By Ron Bashian, MD, ACO Research Committee

As a pediatrician, my focus has long been on helping young people with ADHD, and college is a particularly challenging time for this population. In fact, ADHD and learning disabilities (LD) are now receiving increased attention from colleges, since many more students with ADHD and LD are enrolled and have a higher risk of being overwhelmed or dropping out than students without these challenges

Seeking answers to how to better help students with ADHD and LD, I did an ERIC search on positive psychology, self-efficacy (which, as defined by Bandura, 1997, is a person’s belief in his or her abilities), and coaching. That search provided this remarkably informative article, rich with citations from the peer-reviewed literature:

Costello, Carla A., Stone, Sharon L.M. “Positive Psychology and Self-Efficacy: Potential Benefits for College Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. 25 (2), 119-129. Summer 2012.

My purpose in this review is to summarize key points from this article, encouraging readers to browse through the full article via the provided link. The authors’ bibliography is rich in cited studies, only a fraction of which I cite in this review.

Costello and Stone (The College of William and Mary) carefully examine the relation between positive psychology and self-efficacy. From such considerations, they present likely positive interventions. Among those, are life coaching and executive function coaching. These are discussed below.

The authors state that principles from positive psychology can be used to increase self-efficacy in college students (abstract commentary). They see positive psychology as a “logical lens” to look at self-efficacy, particularly since research shows strong connections between academic motivation, success, and positive beliefs (Pajares, 2001).

Costello and Stone see self-efficacy as playing a role in peoples’ feelings, behaving, and self-motivation. Diener (2000) says that self-efficacy is synonymous with what positive psychologists have termed “subjective well-being.” Those who experience numerous academic failures have much less of it (Margolis & McCabe, 2004). Self-efficacy relates to how people feel about their lives and the quality of their experiences. Both self-efficacy and positive psychology can evoke human strengths like optimism, perseverance, and interpersonal skills. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Positive self-efficacy leads to a greater likelihood to seek challenges (Pajares, 2001). Margolis and McCabe (2004) emphasize how learning experiences–in order to be rewarding–must address the issue of task anxiety levels, not undermining engagement. Self-efficacy is task specific, thus benefits from a focus on specific subject areas where students don’t feel they are excelling. (Margolis and McCabe, 2004).

Within the article’s section titled “Positive Psychology and Self-Efficacy” is this forthright statement from (Pajares, 2001): “Positive psychology is a logical lens through which to view the importance of increasing self-efficacy because research has shown strong connections between academic motivation, success, and positive beliefs.”

Self-efficacy skills (or lack thereof) can actually influence a student’s very environment, socially and otherwise (Jackson, 2002). Low self-efficacy often results in avoidant behavior when students feel frustrated or face the possibility of failure (Pajares, 1996). Positive psychology–in creating positive learning environments and focusing on student strengths–improves self-efficacy.

Positive psychology can also affirm an increased sense of authenticity, which Pajares (2001) defines as the belief that “one’s achievement/success is deserved.” And although students with ADHD or LD are generally of average or above-average intelligence, Margolis and McCabe (2004) state that such students typically “do not believe they can succeed academically”, and thus often “fail to make appropriate efforts to master academics.”

Students with LD, in addition to specific learning deficits, may also have problems with memory: short-term, long-term, or working. They may additionally have executive function difficulties such as challenges organizing, prioritizing, and evaluating academic work (Turnbull, 2010). Students with ADHD and/or LD exhibit a gap between intelligence and achievement, resulting in frustration with academic work.

In fact, common features of ADHD and LD are extensive, as a chart in the article points out. Those common features include: average or above-average intelligence; gap between intelligence and achievement; high levels of frustration, especially with academic work; tendency to devalue their own achievements; anxiety; needing additional time for reading and assignments; memory difficulties; difficulty organizing and prioritizing work; problems with interpersonal relationships.

So, what can be done to help students with these numerous challenges?

The article’s sections titled “Promising Practices” and “Implications for Practitioners” review a number of studies on life coaching and on executive function coaching. Although the literature is sparse, the authors’ comments strongly reinforce the values of coaching’s encouragement of self-efficacy and its use of positive psychology.

One study extensively discussed in this article was from Landmark College (2011). Parker and Boutelle, the study’s authors, used ICF certified coaches, focused on executive function. Their coaching of students with ADHD and/or LD was inquiry-driven and not didactic, was given weekly, was not prescriptive. Specifically, the method was structured for coaches to inquire about students’ preferences and beliefs, and to determine their potential application to discrete learning challenges. The coaching intention was to support self-determination skills and confer lasting results.

As a follow-up, the authors interviewed students after either one or two semesters, asking students how they compared coaching to other school services. Not only did students report that coaching appealed more to them as adults, but that it encouraged more responsibility for decisions and actions. Moreover, some who felt they were erroneously assigned to therapists found coaching to be a better fit! Among student comments were those saying how coaching helped clarify goals, and helped them become more self-aware and self-determining.

In summary, Costello and Stone advocate that positive psychology approaches to working with students–focused on optimism, human strengths, well-being, and perseverance, in combination with life or executive function coaching–are an effective complementary addition to higher education. They conclude that commonly provided services for college students with these disabilities are not adequate; that positive psychology provides a clearly beneficial framework; that resultant increases in self-efficacy occur through the application of appropriate, realistic academic goals; and that reduced anxiety and frustration result.


Ron Bashian, MD, is both a pediatrician, who has worked for years with young people with ADHD, and an active ADHD coach going through the certification process. You can contact him at ronsb@msn.com or through his website at validationcoaching.com