ES Based Coaching

I enjoy working with little ones. It’s something I really miss from the solitude of my writing desk during these two years away from the classroom. With what time I can spare, I am doing one-on-one ES-based coaching.

One of the children I coach is 7 years old, with some sensory integration issues and challenges with executive functioning.  He is bright, but has trouble following rules and meeting expectations at school. A sweet little monkey.

We have done about 6 sessions together. My first session with this student was spent first trying to calm his terrified tears as he separated from his mother and then trying to keep him safe as he ran away from me through the JCC. Oy vey. Now, after plenty of routine, trust building, and easy games, I am teaching him meditation and how to apply his new self-regulation skills to school tasks. It feels like a win.

So, because this experience has been so successful, I’ll take a moment to brag about all the neato stuff we’re working on. Here is today’s coaching plan. Perhaps you’ll find it useful.

Goals: Student will…

  • respond successfully to 1-2-3 prompt
  • do focused written ‘work’ similar to a school task
  • practice holding and shifting attention with ‘bring backs’
  • practice ‘bring back’ meditation on yoga mat
  • write personal example of 5 zones of regulation – use ‘bring backs’ to refocus
  • reflect on the outcome of UNexpected behaviour using Social Behaviour Mapping
  • reflect on success using at home sticker chart and calming strategies
  • use WOOP (wish, obstacle, overcome, plan) to strategize for greater success using calming strategies
  • play new cooperative games to build rapport, follow rules, and build trust


Yoga mat, ball flags, Relaxation thermometer copy, WOOP worksheet copy, feeling wheel copy, half-finished social behaviour map, Rory’s story cubes, Stickers, crayons, dice, beans, bowls, ball, soft brush, weighted sock, scratchy brush, chess game, timer, delicate wooden caterpillar, post it notes


Cycle through activity, break, snack.

Activities Menu: 

Bring Backs on Yoga Mat – Student lays on yoga mat with a beanbag on his eyes and is asked to breathe calmly. As he breathes in, he raises his hands (bend at elbow, arms at sides) as he breathes out he lowers his hands. Each time he recognizes that he has lost attention on his breath he is rewarded with 10 bops with the bopper sock and he puts up one finger. His goal is to do 5 bring backs.  

Relaxation Thermometer – Student is asked to sit quietly for 5 minutes and try to fill in the sheet independently, like a school task. Emphasis on ‘bring backs’ where coach notes ‘you lost your attention’ and quietly counts and tracks on a post it note how long the ‘bring back’ take.

Student’s Calming Strategies – If student has brought his sticker chart we can discuss his progress.

Social Behaviour Mapping – Student and I review his social mapping plan for playing Star Wars War with members of his family. Then we map out what happens when he does UNexpected behaviour. Discuss other’s feelings about the behaviour, how others will treat him based on how they feel about his behaviour, and how he will feel based on how he is treated. Use this to support the ‘wish’ stage for WOOP.

WOOP – Using the wish we established with social behaviour mapping, we discuss his wish-obstacles-ideas to overcome-and plans for overcoming. This is his second exposure to WOOP.

Relaxing, Connecting Transition Activities

Bopper sock – For a treat if he wants to. We do High 5 puzzle. He gets as many bops with the sock up and down both arms as High-5 responses he can get right in a row. He controls the number. For a special treat he can have bops to his back. If he asks to do it to me, we talk a lot about trust and he is allowed. SI therapeutic deep pressure patting and a lot of talk about trust and rule following.

High 5 Puzzle – For a treat or for transitions. I put my hands in different positions and he has to slap them in the right position. This is SI, proprioception and tactile. Also involves a lot of eye contact, trust, rule following.

Rough Brush / Gentle brush – For a treat if he wants to. Student is asked trivia questions. Behind my back are the rough brush and the gentle brush, but he doesn’t know in which hand. Right answers get the brush in the right hand. Wrong answers get the brush in the left hand. 10 strokes up and down each arm. We discuss what pressure he likes and when following his preference we talk about trust. Sensory integration and friendly touch.  

New, Fun Games

Ball flags bring back – Student gets to try using the rainbow coloured ball flags on the other side of the room. When I say, “Student, bring back” he has to drop the flags and come and play high 5 puzzle with me. To develop shifting and flexibility and to reinforce mastery of attention developed during meditation practice.  

New, Fun Game – Bean Bowl Story Dice – Student and I tell stories together using story dice. Each time he participates cooperatively I tell him which feeling I felt on the feeling wheel and move two beans to the target bowl. The goal is to move all the beans from one bowl to another before the timer runs out. Each time one of us contributes helpfully and co-operatively to the story we can move two beans.


Constructive Dismissal


I’m preparing a talk for some instructors at St. Lawrence College in Kingston. My goal is raise awareness about the effect of executive functions on success in college, and to suggest that the instructors consider using whole-class EF coaching in their feedback and assessment systems. I’ve never spoken to college instructors before. I hope they’re not in the middle of a horrible contract dispute or a broken coffee machine. I hope they get up on the right side of the bed and I hope they come with an open mind.

As I develop my presentation, I find myself focusing on the obstacles faced by bright kids with poor executive functions. Maybe you’ll be interested in the ideas I’m planning to share.

Consider this, if you are so inclined. Perhaps the students who are pulling ‘A’s in college classes are not the students in the college classes with the most creative and innovative solutions to problems that have been presented. Necessarily. They might be. But those kids who make the high marks *might* just the kids who can execute best. They may be creating great things, but they may also just be feeding their teachers ideas that are 100% safe, clear, tidy, and good enough.

Fact is, those ‘A’ students might be the kids who managed to start a month ago, secure good peer support, find a killer study group, arrange for their uncle (who is an engineer) to look it over, and get their sister to grammar check it five times. They might just be the ones who manage to exercise, eat, and sleep, and just generally keep their shit together. And they win. Fair enough, and jolly good for them, but it might be interesting to consider that the skills we are valuing with marks are much more related to execution than design, engineering, marketing, or whatever else we are intending to teach. The people we are promoting and encouraging with marks are the executors.

The guys that are not valued, promoted, and encouraged are the kids with a few unusually weak executive functions. The rubric does not control for executive functions so their marks stink. Sometimes they are utterly immobilized by anxiety or depression. Or they submit incomplete, unpolished work that has flashes of greatness – a 6 pager when you asked for a 12. They are the ones who get terrible grades because they avoid and avoid and avoid and then finally have a breakdown and start two nights before and don’t sleep for 48 hours trying to get things done. They do not, generally, sleep well, wake up on time, eat sensibly, or get any exercise. Their executive functions are a straight up mess.

This guy and gal fill college classrooms, and my advocacy for them is passionate. I’m passionate because I know that every single kid in our classrooms has something important to offer. I’ve worked with kids with weak EFs and I know that more often that you might suspect, they have dynamic and original minds and big contributions to make. These kids with poor executive functions tend to lose. It is worth noticing that although so much of the marked performance relies on execution, it is rarely taught directly.

Darn it, how can we get these kids up to speed? This question is turning into my life’s work because the more I get to know kids and adults with weak EFs the more I notice a disturbing pattern. People with weak EFs are a group who think divergently, imaginatively, and deeply AND they rarely get their act together quickly and efficiently enough to join the conversation. They are sort of ‘constructively dismissed’ by the way we run our classrooms – hopelessly unprepared to participate and resigned to the sidelines. All those unusual thinkers are sidelined. That’s a big deal. It’s a problem.

I wonder what is lost in the wholesale ‘leaving behind’ of poor executors? Do smart but scattered people generate a brand of solution that is underrepresented in the way we do business on earth? Do our complex and unruly problems require complex and unruly problem-solvers? Wouldn’t it be interesting to pull these guys back into the conversation and see what they could do with an early start, and a study group, and strategies for being flexible, and well-fed, exercised, and slept? Jeepers. Gosh darn it. It would.

The book I’m writing, and the finale of most of my talks is related to my idea for a flipped feedback and assessment system that focuses on whole-class EF-based coaching. I’m encouraging educators to slow down and reflect on goals with students before the work begins, anticipate challenges in execution, make tangible plans for working around those obstacles, and then hold their students accountable (with marks) for following their plans. In practice, at St. Lawrence College, it might sound something like this…

Hi guys. Sorry I’m late but there was a contract protest and the coffee machine is broken. No matter… let’s get started. Here is the target – work with a group to design this widget. What do you know about yourself? What do you know about your executive functions? So, what’s going to stop you from hitting this target? What are you going to do to prevent that, exactly? Great. I’m writing that down. You write it down. Let’s document your plan. You will be marked on your use of that strategy. Now get to work, you bunch of loveable rascals.

Best I can figure, at a time like this, we need all hands on deck. Let’s figure out how to do that.