A Two-Pronged Approach: How and Why Individuals with Learning Differences Benefit from Coaching and Emotionally Focused Psychotherapy

A call with a potential client yesterday reminded me why I provide psychotherapy and coaching. He described how his challenges meeting deadlines and finding a professional path have provoked symptoms of depression. He was looking for concrete strategies to improve his organization. However, he did also genuinely want to rebuild his self-confidence and overall well-being. Experience and research tell us that learning differences are often co-morbid with mental illnesses (Silver, 2013). Therefore, mental health treatment is often highly indicated as part of the treatment plan for these individuals. Unfortunately, there is a false dichotomy among mental health professionals between coaching and psychotherapy. This may result in these individuals receiving these services from different providers. However, I have found that treatment for those with learning differences is often most effective when coaching and psychotherapy are offered. Ultimately, these services helps a person to achieve the success and outcomes he or she desires.

Many of the individuals I have worked with have stated that they found either exclusive psychotherapy or coaching to be ineffective. They may make statements such as “I felt like we talked about the same issues over and over again, but I never learned how to change my situation.” Another common statement is, “I feel like my coach wanted me to make all of these changes without understanding why it was so hard for me to make them to begin with.” In other words, psychotherapy was insufficient in offering concrete strategies for helping this person to manage the practical challenges they faced on a daily basis. On the other hand, coaching that does not take into consideration the emotional impact of a learning difference may be met with understandable resistance. This is due to the fact that person with mental health challenges may have obstacles that interfere with implementing the strategies mentioned by the coach. Emotionally focused psychotherapy, when it is combined with coaching, helps an individual to accomplish psychological and concrete goals.

A young woman I work with illustrates why it is effective to combine psychotherapy and coaching. When her parents contacted me, they explained that she had been recently diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). However, she still wanted to become a nurse. The beginning of my work with her centered on helping her to “Understand how my mind works.” In other words, she reported that she never had the opportunity to fully understand her specific strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, how they might impact her during her nursing school training. I was able to provide her with some concrete strategies for achieving success. As treatment progressed, she was able to explore some of the anxiety she experienced regarding her potential academic performance; these included deep-seated fears of letting her parents down. A combination of psychotherapy and coaching helped me to better understand not only the practical challenges she faced but also the anxieties and internalized pressure she experienced. Combining psychotherapy and coaching provides her with comprehensive services she needs for reaching her goal.

I want to be clear in stating that I am not suggesting that psychotherapists become coaches or vice-versa. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, my training is primary in psychotherapy and mental health services, and not in coaching. However, I am suggesting that as a therapist who works with individuals with learning differences, I do think it is critical for me to provide some form of concrete support when appropriate. I suggest that therapists not only become more knowledgeable about learning differences, but also that they become more open to making practical suggestions that can help their clients to achieve success. Ultimately, psychotherapy that includes some coaching is most effective for assisting a young adult to overcome his or her obstacles.

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