College students with disabilities face a barrier to success. Experts have found that college students with disabilities who are pursuing science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees express their struggle to manage time, complete assignments, maintain focus or shift focus from one task to another, make plans and organize tasks.

These cognitive skills are generally referred to as executive functioning (EF). This makes sense since executive functioning is attributed to the development of the frontal cortex, which continues developing well into our third decade. Interventions that support the improvement of executive functioning of undergraduate students with disabilities would be appropriate.

Academic coaching is such an intervention.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington recently conducted a pilot study on academic coaching with 41 STEM students from two- and four-year campuses. The students had a wide variety of disabilities such as ADD/ADHD, mobility impairment, learning disability, depression/anxiety, sensory impairment, systemic health diagnosis, PTSD, autism spectrum and Tourette's syndrome.

The researchers wanted to explore the efficacy of academic coaching services to postsecondary STEM students with a wide variety of disabilities who reported a need for academic support. Academic coaching is defined as one-to-one interaction with a student focusing on strengths, goals, study skills, engagement, academic planning and performance.

A highly-trained academic coach traveled to the campuses to provide coaching in person. In between sessions, the coach communicated with students via telephone or email. Taking into account individual differences, coaching sessions were tailored to the specific needs of each student. Self-assessment and self-reporting provided a foundation for the direction of the coaching sessions.

During the coaching sessions, the academic coach asked open-ended questions and modeled reflective thinking. This helped students develop the ability to plan and set goals. On average, the participants attended 12 coaching sessions during one academic semester.

Through an online survey, the students described the impact the academic coaching sessions had on them. The survey indicated that structure, organization and time management skills improved. The students said they felt less stressed and more reassured. They reported that motivation, confidence, self-esteem and self-advocacy increased.

When asked what helped them achieve educational or personal goals, the students responded that coaching helped improve goal setting, prioritization and goal advancement. Also, the students stated that coaching helped them increase in confidence and decrease self-criticism. They felt more focused and more organized in their career search.

The students identified the differences they experienced as a result of coaching as improved self-awareness/confidence, improved organization, goal-setting or priority-setting, improved emotional regulation, stress management/ improved learning strategies, knowledge retention and improved communication.

The results suggest students with a variety of disabilities can benefit from coaching relationships. Every participant who completed the survey reported that coaching had made a difference in his or her life. Students noted that coaching helped them learn new skills and strategies to help them succeed at college.

These findings point to the efficacy of academic coaching as an intervention to enhance executive functioning of students with disabilities, increasing their capacity to manage the cognitive processes used in planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to details and managing time.

In conclusion, academic coaching helps college STEM students who have disabilities improve their executive functioning, which in turn supports academic achievement.