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Health Edition, Life, Specialty COACHING THROUGH AN ADHD LENS


By: Michele Toner •  2 years ago •  

If you are working as a coach, there’s a good chance that you are coaching someone with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), whether they have been diagnosed or not. They may have been referred to you for coaching due to unsatisfactory performance in the workplace.

They may be in danger of dropping out of university. Their relationship may be ending. Their place on the elite sporting programme may be in jeopardy. Very rarely will they present for coaching because life is progressing smoothly and they want more.

You may quickly become frustrated with this client, who forgets or turns up late for appointments and who fails to follow through on agreed actions. You may even start to think of this client as un-coachable. My intention in writing this article is to provide information about a condition that is often referred to as an “invisible difference” and to provide specific tips for coaching through an ADHD lens.

For many, the term ADHD conjures images of hyperactive children lacking disciplined parenting, healthy diets and exercise. It is regularly misrepresented in the media and often dismissed as a western fad or a result of our modern hectic lifestyle. For example, in 1798 physician. Here are some facts from the large body of research that exists on ADHD:

• ADHD symptoms were described in medical literature in 1798 when Alexander Crichton wrote a chapter entitled “Attention and its Diseases” in a textbook published by the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh

• ADHD occurs in approximately 4% of the adult population and 7% of children (NHMRC).

• ADHD is underdiagnosed and undertreated in Australia, particularly in adults. In WA, where the Health Department monitors prescription rates of ADHD medications, 0.5% of adults and 1.6% children are taking ADHD medication.

• ADHD is highly heritable.

• Brain imaging studies have identified several differences in those with ADHD. Steve Hinshaw’s study found a delay in maturation (< 2 years) of the outer surface of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex.

• ADHD rarely exists alone. Depression, anxiety and learning difficulties co-exist commonly.

• ADHD, particularly when untreated, is associated with significant negative outcomes across the lifespan in all areas of life.

• Medication forms part of ADHD management. Multidisciplinary approaches across health and education are ideal.

If ADHD is not all about undisciplined, hyperactive kids, how does it show up in the world? How do coaches work with their clients to look beyond their challenges to their potential greatness?


Challenges in the area of Executive Functions (EF) are common in people with ADHD. EF broadly refers to a set of cognitive processes, moderated by the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are responsible for goal-directed, problem-solving behaviours, and attention control.

EFs, enable us to do what we know we need to do, much as the conductor of an orchestra enables the musicians to perform together

and create a harmonious sound. They exist in the gap between intentions and actions by organising what, when, where and how we do things.

People with ADHD typically know what they need to do, and lack the ability to plan and execute the actions required.

Consequently, EF-related challenges can show up for as procrastination, forgetfulness, time blindness,

disorganisation, difficulty meeting deadlines, emotional sensitivity, and poor prioritisation.

Because these behaviours are experienced by most people from time to time tolerance of the behavioural differences that characterise people with ADHD tends to be low and there is an expectation that they will conform to normal expectations.


People with ADHD function on two levels as a result of their EF challenges. In workplace thinktank sessions they may show up as creative and innovative. Their unconventional thought patterns see possibilities hidden from others.

These qualities are highly sought after and valued by their peers. And then there is the second level of functioning where they show up to

meetings unprepared and fail to follow through on commitments.

There is a great deal of shame associated with this second level of functioning which prevents them from articulating their challenges and requesting support.

In some cases, their desirable traits so easily displayed on one level are summarily dismissed because of their

seemingly benign EF-related challenges.

In an ideal world, individuals with ADHD would be valued for their strengths and supported as appropriate. But how do you support individuals who do not respond to traditional accommodations and who are unable to identify strategies that would assist them? That’s where the power of coaching comes in.


ADHD coaching has grown as a specialised stream within the International Coach Federation (ICF) model. Coaches adhere to the ICF core competencies and add an additional layer of skills that encompass the differences associated with ADHD.

Below are some tips for coaches to tune that ADHD lens.

Consider EF challenges

Coaching people with ADHD can be quite a roller-coaster.

Your clients may show up as engaged and motivated during a session, leave with new awareness and a determination to do things differently, only to show up at the next session having forgotten the magic you shared.

Never assume that your clients will remember what you discuss. Check-in before they leave to ensure that they have recorded the information they need.

Be flexible with communication

During coaching sessions, your clients may jump from topic to topic as they struggle to organise their thoughts. Many will be verbal processors who articulate every thought they have in order to solve formulate a strategy.

Your ability to keep the main points in mind and mirror them back to your client will help them organise their ideas.

Have an agreement that you will interrupt if necessary if they stray off topic. Also, agree that they may interrupt you if there is any danger of forgetting an “aha” if they try to hold onto it. Some may need to draw or write in order to process their thoughts.

Be mindful that for many people with ADHD, fidgeting helps them to focus. Let them know that fidgeting is encouraged during coaching sessions, and pacing is also an option. Invite them to experiment during sessions.

Make time visible

People with ADHD have time-blindness and will constantly underestimate the time they need to complete tasks, which may result in committing to unrealistic actions. They may also forget what other time commitments they have in place. Work with them to find a calendar or diary system that works for them and help them to devise a system to check it regularly.

Embrace difference and facilitate self-advocacy

As you and your clients experiment with different strategies, they will start to identify novel approaches to traditional tasks that play to their strengths and minimize EF-related challenges. When this happens work with them to advocate for the necessary changes in their work/home/study environments. For example, arranging, when required, to move from the open office environment and work alone in a meeting room on a computer with voice-to-text software for report writing while pacing.

This article lists a handful of tips for coaching clients with ADHD. However, once you train that lens to suspend judgement, engage curiosity and encourage your clients to do the same, you will set the scene for a meaningful change.

For a list of ICF-accredited coach schools that teach specialist ADHD coach training use the Training Program Search Service at this link: px?webcode=TPSS

Michele Toner

Michele has been supporting people with ADHD since 1995 and started her coaching practice in 2009. In addition to her hands-on experience, she has completed a Master of Special Education and a PhD in the area of ADHD, earning research prizes for both from the University of WA.

Michele holds credentials with the International Coach Federation (PCC), and the Professional Association of ADHD Coaches (PCAC). In addition to her private coaching practice, Michele works to promote ADHD Awareness around Australia.

She is a faculty member of the ADD Coach Academy in New York, and a registered mentor coach.

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