NEW YORK — At 17, Maggie Duwelius is a busy high school senior with her eye on a tough, competitive college.
She’s a hard worker, her mom said, but her grades often fall short of that goal as she navigates a whirl of extracurriculars: sports, volunteer gigs, voice lessons, baby sitting.
Maggie’s life — much of the crush self-imposed — felt out of control, with up to six hours of homework nightly and as little as five hours of sleep.
“She’s the most self-motivated of my three kids by far, but she’s not one of those naturally ‘I can walk into this test with a pencil and do all right’ kids,” said mom Sarah Duwelius in suburban Portland, Ore. “I’d see her working so hard and thought there has to be another way.”
That’s where Maggie’s life coach came in, riding a trend over the last few years of extending the nontraditional help for adults to middle and high schoolers. Life coaching for kids is not just about streamlining study habits or staying organized, though those things are part of what John Williams does with Maggie. It’s about young people taking control.
“It’s more about the internal game, which is where the next frontier of education is,” said Williams, a former Latin teacher. “Coaching provides her an arena to talk through things she’s thinking about doing, which activities to be involved in, how she should allocate her time, what’s most important to her.”
As a former middle school and high school teacher, Williams said he saw “that kids were not getting a lot of essential skills I wish I had gotten, like the ability to understand a default perspective and how to shift that perspective, or to just be aware of what your top three values are, how do you feel about certain relationships and assumptions made in relationships?”
The need, for Maggie’s mom, is far simpler: “He’s taking a good thing and making it better. He’s giving her even more tools and making her successful.”
Life coaching can lend valuable breathing room for kids from the cheerleading, criticism or advice that parents and therapists might normally provide.
“What’s great about the coaching is the problem identification and problem solving comes from the person being coached,” said Sharon Haynes, whose 11-year-old daughter started meeting with a life coach in Houston after a stressful transition to middle school. “I found myself talking to my daughter ad nauseam and encouraging her and telling her everything was going to be good, but it’s helpful to run through it with somebody else.”
Haynes’ daughter, Tuesday, said her coach “has helped me by showing me the ups and downs of different situations and the different perspectives. She helped me discover my little WIIC monster, and that helps me to see that I don’t need to be so nervous and that WIIC makes me worry for no reason.”
That’s WIIC, for “What If I Can’t.”
A year into life coaching, the freedom to speak freely with Williams is something Maggie still looks forward to.
“We can talk about anything,” she said. “It’s just such a better conversation than you can have with someone else. I always walk out of there feeling better. He makes school make sense.”
Life coaches, at least 25,000 strong around the globe, are unregulated in the United States, though a nonprofit called the International Coach Federation and other organizations are working to align training and standards. More than half of all life coaches are working in the U.S., according to ICF, but it’s unclear how many take on teens as clients. Some charge by the hour, some have a minimum number of sessions. Prices vary but are comparable to therapy.
Many life coaches for pre-teens and teens come from other fields where they’ve worked with kids, including teaching, social work or psychology, said Sandi Lindgren, a social worker and youth coach in Minneapolis. But kids “have to want the coaching and they have to have something that they want to change, want to do differently,” said Lindgren. “It could be something as simple as school or relationships, but it has to come from them.”
Not every teen sees the benefits of life coaching. In Chicago, Robin Simborg’s 17-year-old son Jack gave up on his coach after four sessions.
“I enjoyed the discussions I had with my life coach and how she made me dig deep and think hard to make connections,” said Jack, who hopes to move on to a music college from high school and has had a therapist for years to help with attention deficit disorder and other issues. “I also enjoyed how easy it was for me to apply the lessons I learned to my life. However, I did not get as much out of the exercises as I did working with my therapist.”
Some life coaches, like Stephanie Sarkis, a therapist and coach in Boca Raton, Fla., specialize in ADD issues.
“Just having an impartial third party can really help,” said Sarkis, who works with high school and college students. “When you’re a college student, you want to feel independent. You’re focusing on the present and future.”
Among the more practical aspects of her work: helping set up a highly structured schedule broken down into color-coded blocks of 30 minutes — the colors denoting specific classes, study times, meetups for social activities and free time. And suggesting non-emergency smartphone notifications be turned off, instead scheduling specific times to check email and social media to avoid the constant distraction.
Sarkis also looks at class syllabuses and test schedules, and has her young clients break down project deadlines into smaller tasks, assigning due dates for reporting back to her for each one. “That way there’s an accountability factor,” Sarkis said.
All are strategies that could benefit a broader range of students, including Maggie’s 20-year-old brother, Connor. The college junior is pulling Bs and Cs as he pursues a major in communications. He began using Williams after his sister started.
“The key aspect that makes him so effective is his ability to observe,” Connor said. “In the end, the process becomes much more than just raising a grade point average.”