Published on July 28, 2023

This week we had our first cohort of staff certified as Cognitive Coaches through Thinking Collaborative. This has involved an intense 8 days of training over 18 months as the school partnered with Gavin Grift from Grift Education to build a culture of coaching at HVGS.

The Mission of Cognitive Coaching is to: “produce self-directed persons with the cognitive capacity for excellence both independently and as members of a community.” Its premise is that we all – adults and students alike – have the resources within us to resolve the problems we might encounter in our lives. However, when we get stuck, and can’t figure a way out of a problem, we often turn to others to provide solutions. The result is that when someone comes to us with a problem they can’t resolve, we often step into problem-solving mode and tell that person what they should do. If we don’t have the answers, we tell them where to go or who to see to get the answers. While this is well-intentioned, each time we seek to solve someone else’s problem, we take away an opportunity for them be self-directed.

By contrast, the role of the cognitive coach is to help the “coachee” (the student or adult) locate and amplify their own internal resources so they can resolve their own problems. Over time this helps the coachee become more resourceful and self-managing. Ultimately, a high functioning community has more self-directed, self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying individuals. Low-functioning organizations, on the other hand, are ones where problem resolution sits with a small number of people who run the risk of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and isolated. Schools with students and staff who are empowered to be more self-directed, self-managing and self-monitoring are ones with a collective sense of ownership, responsibility, resourcefulness and pride.

Parenting and education have at their heart this goal: we want our students/children to be increasingly self-reliant so they can be more and more autonomous and independent. Cognitive Coaching provides a structured methodology for working with children and adults on this goal. Cognitive Coaching works on the assumption that:

“The foundational element in effective work systems is self-correcting, self-managing, self-accountable, self-governing behaviour. Energy spent on monitoring and attempting to affect the behaviour of team members or other entities from the outside is energy wasted and energy that could be better expended on improving the business and the capability of people. The critical element is to increasingly create self-governing capability.” (Sanford, C. as cited in Cognitive Coaching Seminars Foundational Training Learning Guide. P. 16) 


More than likely most of us can relate to that notion of “energy wasted”. Time spent trying to regulate others’ behaviours is exhausting and it quickly becomes a vicious cycle. By contrast, when we believe that someone has the resources to solve their own problem themselves, and then help them locate those internal resources through a well-structured conversation, we gain

time and energy. It is also more pleasurable because we spend our time tuning into the other person rather than worrying about what they should be doing or not doing. Cognitive coaches employ the skill of active listening, set aside their own agendas, focus on seeking to understand and ask the right questions to help the person locate and amplify productive ways of thinking.

In Cognitive Coaching we work to help people access the States of Mind they need to reflect, plan and then resolve their own problems. The states of mind are Efficacy, Consciousness, Interdependence, Flexibility and Craftsmanship. When staff or students are stuck, it is because they are lower in one or more states of mind. For instance, if a student is feeling overwhelmed by assessments it might be that:

· The student is struggling to monitor their own thinking and understand what works best for them in terms of time management (Consciousness)

· The student has not broken the task down into manageable chunks or spent time on prioritizing and planning and so lacks the clarity and precision required to feel that success is a possibility (Craftsmanship)

· He/she might not be able to see how they could take charge of their time to feel more in control of their workload (Efficacy)

· He/she might be struggling to see different ways of approaching the assessment task/s or finding it hard to try out different strategies for planning and prioritizing. They are only willing to do it one way (their way) and won’t listen to suggestions from others. (Flexibility)

· He/she might not be seeking out and accessing help from teachers or peers to help things feel more manageable (Interdependence).

Often when a child is feeling overwhelmed by assessments or school more generally, as parents we seek to solve the problem for them. We jump in and provide planners; we sit with them and go through the task in detail; we hover over their shoulder and check whether they are doing what they said they would. I know as I often do this as a parent!

An alternative is to take a breath, pause, listen for the emotion the child is feeling, paraphrase that emotion and why they are feeling that way, then ask open-ended and non-judgmental questions which help them reflect on what might be leading to their stuckness and how they might see a way out. Here’s what this could look like for a student who is overwhelmed by an assessment task at home:

Child: I can’t do this!! Everybody else knows what to do but I am so stupid I can’t figure it out and I have no time, and don’t tell me just to write a list! Ahh!!! You just don’t understand.

Parent: It sounds like things are really tough right now and you are feeling anxious and worried because you want to do well but there just isn’t enough time to understand or do the task.

Child: Yeah and our teacher hasn’t spent enough time in class talking about it, or at least not when I was there. You know she gave out the task when I was sick last Monday? Everybody else in the class seems to know what they are doing and I don’t. I just feel so stupid asking questions that everyone else already knows the answers too. And the class is just moving so fast!! I don’t know what to do!

Parent: So what you want is for the teacher to understand how hard you are finding things at the moment and give you a bit of extra support. And you’re looking for how you can make that happen.

Child: Yeah I guess you’re right. But it feels so hard to ask for help, when everyone else knows what they are doing. I don’t want to be different or singled out.

Parent: Ok so you know you need help but you want to make sure your friends don’t know you are struggling.

Child: (nods in a teenage way…)

Parent: Ok so remember back to DT last year when you were away and fell behind? What might you have done then that worked that you could do now?

Child: Well, I tried waiting for a bit after class one day, but so did other kids and so I left the room. … But I did then send Sir an email that night and told him how hard I found the task. I may have even said I felt embarrassed about it. He then sent me back some resources and said I could go to the DT office at lunch the next day. And that actually really helped – Sir talked me through it and I got it. I even came home that night and did a plan for the task and a bit of work. I know I felt less stressed, and I even asked him a question about the task in class that week!

Parent: ok so if that worked for you then, do you think it might be something to try this time?

Child: Yep I’ll grab my computer now.

This is just a short snapshot of what that dialogue could look like, and sometimes it is this quick, and other times much longer (and more emotional). Regardless, all the parent is doing in the dialogue is helping the child feel a greater sense of efficacy. The parent is not doing any of the work for the child. The child finishes the conversation feeling more in control and aware of what might work. The child is now seeing this as a problem that can be resolved by themselves. The claim of “I can’t do this but everyone else can” (low efficacy) has changed to an “I’ve got this!” sub-text.

Missing from the dialogue above are the non-verbal cues – the signals from the parent that he/she is actively listening. Sometimes cognitive coaching works best when we are doing something with our children (walking, driving); provided we are still signaling to them that they have our attention in a profound and deep way. We signal this by

  • Recognising and honouring their emotional state,
  • Seeking to understand the cause of that emotion,
  • Making eye contact,
  • Talking less and listening more, and
  • Asking questions that assume the child has the internal resources to resolve the problem.
  • In essence we are attuned to them deeply and skillfully facilitate their thinking.

As teachers and parents, we often slip into solution mode in the busyness of our lives. There are definitely times when this is necessary (questions of safety for instance), but more often than not this doesn’t serve our students, children or ourselves well. Each time we do this,

children learn to rely on external supports and intervention and can end up feeling less rather than more resourceful. For instance, how much better for a student to come to understand that they are procrastinating, and this is impacting their ability to feel in control of their workload, rather than listen to us once again lecture about the evils of procrastination!

As individuals we get stuck and when we have been stuck for a long time – or multiple times –then it is hard to know what to do differently to get out of that state. By contrast, a well-structured coaching conversation can help a person locate the resources (or states of mind) that are high within themselves, which can then be used to amplify and locate those that are low and create a “cognitive opening” to see a way through the problem. Self-directedness can also become habitual and this is ultimately the goal. I said to someone the other day that I “coached myself” on the way to work in the car on Monday morning. I did this by pausing to listen to my internal voice, acknowledging the emotion behind that voice and why I was feeling that way, identified my desired state and then reflected on what I needed to do to get there.

The more we teach our children the tools to self-manage, self-monitor and self-modify (and give them ample opportunities to practice) the more autonomous they will become. Likewise, the more we do this with the adults and co-workers in our lives, the more we create living and breathing human eco-systems where people thrive

Ultimately, cognitive coaching is a powerful tool for creating self-directed learners and adults. At HVGS we have our first set of cognitive coaching graduates and a second cohort has already started, with a third to begin in 2024. It is a transformative process which supports Human-Centred and Sustainable Systems and ways of working, as well as a Connected and Flourishing Community.

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.