It might sound like the latest fad, but life coaching really can help some unhappy children.
Life coaching for children puts power into play
As any parent will attest, seeing your child unhappy, struggling to make friends or failing at school is agonising. "You feel helpless," says Anna, whose son Giles (not their real names), 7, started having problems at his Dubai school in 2010. "You know there are going to be issues as your children grow up, but when you see your child failing, you do cartwheels to try and make sure they keep up with everybody else. It wasn't a case of wanting him to achieve academically; we just wanted him to be happy."
The change in their son had come on gradually, over the course of a year. "He was always a very personable wee chap," she says. "Great social skills, lots of charisma, very easy-going." It was at the start of year two that Anna noticed Giles was not keeping up with his peers. "His biggest issue was that he was quite disorganised and had difficulty focusing," she says.
This led to punitive measures, which in turn knocked his confidence. By the end of year three he was producing barely any work at all and his self-esteem had hit the floor. "He had been such a confident boy so it was heartbreaking to see how he didn't want to attempt anything because he didn't think he'd be good at it."
Giles had been getting learning support, both in and out of school; but now it was time to bring in the big guns. That meant taking a six-month course of "child-empowerment coaching" with the Dubai-based teacher-turned-life-coach Adam Zargar, whose fortnightly sessions address issues such as self-esteem, goal-setting, time management and learning to be proactive.
Within a year, says Anna, Giles was a different boy. "In terms of assessment, it's normal for a child to go up one sub-level a year. Giles went up five sub-levels in every subject in less than a year. It was the first school report that I had got that I just wanted to frame and put up on the wall. All of a sudden he was a diligent, focused, achieving child and he had his confidence back. It affected every area of his life."
Around the time he started working with Zargar, Giles was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and put on medication. Anna is convinced, though, that it would not have worked without Zargar's help. "It would not have given him his confidence back - that was Adam. Giles was already in the swing of trying and looking for things to do well at. Adam gave him the ability to have a go."
The idea of children being "empowered" may seem touchy-feely, but Zargar, who suffered from chronically low self-esteem himself when he was young, is convinced that the skills he teaches children and teenagers will help them to grow up into focused, fulfilled adults. "These are habits that everyone should learn," he says, "whether it be adults or children. And if you can get it at an early age, then all the better, because kids are sponges."
So what does he actually teach them? "To be proactive is one of the things," he says. "Younger kids often point the blame at other people or say, 'I'm bored, I hate Dubai'. But if you're pointing at something, one finger's pointing at that, and three are pointing at you. It's good for teenagers, too, as they often blame their parents if they don't like life in Dubai. But they need to go out and think, 'Well, what can I change?'" Through role-play, stories and video work, he teaches children as young as seven skills such as the art of compromise, how to listen properly, how to use body language and how to see things from another person's point of view.
Having studied psychology at university, Zargar was a primary schoolteacher for seven years before he started to run the courses, which combine elements of psychology, teaching and life-coaching - he is a certified NLP (neuro linguistic programming) life coach. "When I had a class of 20 to 25 kids," he says, "there were some kids who, no matter what you were doing workwise, you couldn't get through to them because there might be something at home that they're dealing with or they're just not confident. And there's always that kid who won't put their hand up or who is scared that the other kids might laugh at them. If you can just teach them to push through that and put their hand up, that was a concept I really wanted to get into."
Beyond the school gates, Zargar also helps children and parents sort through behavioural issues at home. "Ethan (7) is an introverted character," says his mother, who lives in Dubai and has three other children. She declined to share the family's surname. "He would get frustrated and scream and yell, and so we would scream and yell. Adam has helped us all to acknowledge when we're frustrated and given us roles to play to prevent things from escalating." For her, it was a case of nipping the problem in the bud. "I was very aware that at seven years old you have a little problem," she says, "but at 15 years old you have a big problem. I didn't want this aggression to escalate."
Louise, whose 14-year-old son Arthur (not their real names) was struggling to settle in to their new life in Dubai, feels that simply having someone to talk to helped their son find his way again. "He needed someone else, not us, to help him out with focus and goals and stick to them," she says. "Now, Arthur thinks twice before he does something. One thing that really pleases us is that he takes much more interest in his homework, which was not something we asked Adam to do but has been a pleasant side effect."
The results may be impressive, but life-coaching for children is nothing new, says Dr Rudolf Stockling, an educational psychologist who practises in Dubai. "My only issue," he says, "is that if the child has specific issues of a slightly more serious nature, will they be able to pick that up? What sometimes happens in self-help groups is that people don't see when things are more serious than just needing good skills."
There is also the question of whose job it really is to "empower" children. "Perhaps parents are giving away responsibility for teaching their children things, which is their job," says Stockling.
"Children and teenagers often respond better to someone who's not close to them," says Zargar. "We don't want to listen to our parents; we've all been there."
Either way, Anna believes that their decision has had nothing but positive repercussions. "Had we not acted when we did," she says, "Giles probably would have muddled through school, thinking he was a failure, which would have affected his whole future. The change in him has meant he has been able to get into a good secondary school, which has a huge effect on a child's self-esteem. At this age, up to teenagers, you've got a very short window of time to try and shape your child's future."
• Adam Zargar's child-empowerment coaching is available for children age 7 to 18 (Dubai only). For more information go to www.2blimitless.com or call Adam on 055 138 7652. The parents interviewed in this article chose to maintain their anonymity to protect their children
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