Academic coaching blends four core life skills to serve up successful students—in school and in life.
By Sara G. Stephens
Bobby is not dumb. His parents know it with every fiber of their being. But Bobby continues to bring home bad grades, and his parents know he needs help. So Bobby’s parents bring in a tutor. And nothing changes. This comes as no surprise to Evan Weinberger, founder of Staying Ahead of the Game, an academic coaching firm in Houston.
“When students underperform in school, it’s very rarely because they don’t have the capacity to do long division, addition, subtraction, or whatever the subject,” Weinberger says. Rather, he maintains that students get bad grades for lack of mastering one important subject: life skills.
A common root for these students’ academic struggles is procrastination. “Procrastination means a student’s values are not correct,” Weinberger says. He describes two student scenarios that embody school underperformance problems. One student does well on daily assignments, but struggles with exams. “This student lacks strategy,” he explains. “The student is anxious about taking the first step in preparing for his exams, so he just freezes.” The next student excels on tests, but has trouble with daily work. “This student suffers from procrastination and time management, so he runs out of time to do the daily work or forgets to do it, or leaves it at home, so he gets zeroes.”
From this point, a dangerous cycle begins. “The student gets angry with the teacher, then he’s angry with himself,” Weinberger describes. “Confidence and self-efficacy drop. He begins to identify with his grades, telling himself, ‘I’m just a C student.’” The cycle’s momentum builds, rapidly morphing into a helpless downward spiral. By the time Weinberger enters the picture, the former A/B student is now making Cs, or the former C student is now failing. Weinberger has developed a method for helping these students. The method stems from his own personal academic struggles. “I struggled and observed that kids in these situations don’t need tutoring, they need coaching—life coaching.”
Students Have jobs
Weinberger explains that students are working at a job, just like adults do. “Their job is to be a student,” he says. “Teachers are their bosses. Sometimes they get along, and sometimes they don’t. But they do need to see eye-to-eye for the student to succeed.”
Life coaching is Weinberger’s specialty and it’s the emphasis of Staying Ahead of the Game. The type of executive coaching professionals get in the workplace is underemphasized in school, Weinberger suspects. “Companies hire people with life skills: people who are organized; have a grasp of impression management and problem solving; people who are autonomous, creative, individual thinkers,” he says. “School is the playground where you learn to socialize with people at your level and your bosses. If your boss gives you a project, and you don’t know where to start, you need to know to talk to people and get answers—maybe somebody who had the job before you—or you go online and do research. You learn this process at school.”
Although teachers do their best to teach preparedness, each instructor approaches the issue with her own methods. As a result, students come out of school with eight different systems of organization from different teachers, and it just adds to the confusion.
The Right Cocktail
Weinberger was diagnosed with learning differences at an early age. His father was not so lucky and struggled all the way through high school, winding up obtaining his PhD in Oklahoma with studies in clinical psychology. It was only then that his father learned that he had learning differences, and was not simply stupid. “He had enough narcissism not to give up,” Weinberger says with a chuckle. As the son of a clinical psychologist with firsthand and professional knowledge of learning differences, Weinberger was fortunate. “It was like a perfect storm,” he says of his experience. “My father knew to get me tested very early on, and I now look back on my mom, who had stopped working, and realize she was helping me with organization, time management, routines, and habits.”
Not liking the way certain medications made him feel, Weinberger accepted that certain tasks were going to take him longer. The result was a fortified spirit that helped him recognize and focus on his strengths. Realizing he had a photographic memory, Weinberger’s mom taught him to leverage this ability in all his classes—not just vocabulary and spelling, but also history, science and even learning Hebrew. “The movers and shakers in my life did a great job,” he says. “A combination of parents with skills, expertise, and experience was a great cocktail for me. I’m here for students who don’t have those ingredients in their cocktails.”
The seeds for Weinberger’s academic coaching method were planted early. Over the years, he learned to recognize, isolate, and fine-tune the skills that comprised his cocktail of success. Now these skills represent the core of his coaching curriculum, each addressing a particular unspoken question that underperforming students must address in order to succeed:
- Organization (How do I do everything?)
- Time Management (What am I doing with my time to get things done?)
- Study Skills (What are my strategies and techniques for getting things done well?)
- Impression Management (How do I let everyone else know what I’ve accomplished?)
The first three core skills are somewhat expected and self-explanatory. Impression Management, however, may come as a surprise to many parents. This core skill is as important to a student’s success as any other, if not more so. “That’s consistent with research about IQ and EQ—or emotional intelligence,” Weinberger says. He further defines this skill as self-presentation, politicking, the ability to talk to others and understand when you’re hurting feelings, and disaster management. “If you call someone out in front of the class and then feel like a jerk, impression management helps you fix that,” he says. The principle is key to success because “social capital,” as Weinberger calls this resource, is a valuable tool in life and must be built methodically and consistently. “It’s like credit,” he says. “Just because you don’t have bad credit doesn’t mean you have good credit. You start with no credit. You have to build it, and you can’t just go through the motions.”
Adding Dollars to Sense
Academic coaching may seem like the right thing to do but the wrong time to do it for parents who are watching their spending (that’s just about everyone these days). To this, Weinberger points out that parents can eliminate some other academic resources by bringing in an academic coach. “A kid is a better candidate for college scholarships, and parents will make up their academic coaching investment ten-fold,” he says. “Today’s business world is a very competitive environment, and academic coaching gives kids an edge on mastering life skills so they can avoid pitfalls and bumps on the road that could be an impediment to success.”
Students: Besides launching his academic coaching service, Weinberger also speaks extensively at various schools and organizations. Some of his presentation topics are particularly intriguing. Here are a few topics, along with some golden “take-aways”:
- I Think I Can, I Think I Can: Setting Goals & Reaching Goals: People spend a lot of time anguishing over what they are not good at instead of leveraging their strengths, which would give them confidence. Understanding yourself, your learning style and setting attainable goals is key. You’ll always be good at what you’re good at, and your weaknesses will always be your weaknesses. Find creative ways to apply your strengths and accept your weaknesses. “Did you know Albert Einstein had someone on his payroll to remind him when to eat lunch? That was a life coach,” Weinberger says.
- “Get Off My Back, Mom & Dad!”: This talk is about impression management with family. “Kids, don’t go into your rooms and shut the door,” Weinberger advises. “Of course your parents are going to knock on the door and bug you about homework.” Instead, Weinberger suggests that kids “blow their parents’ socks off” by coming out of their rooms, doing their homework at the dinner table, and if the parents come to talk, simply pointing out they’re studying and can’t talk at the moment. “You’re killing a bunch of birds with one stone,” he says. “You’ll make a better impression, include them in the process, and do wonders for the dynamic relationship between the two of you.” Parents, too, need to understand that their kids want to do well in school; they just have a different path.
- It’s Called Impression Management, Not Kissing Up: For kids to actually engage their teachers is a powerful responsibility. “Everything you say leaves an impression,” Weinberger says. “This makes you anxious, so you try to avoid engaging the teacher at all costs.” But students should understand why teachers are there in the first place. “It’s not for the Ferraris and Maseratis,” Weinberger points out. “They want to help.” Weinberger encourages students to be proactive and ask meaningful questions. Take the last few minutes of class and tell the teacher you’ve never done this type of assignment before, adding something like, “I was thinking about this approach, does that sound good?”