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Is Coaching for kids?

It seems so obvious now. Most things do in hindsight.

At no point had I thought about coaching children or teenagers even though I’d become an expert at working with them in my 20+ years of teaching. And then I bumped into an ex-student and her mum at a local cafe.

Is that you Mr. Hill?

I cringed as I heard the formality of ‘Mr. Hill’ on the weekend.

Fortunately, it was Kate*. I liked her. Five years older and about five foot taller. She was now a young woman aged 15. Suddenly, I felt very old and a lot smaller.

As part of the brief conversation, she asked me what I was doing now. I explained that I was a coach and helped people think better to take actions that will lead to achieving their goals and potential. Kate’s mum watched on, smiling and listening. After we said goodbye, I remembered Kate’s frequent tears during maths lessons - her fear of making mistakes crippled her. From memory, I think her parents separated the year I taught her. Kate was a good kid and did well despite the tears in maths lessons.

Two days later I received an email from Kate and her mum asking if I’d consider coaching Kate in maths.

What did I know about GCSE maths? Nothing.

I replied telling them as much but that I’d be happy to coach Kate in her thinking rather than subject specific maths. We agreed to have a one off session and see what happened. What I learned surprised me but it shouldn’t have really.

Kate and I had a great relationship in the classroom all those years ago so we talked about the happy memories of that year. She reminded me that I often used a water pistol in class to ‘control’ the students. I denied this and said she had no evidence to support that statement.

I explained to Kate how I work in coaching and that our working relationship is central to everything that we achieve together and that it is totally confidential, non-judgemental and based on trust, equality and mutual respect. I asked her about what else she’d like our relationship to be like as we worked together. She said she wanted challenge and kindness.

I was blown away by Kate’s readiness for coaching and was genuinely excited to see where this process took us.

Kate’s thinking about maths was identical to how it had been when she was 10 years old. She feared it like a lot of children and adults. Our first session didn’t work on maths problems at all.

Our focus was clearly only on her thinking and its associated feelings. I asked Kate what she thinks and feels when she’s doing maths? She explained how she thinks she’s going to get it wrong and that she quite often feels stressed about that.

Coaching is often about changing our thinking so it takes us to a destination we want to arrive at.

So what if you make mistakes? I asked

But isn’t maths about getting it right and success? she replied.

What if you knew that making mistakes is a part of learning and that this was totally normal and a part of your success? I asked.

You mean, ummm, I can just know it’s okay to make a mistake and give myself permission to stop trying for perfection? she asked.

Yes, I said.

How had I failed her so badly five years earlier for her to leave my class at the end of the year feeling bad about making mistakes?

I remember Kate had made progress when I’d taught her but now it didn’t seem that she’d moved forward in her thinking and feeling about herself in relation to making mistakes. As it turned out, Kate was a solid average student in maths, then and now, and she learned well but her internal dialogue and thinking was inhibiting her moving forward in how she felt about herself.

When I asked Kate to tell me about the internal dialogue in her head during maths, she was entirely honest.

My head says you’re probably going to get it wrong, you always make mistakes so what’s new… And then I remember this test I did the day mum and dad actually separated... and how I failed it so badly... I cried and cried and cried because I’d failed the test, she said.

Tears came to Kate’s eyes.

This moment wasn’t just a moment, but possibly the moment.

Kate, do you think that maybe you think like this about maths because of your thinking about your parents' separation? I asked.

And this was when the real work began.

Now I can see the whole story playing out even though I wasn’t there. Kate had got ‘stuck’ because of an unconscious historical thought process. We all do this at different points in our lives.

Unhelpful, old thought processes shape our present if left unexplored and unedited.

It was such a pivotal moment for Kate in growing through that pain and for me in my thinking as a coach and teacher.

The ‘emotional brain’ is the brain that creates our reality.

In only four sessions, through listening attentively, playing back thinking, challenging ideas and reframing old thought processes, Kate’s confidence and emotional resilience grew dramatically. It was never about maths at all. It was about her thinking about herself and what had happened with her internal ‘emotional thinking’ linked to an event totally outside of her control that she’d made ‘her mistake’.

I’m very grateful for the honour and privilege of working with Kate and that she taught me a valuable lesson again:

We’ve got to feel it to heal it.

So is Coaching for Kids? Absolutely. And when I grow up, I want to be just like Kate. (*name changed for obvious reasons)

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