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The difference between tutoring and Executive Function coaching (and where they overlap)

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

As a parent, understanding the unique needs of your child can often feel like an overwhelming task, especially when facing academic or behavioral challenges.


Should you seek the assistance of a tutor to help with specific subjects? Or would an Executive Function coach better serve to nurture essential life skills?


This article explores the differences, overlaps, and specific roles of tutoring and Executive Function coaching.


Whether your child is struggling with a particular academic subject or grappling with broader challenges such as planning and organization related to AD/HD, this guide will assist you in identifying the most suitable approach to support their growth.


How are tutoring and Executive Function coaching different?

Tutoring and Executive Function coaching differ primarily in focus and approach.


Tutoring is typically concentrated on academic subjects, employing traditional educational methods to help students improve in specific areas such as mathematics or science.


It's often short-term and goal-oriented, aimed at immediate academic enhancement.


Executive Function coaching, on the other hand, takes a more holistic view, targeting life skills like planning, organization, and emotional regulation.


It's frequently used with individuals struggling with executive function challenges, such as AD/HD, and emphasizes long-term development and broader life improvements.


The methodology and target audience further highlight the differences. While tutoring uses subject-specific practices like worksheets and quizzes, Executive Function coaching utilizes specialized techniques tailored to cognitive skills.


Do Executive Function coaches help students with school assignments?

Yes, many Executive Function coaches do help students with school assignments.


Dr. Russell Barkley, a prominent expert on AD/HD, emphasizes that key to effective AD/HD support is to focus on the Point of Performance (POP).


This concept refers to addressing AD/HD challenges where they occur, whether it's in academic, social, or communication contexts.


For example, imagine a student with AD/HD who is struggling to complete an essay. The Point of Performance in this context would be the actual environment and moment when the student is attempting to write the essay.


An Executive Function coach working with this student would not merely discuss strategies or set goals in a separate session; instead, they would work directly with the student during the essay-writing process.


They might sit down with the student at the computer or workspace, helping them to outline the essay, set specific and manageable goals, organize their thoughts, and manage their time effectively.


By intervening at the Point of Performance, the coach is addressing the challenge precisely where it occurs.


This allows for real-time feedback and support, helping the student to develop and apply the necessary executive function skills exactly when and where they need them.


The immediacy and relevance of the support make it more likely that the student will internalize these skills and be able to apply them independently in the future.


This method aligns perfectly with Dr. Russell Barkley's emphasis on focusing interventions at the specific points where challenges arise, making the teaching of skills more contextual and effective.

difficulties are faced.



Teaching EF skills to individuals with AD/HD requires an understanding of this principle, as interventions must be directly implemented at the point where the difficulties arise.


For academic challenges, this might mean working with students during homework sessions to develop strategies for organization, time management, and self-control.


In social contexts, the Point of Performance might include teaching skills for empathy, interpreting social cues, and responding appropriately during actual social interactions. Sometimes, these skills are best taught by a Speech Langauge Pathologist who is familiar with executive function challenges.


Communication challenges might be addressed by coaching on active listening and expressive language skills during real conversations.


The Point of Performance approach ensures that support is provided in the actual environments where challenges occur, making the learning of EF skills more relevant, practical, and effective. This method aligns with Barkley's view that interventions for ADHD should be immediate, linked to specific tasks, and occur in the natural setting where the


Which students should work with a tutor and which students should work with an Executive Function coach?

The audience for tutoring is generally students needing help in particular academic subjects, whereas Executive Function coaching serves a wider range of individuals, including adults who need assistance with executive function skills.


Students who need assistance with specific academic subjects or are striving to improve grades in particular areas should work with a tutor, as tutoring is designed to provide targeted support for individual subjects through traditional educational methods.


On the other hand, students who face challenges with broader life skills such as planning, organization, time management, or emotional regulation, possibly linked to executive function disorders like AD/HD, would benefit more from working with an Executive Function coach.


Executive Function coaching provides a holistic approach that focuses on building long-term cognitive skills and is tailored to assist with overall personal development, going beyond mere academic achievements.


These distinctions make each approach unique and suited to different needs and goals.


When does tutoring and Executive Function coaching overlap?

Both tutoring and Executive Function coaching aim to help individuals reach their full potential, whether it's academically or in daily life. They provide support, encouragement, and personalized strategies to foster growth and success.


While their objectives may differ, both fields may utilize similar techniques such as goal-setting, time management, and regular assessments to measure progress. These methods help both tutors and Executive Function coaches track the individual's growth and adapt their approaches accordingly.


Tutoring and Executive Function coaching can target similar audiences, including students struggling with specific subjects or individuals dealing with executive function challenges like AD/HD.


Both services can be valuable to those looking for support in organizing their thoughts, managing their time, and building skills to navigate personal and academic life.


The bottom line

At the end of the day, what an educational professional calls themselves—whether a tutor or an Executive Function coach—is less important than their understanding of how to support a student effectively.


What truly matters is their ability to estimate what the most important next steps are and to place those demands in the zone of proximal development.


This nuanced understanding and application are what lead to genuine growth and success, regardless of the title.

By focusing on the student's individual needs and providing appropriate challenges within their reach, a tutor or coach can make a meaningful impact on their educational journey.


This principle aligns closely with the work of John Hattie, who has emphasized the critical role of teacher estimates of achievement in student success. According to Hattie's research, teachers' ability to accurately gauge where a student is in their learning process and what they are capable of achieving next can be one of the most potent influences on student outcomes.


Hattie's concept of teacher estimates goes beyond assessment scores; it encompasses a deep understanding of a student's capabilities, potential, and the most suitable challenges to present next.


This understanding enables the educator to create personalized learning experiences that push the student's boundaries just enough to encourage growth without overwhelming them.


The alignment with the zone of proximal development ensures that the student is constantly challenged within a range that allows them to grow with appropriate support.


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About the author


Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with AD/HD and executive function challenges.


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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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