Does Coaching Help College Students with ADHD?
by Patricia O. Quinn, MD
THE TRANSITION FROM HIGH SCHOOL TO COLLEGE AND FROM FAMILY TO
SEMI-INDEPENDENT LIVING can be difficult for students with
ADHD. Unless ADHD is understood and handled properly, the transition can
cause significant stress to both the student and his or her family.
College students with ADHD must understand the impact it has on
academic, social, and daily life. Without this knowledge, they cannot
perform successfully or be their own best advocate. Making appropriate
choices, prioritizing time, solving new challenges and then facing the
increased academic demands of college can be much more complicated for
them. ADHD may prevent them from performing up to their true potential,
staying enrolled, or even graduating.
When the journey toward graduation ends abruptly or is fraught with
unexpected difficulty, the emotional and economic costs to families and
students can be great. Young adults who expected to excel suffer a huge
blow to their egos when they fail because they were not prepared
academically, socially, or emotionally for the expectations at
Self-determination and success
For several decades, special education experts have been
grappling with what causes some individuals with disabilities to have
more successful adult lives than others. This important question has led
to an understanding of the importance of self-determination skills.
Self-determination refers to “a combination of skills, knowledge,
and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed,
self-regulated, autonomous behavior.”
A self-determined individual:
knows who he or she is;
knows his or her strengths and
can set his or her own goals, and make
plans to achieve these goals;
can ask for help when needed;
can find necessary resources; and,
can handle conflicts with others.
Most importantly, a self-determined individual can use his or her own
thoughts to problem-solve, make decisions, and regulate his or her own
Success in college and in life requires that young people have the
ability to observe themselves, notice when problems are in the early
stages or even before they happen, and use their executive functioning
skills to manage their emotions, think through their goals and plans for
achieving these goals, and problem-solve to overcome any obstacles that
stand in the way.
While a number of definitions are used in the special education field,
experts would agree that a person who is self-determined has the
attitudes and skills needed to set his or her own course for a more
meaningful and fulfilling life. While self-determined individuals have
meaningful relationships and know when to turn to others for advice or
support, they value and accept themselves. They are confident and
Studying coaching as a tool for success in college
A new helping profession known as personal or life coaching has emerged
over the past several decades. Borrowing from the field of sports
coaching, coaching was first applied in the business world as a way to
help professionals become more productive and live more balanced lives.
The business world discovered that worker productivity increased when
employees were coached versus managed or supervised using traditional
methods. It was discovered that, just as sports coaches partner with
talented athletes to help them develop their skills and achieve success,
life coaches can partner with people to assist them in living the life
of their dreams.
Many ADHD experts see coaching as a valuable tool, especially for teens
who have deficits in executive functioning skills, or those
all-important thinking skills needed for effective day-to-day
functioning. Although very few studies have been conducted using the
coaching model, the few that have suggest that coaching does help teens
improve in many life-management skills.
To address this lack of studies, the Edge Foundation, a national
nonprofit organization that provides personal coaching for children and
young adults with ADHD, recently completed a $1 million research study
to determine the extent of the effectiveness of coaching on the academic
and social performance of college students with ADHD.
Led by a faculty team from the Center for Self-Determination and
Transition in the College of Education at Wayne State University in
Detroit, Michigan, the twenty-seven-month study is considered the first
large-scale study to document the effectiveness of coaching for college
students with ADHD.
“A primary challenge associated with the use of coaching as a
support for students with ADHD is the need for scientific evidence that
the approach is effective,” said Sharon Field, EdD, the
project’s research director. “There is substantial anecdotal
evidence indicating that coaching is perceived by students, parents, and
educators as a valuable service that helps students succeed in a variety
of settings. However, the value of personal coaching has never been
subjected to a rigorous scientific study of its effects on student
One hundred twenty-seven students from eight universities and two
community colleges from a variety of geographic regions across the
United States participated in the study. Students were randomly assigned
to either the treatment group or the comparison group.
Edge Foundation coaches worked with the treatment-group students in
seven major areas: scheduling, goal setting, confidence building,
organizing, focusing, prioritizing, and persisting at tasks. The coaches
helped the students to assess their environments, identify needs, and
set goals, and offered suggestions and guidance. They monitored student
progress and goals through regular phone or email check-ins. The
protocol called for regular daily check-ins to provide more structure
Results of the Edge study
Self-determination. The study showed that students who
received Edge coaching services demonstrated significant improvement in
their ability to organize, direct, and manage cognitive activities,
emotional responses, and overt behaviors. They were able to formulate
goals more realistically and consistently work toward achieving them,
manage their time more effectively, and stick with tasks even when they
found them challenging.
Improvement, measured by the difference in gain on total scores on the
Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI) between the coaching
group and the comparison group, was statistically significant. The
coaching group had a mean gain of 182.67 points pre to post assessment,
whereas the comparison group’s mean gain was only 64.05 points.
The LASSI is comprised of three cluster scores: self-regulation, skill,
and will. There were significant differences between the coaching group
and the comparison group, in favor of the treatment group, on all three
Executive functioning skills. The LASSI also measures
executive functioning skills as they are applied in academic
environments. The coached students with ADHD demonstrated statistically
significant, higher executive functioning than students with ADHD who
did not receive coaching. “The magnitude of the effect size for
self-regulation was more than double the typical educational
intervention, and executive functioning was quadruple,” wrote the
study authors. “Findings with effect sizes that large are
Overall well-being. Interviews with students at the end
of the study corroborated the findings from the LASSI. Students
indicated that Edge coaching services helped them establish more
effective goals and pursue those goals in more efficient, less stressful
ways. They attributed this outcome to the coaches’ proficiency in
helping them reflect on themselves and their goals more often, in more
realistic and positive ways, and to regulate their feelings and
behaviors more effectively while pursuing those goals.
Results from this study also demonstrated that participation in coaching
enhanced the students’ sense of well-being and resulted in more
positive emotional states. Students said that coaching helped them feel
less stress, greater empowerment, increased confidence, and have more
balanced lives. Their overall mean score on the College Well-being
Survey was statistically significantly higher than the comparison
students’ mean well-being score, when corrected for initial
differences in executive functioning.
Approach to learning and academic standing. While the
study demonstrated that students who received coaching showed
substantial gains in their overall approach to learning, there were no
statistically significant differences between the coached students and
the comparison students in GPA, the number of credits earned per
semester, or eligibility to continue in college. However, the Edge
coaching model as currently implemented was not designed to impact GPA
when delivered on a short-term basis. It is possible that differences in
GPA may be observed in a longitudinal study, or if the model was
implemented for a longer duration.
The Edge coaching model made an important difference in the way students
approach the learning process, however. It helped them to be more
organized and efficient, resulting in increased feelings of control and
confidence. Given the difficulty that students with ADHD typically
experience in self-regulation and executive functioning, these findings
are of high importance to those concerned with factors that contribute
to success for students with ADHD.
Overall, the Edge Foundation study offers hope for students with ADHD.
The results directly linked coaching to improved self-determination and
executive functioning, and improved executive functioning often
translates to greater success in school.
Impediments to Success in College
Poor organization of time and space
Reading problems resulting from difficulty
Notetaking may be impossible, as two
processing skills are needed
Writing skills which require sustained
attention and organization
Verbal skills—inappropriate word
choices or word retrieval problems
affect class presentation or conversation skills; may be further
compromised by anxiety or attention problems
High level of frustration/poor self-esteem
Inappropriate social skills
Confusion about goals and the future
Lack of perseverance/need for immediate
FOR MORE INFO
Sharon Field, EdD, David Parker, PhD, Shlomo Sawilowsky, PhD,
and Laura Rolands, MA.
Quantifying the Effectiveness of Coaching for College Students with
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. College of Education, Wayne
State University, Detroit MI. August 31, 2010.
The findings of this study were presented at CHADD’s annual
conference in Atlanta in November 2010, and are slated to be published
in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability in May
2011. Visit edgefoundation.org for links to the study.
Patricia O. Quinn, MD, is the director of the National Center for
Girls and Women with ADHD and the author of Ready for Take-Off:
Preparing Your Teen with ADHD or LD for College. She is a founding
board member of the Edge Foundation.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Children and Adults
with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights