homework first what would you gain?


o I’d be sure to get all my homework done on time

o I’d improve my grades

o I’d reduce my stress

o I’d have a peaceful rest of the day

o That assignment wouldn’t interfere with the next goal

o Then assignments wouldn’t pile up

o I’d eliminate self-inflicted suffering in that area

The client found this activity very helpful, because he usually stopped in the decision-making process at the 30 minutes of delayed gratification as a perfectly good reason to put it off. He never went as far as considering all of these other things. Now, combining what he just learned about how he was creating his own stress, and what he saw in the cost/benefit analysis by thinking through the issue further and deeper, he had a good amount of information to inform his decisions around time management when he came to them. When he saw this list, he made the comment that seeing it laid out like this with all the much bigger and more important things on the benefit side, was pretty eye-opening. Because he could see how the decision to put off that 30 minutes of work had such a significant impact on his experiences of stress and outcomes.

From there, we moved into designing his action steps based on what he just worked through and what he wanted to achieve. He committed to prioritizing homework first for a week and doing it before entertainment. He’d also note how that process affected stress and worry each day. He identified his potential obstacle as wanting to do something entertaining first and the potential self-talk that would ensue — “I’ll do it later.” We also went over how he would address the obstacles if they came up. His idea was to recall the plan and purpose and use his strength of determination to succeed to just do it. We did all of that in one 45-minute session.


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