By Dorothy Bisbee, JD, PCC, ACO Research Committee

Colleges and universities are recognizing the value of ADHD coaching. However, more research is needed to pinpoint, articulate and empirically demonstrate how coaching helps these students.1  Researchers at the University of North Carolina (Richman, Rademacher & Maitland, 2014) recently published results of a study of coaching for college and graduate students with ADHD and learning disabilities.  While the study was too small to produce statistically significant results, students indicated in interviews that coaching had improved their self-awareness, self-management and sense of well being.  The study’s design offers lessons for future research into how coaching impacts self-determination, executive functioning and study skills.

Study Design

Using reliable, validated surveys and targeted interviews, researchers Erica Lynn Richman, Kristen N. Rademacher, and Theresa Laurie Maitland examined the development of executive functioning, self- determination and overall academic skills in 17 college students and 7 graduate students with ADHD and learning disabilities during a year at UNC Chapel Hill. Two thirds of the students participated in one to two dozen half-hour weekly coaching sessions each with CTI-trained and certified coaches, while the other eight students received no coaching.  All subjects took pre- and post-surveys to measure their executive functioning, self-determination and overall academic skills, and six met with a non-coach interviewer for one-hour interviews.

Qualitative Findings Pinpoint Potential Coaching Benefits

As case studies, at least, the results of the six participant interviews are interesting and encouraging. All students interviewed reported positive growth from the coaching.

Primary areas of improvement included:

  • Self-determination/autonomy
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-efficacy 2
  • More realistic goal-setting
  • Self-evaluation of efforts

Other areas of improvement included:

  • Effective self-talk
  • Critical thinking/self-reflection/problem-solving
  • Self-advocacy
  • Subjective wellbeing

Coaches may draw from the list above when setting their own coaching goals and describing coaching’s potential benefits to prospective clients.

Quantitative Measures May be Used In Larger Studies

The researchers used validated, established surveys in pre- and post- surveys to measure students’ development in three areas:

  1. Self-Determination (SDSS) (Hoffman, Field & Sawilowski, 1995)
  2. Executive Functioning (BRIEF-A) (Roth, Isquith & Gioia)
  3. Academic Skills (LASSI) (Weinstein, Schulte & Palmer)

Coaches interested in learning more about how potential coaching benefits can be described, or how to design their own studies, may use these surveys as a starting point.3

Every student receiving the coaching intervention improved on all three measures, and 15 of the 16 students improved more than the eight students in the control group did. While the results were not statistically significant, the authors asserted that in “further research, using larger, randomly assigned groups, coaching will likely be shown to be an effective intervention technique for improving experiences of college students with LD and ADHD.” (Richman et al., 2014, p. 39).

Lessons for Future Studies

Strengths of the study’s design include, among many things:

  • The use of two experienced CTI-trained and certified coaches.
  • Requiring fidelity checks by a non-coach to ensure the coaches used similar methods.
  • Selection of validated, reliable survey instruments.

A weakness was the small, self-selecting sample size: the study was offered to 500 students, but only 26 of them ultimately volunteered, and 24 completed the study. Further, assignments to the experimental and control groups were not random.

The authors stated that they did not randomize their subjects because it could have been unethical to withhold coaching from some students and not others.  However, the ethical obligation only exists if an intervention is efficacious.  Where randomized studies are needed to prove coaching’s efficacy, it is difficult to argue that researchers are ethically obligated to provide the intervention.

It is also possible to provide coaching to all of the study subjects, but at different times so that students’ development with and without coaching can be compared.  Therefore, future researchers should be able to design approaches to randomly assign subjects.

Random assignment should mitigate differences between experimental and control groups as well as differences due to selection bias) (such as students needing more help preferring coaching), but it will not be a cure-all. Because a basic tenet of coaching is that the client chooses to be coached, subjects randomly assigned to a coaching intervention may not be appropriate for coaching. Similarly, subjects randomly assigned to no-coach groups may resent being left out or get lower scores simply due to a placebo effect. Including an alternative intervention for at least some of the control group may help reduce any such placebo effect.  Future researchers should also explore ways to control for the impact of coaching students who have not requested the service.

When financially and practically feasible, it would also be useful for new studies to do the following:

  • Survey subjects again at three to six month intervals to see how much of the coaching’s impacts stay with students longer-term.
  • Survey subjects’ instructors, counselors, parents, advisors or significant others to obtain more objective observations of change.
  • Compare students’ before and after GPAs.
  • Control for non-coaching interventions such as medication, work with a learning specialist or academic accommodations.
  • Control for differences in courses of study by using subjects enrolled in similar programs.
  • Provide financial or other incentives to study subjects to encourage higher participation rates.


Articles like Coaching and College Success provide useful information about the benefits coaching can provide. For coaches interested in pursuing research, there is much to be learned from the methods the authors have shared. Research like this deserves the ADHD coaching community’s attention and support.


  1. For a discussion of the methodology used in recent studies of coaching at the postsecondary level, see Ahmann (2014).
  2. For more on self-efficacy, see Bashian (2014).
  3. Each of these measures is available for purchase. Demonstrations of current versions of the SDSS (Self Determination Student Scale), now called the SDAi (Self-Determination Assessment internet) are available at Information on the BRIEF-A (Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function – Adult Verson) is available at Information on the LASSI (Learning and Study Strategies Inventory) is available at
  4. References

    Ahmann, E. (2014). ADHD coaching for students and research design.  ACO Circle, January 1, 2014.  Retrieved from

    Bashian, R., MD (2014). Positive Psychology and Self-Efficacy. ACO Circle, June 1, 2014.  Retrieved from

    Hoffman, A., Field, S. & Sawilowski, S. (1995).  Self-Determination Student Scale [Measurement instrument].  Currently published in modified form as the SDAi (Self-Determination Assessment internet) at

    Richman, E.L., Rademacher, K.N., & Maitland, T.L. (2014).  Coaching and college success.  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 27(1), 33-52.  Retrieved from

    Roth, R., Isquith, P., & Gioia, G..  Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function – Adult Version [Measurement instrument].  Retrieved from

    Weinstein, C., Schulte, A., & Palmer, D., Learning and Study Strategies Inventory [Measurement instrument].  Retrieved from

    DorothyBisbeeNote: This review was written as a service to ACO members by Dorothy Bisbee, JD, PCC, CCMC, of the ACO Research Committee, and represents the perspective of that author. You can contact the author at