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Coaching as a professional development strategy has gained tremendous momentum in the field of child welfare and human services. Over time, that conversation has been appropriately extended into the arena of coaching foster youth, in particular adolescents or youth transitioning to adulthood. And while the theoretical foundation of coaching holds up well in application, it requires child welfare professionals to think and behave creatively, confronting patterns we have used with youth and have believed in for years.

Human services work with youth focuses a great deal on the trappings of successful adults (live in a clean home; eat well; spend wisely so that we don’t go into debt; get good grades in school, etc.). While this is certainly good advice for youth and adults alike, it also fails to take into account the unique cultural lens through which youth see their situation and their future as individuals. If that young person is not personally invested in achieving what we see as the standard trappings of successful adults, we have to be prepared for them not achieving it.

Grant (1999) said that coaching can be considered “A collaborative, solution focused, result-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and person growth of the coachee.” Coaching is often about moving the client, in this case young adult, with moving from Point A to Point B – at least at first. What’s most important is that under the coaching model, the youth gets to decide what Point B, the goal, is. In our efforts to bring coaching to adolescents and youth, it’s imperative to unpack how we work with youth to reach Point B, whatever that Point B may be.

The Coaches Training Institute writes that coaches must believe that those they coach are “naturally creative, resourceful and whole;” that people are not problems to be fixed or changed. I have had the joy to work with many social workers and other child welfare professionals who inherently believe this to be true, but we know that for many reasons this can be a hard belief to hold on to, especially when working with teenagers and transition-age youth. Our work is hard, and watching youth struggle is deeply painful. As adults, and professionals, it is easy for us to see their path to success if only they would take our advice. Oh, how we wish they would take our advice! And when they don’t, it can be easy for professionals to become upset and jaded in their work; then often employing the “tough love” approach.

Coaching provides us with a different lens with which to work with youth and young adults. Not only being fierce in the belief that youth are “naturally creative, resourceful and whole,” but also in the ways in which we work with them. Business consultants and Fortune 500 companies have invested significant resources in coaching and in understanding how to help people set goals that they actually reach (which helps drive the bottom line). Their endeavors have provided compelling evidence for switching things up with beloved models for goal setting and have the potential to make things a bit topsy turvy for our work with youth. For example many are now moving away from the use of SMART goals. Like many of you, our organization holds up SMART goals as the gold standard for goal setting in child welfare. The SMART goal process (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-driven) was born out of research to discover success and has been used in child welfare for good reason (we have to set goals with biological parents that are SMART; that hold up in court; that provide a pathway for reunification). That said, our field is also grappling with the messiness of everyday lives and perhaps discovering that SMART goals haven’t yielded the results we need, especially with teenagers.

Dan and Chip Heath, writing in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, wrote “The specificity of SMART goals is a great cure for the worst sins of goal setting – ambiguity and irrelevance.” They continued, “But SMART goals are better for steady-state situations than for change situations, because the assumptions underlying them are that the goals are worthwhile.” How we work with youth must recognize that they are inherently in a state of change, rarely in a “steady-state” situation!
To underscore this, SMART goals are helpful when it comes to simple problems, but for big, life-altering decisions, SMART goals aren’t always that smart – especially for those shooting for what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call “big, hairy audacious goals, or BHAG.” Both of these sentiments are profound, especially when working with foster youth transitioning to adulthood.

Coaching provides a means for working with youth and adolescents on the non-steady state of their situations; the parts of their lives that can’t be defined by SMART goals. Murphy (2017) suggests that instead of setting SMART goals, we strive to set HARD goals, or goals that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult. Murphy poses these questions that need to be asked:

• Heartfelt. “Describe at least three reasons why you want this goal (note: the reasons can be intrinsic, personal, and/or extrinsic).”

• Animated. “Think about where you want your life to be, and describe to me exactly what you’re doing (what kind of life your living, who are you friends with, where you work, what your days look like) one year, three years, and five years from now.”

• Required. “What do you need to have accomplished by the end of the next six months to keep on track toward achieving this goal? What about by the end of the next 90 days? The next 30 days? What’s one thing you can accomplish today?”

• Difficult. “What are the three to five most important skills you’ll need to develop to achieve this goal? How will you develop those skills?”

Coaching adolescents and young adults who have grown up in the foster care system requires the coach to focus on setting goals that the young person cares deeply about – of finding a way to ignite some passion in a youth who doesn’t seem to have any. While this may seem like a modified approach, it’s actually in alignment with the theoretical foundation of coaching. Just as adult coaching leans heavily on cultural humility to facilitate engagement, we should express this same humility in meeting the youth where they are at. We should be curious, transparent, and seek to understand what is most important or needed to the young adult being coached.

Obviously the inclusion of HARD goals into our work with foster youth indicates just one of the shifts that comes with coaching, but this shift rattles some of our longstanding paradigms for working with clients.

Coaching is one avenue we have to work with youth on becoming the adult they want to be; and if this means letting go of our own hopes for them and instead helping to bring those out in the youth themselves, then we have succeeded as coaches.

Nancy Hafer
Academic Coordinator
Northern California Training Academy
UC Davis Extension Center for Human Services
Davis, California

References and citations

Murphy, M. (2017). HARD Goals, Not Smart Goals, Are The Key To Career Development. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/06/11/hard-goals-not-smart-goals-are-the-key-to-career-development/#6db52a8270fb

Coaches Training Institute, http://www.coactive.com/

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2011). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Waterville, Me: Thorndike Press. Chicago (Author-Date, 15th ed.)

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