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The 5 key characteristics of using solution-focused coaching with learners

There are many definitions of coaching but one of the most widely recognised is ‘coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them’ (Whitmore, 2002).

The solution-focused approach to coaching is, as the title suggests, essentially trying to make greater progress with the learner by focusing on where they want to get to and understanding what skills and knowledge they need to get there, rather than spending excessive amounts of time exploring the problem or issue they may be facing.One of the principal features of a solution-focused coaching approach, and one of the reasons why we advocate its use with learners through your teaching and personal tutor role, is that it can significantly reduce any inferiority learners feel about themselves or their current situation. Furthermore, in terms of emotional well-being, experience shows that this approach helps learners to think more optimistically, behave more confidently, as well as engage with their goals which become more self-generated.

The following 5 key characteristics help you focus the way you view and use solution-focused coaching in your day to day conversations with learners:

1. Positive change can occur

Solution-focused coaching works on the assumption that positive change can occur with your learners and that this change can happen quickly.

2. Clear goals and self-directed action

You should work with each learner to define specific goals, however, it’s worth noting a good coaching conversation ‘doesn’t stop when it stops’. Set a clear expectation that the learner must be self-directed and take the responsibility to implement actions to achieve their goals outside of the coaching conversations.

3. Develop solutions and focus on the future; don’t dwell on problems within the past or present

Ensure you listen to any issues or problems to communicate empathy and develop rapport with your learners. However, swiftly move the conversation on to exploring future goals, past successes and what skills, knowledge and abilities they have.

4. Use the learner’s experience, expertise and resources

A solution-focused coach is an enabler and facilitator. There is a belief that the learner is likely to already have the answers and the ability to take themselves forward and, as their teacher or personal tutor, it is your role to help them notice this.When learners feel they have worked something out for themselves, there is a greater chance that they will ask themselves these questions in the future and coach themselves. The best coaches in some ways become ‘invisible’.

5. Reframe the learner’s perspective and help them to notice positives

Reframing is useful and helps learners to notice:

  • a distant possibility as a near possibility;
  • a weakness as a strength;
  • a problem as an opportunity.

The coaching conversations you have with learners will not always go perfectly or have the perfect outcome, but practising the techniques is key to understanding which you prefer and feel comfortable with and in which contexts you feel they are and aren’t appropriate.They aren’t the ‘magic wand’ that will fix all of the issues you want to address or the areas you or your institution wish to improve. However, solution-focused coaching techniques are practical tools you can use to help remove barriers to learning and to stretch, challenge and motivate your learners in the many and varied situations in which you work with them.Given the expectations placed on you to remove barriers to learning as well as motivate your learners to achieve their potential, if solution-focused coaching techniques were used, at appropriate times, by every member of staff who worked with learners, how helpful would that be to the learners and what benefits would there be for the educational institution?

Good practice tips

We suggest the following good practice tips for using solution-focused coaching with learners in your teaching and personal tutoring role:

1. Practice using scaling in your coaching conversations. This enables you to find out what’s working. You can ask learners to rate themselves on a scale from one to ten, where the desired outcome is ten and one is the complete opposite. The tool of scaling is a useful aid and can be used in coaching conversations as well as a variety of other situations but it is particularly effective for conversations on target setting, behaviour, motivation and assessing a learner’s commitment to an action. Allowing learners to place a number on how they perceive, for example, their behaviour, ensures that they have thought about what has happened in comparison to previous experiences. This self-reflection allows them to focus on their current situation and provides you and them with an agreed and established platform to co-construct desired future improvements.

2. Consider ways in which you can pull the learner away from the topic being discussed, to give them a ‘bird’s eye’ or ‘helicopter’ view of their situation. This can make them see it differently and more objectively. One way to do this can be to de-personalise the conversation, by saying ‘how would John/ Sarah know when things are going well?’, in other words don’t use ‘you’ but use his or her name. This may enable them to notice what other people might see.

3. In either the arranged or opportune follow up discussions, try to find out what’s working and build on that. Useful phrases to use are ‘what’s better?’ or ‘what helped?’ Focus predominantly on things that are helping the learner to move in the right direction and less on whether previous actions were carried out or what happened.


1. In your view, to what extent do you feel you already adopt a solution-focused approach with your learners?2. Considering your experience, explain the situations when you feel the solution-focused approach would be:

  • most useful and effective;
  • less useful and effective.

Andrew Stork is a marketing lecturer and teacher trainer who has co-responsibility for the personal tutoring and coaching of learners at The Sheffield College. He has a wide range of experience training, mentoring and supporting teachers and personal tutors as module leader on PGCE and certificate of education courses, as well as undertaking various curriculum leadership and quality roles.

Ben Walker has co-responsibility for the personal tutoring and coaching of learners at The Sheffield College and also teaches on PGCE and certificate of education courses. Prior to this he was a lecturer in English for several years before becoming head of department and an observer and has significant experience in supporting and training teachers and personal tutors.

The authors can be contacted via their websites: and


Whitmore, J. (2002) Coaching for Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose. 3rd edition. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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