Podcast: How to Achieve an Academic Turnaround

How to Achieve an Academic Turnaround

Meet Liz – one of Signet’s rockstar academic coaches. In today’s episode, Liz shares her approach to coaching, what kinds of challenges coaching can help with, and how to tell if your child is ready for coaching or not. Learn about how a coach puts students at the center of identifying and solving their own challenges and what parents can do to support their kids with executive function deficits, attention issues, or emotional issues that stand in the way of their success.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Liz: 

You know, imagine your biggest challenge right now. Are you imagining it?

Just imagine, just consider the possibility that it just flies away. It just disappears. How do you feel? How would you feel if it just disappeared?

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey everybody. Last week, I got to sit down with one of our most tenured tutors here. Liz Mazzola. She’s been with us for about 10 years now. And she is a killer test prep tutor. ISEE, SSAT, SAT,  ACT, GRE, even GMAT, she does really well with students who have test anxiety or things get kind of built up in their mind more than the challenge really deserves. And the thing that I wanted to talk to her about was her other superpower, which is coaching.

So Liz has been a mentor for her whole life. She’s worked with Big Brothers and Big Sisters for a really long time. Mentoring is a really important part of her life in general. She’s also a certified mindfulness coach. And when she works with our students in a coaching capacity, she just enables these amazing transformations where young people are really taking ownership of the lives they want to lead and their relationship to their education. So I’m really excited to introduce Liz to you all and have her share some of the things that she does with students in the hopes that maybe you could do some of this with your your kids as well. So Liz, thank you so much for spending a little time with me. I always really enjoyed talking with you. Because I feel like I learned so much not just about you, but about what’s going on with kids these days. I’m a little removed from it. But you’re you’re deep in the heart of it. So thank you again for joining me.

Liz: 

Yeah, you’re welcome. I’m happy to be here.

Sheila Akbar: 

So I’m curious if we could just start with you telling us a little bit about how you got into this work.

Liz: 

I actually started, I guess you could say in in college, I was helping my friends with their homework and realize that I was really good at that. And, and then that evolved into proctoring tests, because my friend was doing it and said they needed some help. And then I learned more about test prep, and then also learned about how I’m a great candidate for coaching. And what parts of my personality actually really helped me with coaching and connecting with people.

Sheila Akbar: 

Can you say more about that? What what parts of your personality do make you a good fit for coaching to be a coach?

Liz: 

Yeah, I think I’m really kind, almost to a fault. However, I know that it’s so I’m very careful with my words and how I word things, especially for students that are like are a little more like, I guess you could say sensitive or just you know, really matter how you phrase things in front of them. But also, because I’m a little bit of a chameleon, I really bring up and teach something to someone a very differently, depending on who I’m speaking to, and what their learning style is and the communication style that’s most effective for them. So I think those are a few things. Also, I think I just pivot really well as things come up in sessions that you can’t expect. And to kind of figure out okay, does this change our trajectory or what our priorities are? And understanding that that can change at any time? Also, stickers, and stickers,

Sheila Akbar: 

yes, stickers. I think that always helps. Yeah, I think your assessment of of those strengths of yours are really spot on. I want to come back to like how you figure out what someone’s learning style or communication style might be. But before we get into that, can you just give us your kind of 32nd definition of what coaching is in the way that we do it?

Liz: 

Sure. Basically we figure out exactly what are the main challenges. And I’ve done a lot with executive function coaching specifically, that’s a big one, lots of students with, you know, those challenges really need that in order to thrive. So it’s basically creating this kind of catalyst environment, to give them the tools that they need to succeed and feel more like themselves or where they want to be. So trying to get people there with strategies and structure, while also customizing it to everyone, because everyone’s so different.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, so you mentioned executive function challenges, that’s definitely a big thing. We see it often. What other kinds of challenges have you worked on with your students?

Liz: 

I think I have worked a little bit with, since I’m a certified mindfulness teacher, I also sometimes throw in based on what I’m picking up in our sessions, certain mindfulness challenges that could help them greatly. For instance, one of my students now she really is challenged by how she works through frustration. And that kind of holds her back sometimes. And so I’ve given her a little bit of insight and a mindfulness challenge relating to dealing with that more productively. Yeah, so that’s like, that’s a good example. That’s a great example of mindfulness related goals.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And you don’t have to go into detail about that particular student, of course, but I don’t think she came in or her parents came in saying, our kid doesn’t know how to deal with frustration. Right? I’m sure that’s something you uncovered with Yeah. Tell us about that process? How do you go about figuring out what those challenges are?

Liz: 

Sure, I think, because I’m really, I’m not the opposite of a person that has like tunnel vision, I kind of see things more holistic, big picture. And so even if we’re working through something, maybe it’s even just working on their homework or working through a plan have a to do list for that week, maybe maybe other things that they’re bringing up about their day, is really sticking with me and how they’ve delivered that information, just how they phrase things, and patterns that I see across different sessions. I pick up on those things. And and then sometimes I’ll pitch to a student like I’ve, I’ve seen this pattern kind of start to come up. What are your thoughts on learning some strategies and as experimenting with what might help get to the next level? Would that challenge? That’s it?

Sheila Akbar: 

How do they typically respond?

Liz: 

Typically, they agree with me, they’re like, oh, yeah, that’s something we should work on. Like, oh, it’s it’s taken you three sessions to realize that I don’t know how you didn’t pick that up on day one or so.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, it’s so interesting, too, because, you know, you mentioned this example of a student really struggling with the way they deal with their frustration when they encounter it. That might not normally be seen as an academic challenge. But it’s absolutely something that impacts their ability to perform at school, or is that like you were saying earlier be who they want to be?

Liz: 

Yeah. And because even though it, you know, falls under the umbrella of academic coaching, but it’s still with the mindset of, like, let’s help them become the person that they want to be even outside of school, because it affects just their life quality.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And I will say, I think that’s one of the big things that differentiates sort of the Signet academic coaching program from a lot of others, right? We’re not going to come in and say, here’s the calendar, here’s how you use a calendar, you’re really spending time to get to know these students and all the various aspects of their life that they are motivated to make improvements around or changes around so that they can have a happier, healthier, more balanced life, whatever their goals might be. Yeah. And I love that you bring in that the mindfulness training that you have to help students I know that also helps your test prep students when they’re dealing with test anxiety, which is also super common. Can you say a little bit about that?

Liz: 

Yeah, I mean, under timed conditions, right, like most people get stressed, and some people really benefit from I’m understanding and practicing strategies that help like reel in that anxiety, and respond to it productively, so that they can slide through that test as best as possible. So that’s something that comes up, and definitely throws them forward towards their goals, if that’s if that’s one of their challenges, that’s definitely a big part of what we should focus on.

Sheila Akbar: 

Now, I feel like you have developed a particular specialty around working with like, 1314 year old girls. And I think that that’s so important, especially just sort of in this moment of heightened mental health crises for adolescents. Yeah. And we’ve seen research that shows us it’s, it’s far worse for for young women than then for young men, though, there are challenges. Of course, there too. I’m curious if you can talk to us about what you’re seeing. And some of the things that you’ve seen have been helpful for your teenage girl students?

Liz: 

Sure. I think the fact that I am always trying to communicate in a way that’s a direct book kind, and infusing some humor in there. And some fun, and going at the pace that works best for them. I’m not like so focused and set on a particular outcome or pace, because it’s all about them and what works best for them, I think, them understanding that they have a really good listener that’s here to help. That’s a team player that gets anxious to get stressed, you know, and like, let’s use these strategies together so that we both feel better, you know, like, so I think, I think I can relate with some of the things that they’re going through, even though I’m not close to that age, but I think I’m also have moments where I’m like a kid inside. And so we can kind of, hopefully feel like even though I’m teaching them that sometimes we have these like peer moments, you know, and really having a good time and enjoying.

Sheila Akbar: 

that’s so important for I mean, I remember when I was that age, what I would have done to have a mentor like you at that time to have any mentor really, that kind of understood me and put my well being and my own goals first, one of the things we do in coaching is like you don’t have an agenda, right? It’s an agenda that you’ve co created with the students, what are the things that they are they feel are really important and the challenges that they’re seeing? Because those are the things they’re willing to work on? They’re certainly challenges. They don’t understand that they have yet, but you can’t start there. Right, right. Let’s talk about some of the transformations you’ve seen with your students, like, Give us an example of where somebody started, and where they got to and the kinds of things that they did to help them get there.

Liz: 

Yeah, one of my past students, we immediately connected. And we initially we’re just doing test prep together, actually. But we were realizing that as we were working through the test prep, that she was really having a hard time focusing and sticking to the pacing roles and everything. And I could, I could just sense that we didn’t tap into something there. And that we really needed to hold that space. And so I, I had a conversation with mom. And we kind of increased the scope of what we’re working on to do some coaching and some test prep. And we kind of work through lots of these focus challenges, perfection challenges, and also anxiety challenges. And we’re able to work towards all of those things. And by the way, when I met her, she literally said, I hate math. And, um, after we worked together for I guess it was a few months, something like that. She said, I actually enjoy math. I was like, whoa, whoa, when we first met is that I just don’t want you to hate it anymore. Like even if we just bring it down a notch, and I’m more confident with it. That’s okay with me. No, she enjoys it.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s amazing. So in that work, like it’s not like you were teaching math. So what do you think changed?

Liz: 

I think like her relationship to math was challenged and revise

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, like where she got that story from? Right? That’s amazing. That’s amazing. Yeah. Reminds me of some other feedback we got from a client of yours recently who said that her daughter is using a planner on a daily basis, which Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t matter if your kid has executive function challenges or not tip for anyone to be using a planner on daily basis, I think is a really big deal.

Liz: 

Yeah, yeah. And there’s a lot of back and forth sometimes on that. And it doesn’t always have to be a planner, it depends on the person. There’s actually lots of different ways to manage your to do list. But that one works for her. Yeah, she had like missing assignments and had trouble just sitting down and doing the work. Like she almost had to have like a babysitter a little bit. Just to get her work done. Flash forward to now she’s a straight A student. And she loves checking her grades online. It’s like one of her favorite things to do. And she rants to me about, you know, in a goofy way, about how her grade her GPAs, like only at a 95. And that’s Oh, wow, just, you know, oh my god. So she’s definitely way more independent, confident. And obviously her grades are showing that.

Sheila Akbar: 

And it sounds like she’s sort of taking ownership. Yeah, for sure. Amazing. I mean, that that student is a ninth grader. So for, for that transformation to happen that early on in high school, you’ve essentially helped her set herself on a totally different trajectory.

Liz: 

Yeah, I think that’s like my ultimate goal with coaching in general, regardless of the goals that we set, and what their challenges are and everything. I think that’s the goal.

Sheila Akbar: 

Can you tell us about like, what is that process of like figuring out the right solution for whatever challenge?

Liz: 

Sure. I mean, it usually starts with hearing more about the challenge itself that the problem we’re trying to solve, basically, and what they’ve tried so far, and why didn’t those work, because that’s an important part of like, kind of the formula, so to speak, and gathering necessary information, and then running by them a few options, and what they think plays to their strengths, more. So I think, you know, there’s lots of different ways to, to manage your homework, load and everything. That’s more fun and customizable for a student, like maybe it’s a bullet journal, maybe it’s Google Keep, which are like little post, its online, if you haven’t used it before, it’s actually really cool. Or the traditional planner, and there’s other ones too. So it’s just kind of trying to help them understand that it doesn’t always have to have like a boring approach. And that because everyone’s so different. Like let’s find the right tools for you specifically.

Sheila Akbar: 

That sounds like a little bit of like, investigation first, right? Like, what’s really going on? Why didn’t these things work? What was standing in your way? And then experimentation? Yeah. I wondering if you could share with us any advice you may have for parents who, maybe their kids not quite ready to admit that there is a challenge they’re facing or they’re not ready to accept help? Sometimes there’s a lot of shame around these things. Sure. And of course, the parent dynamic can get really tense because the parent ends up being like homework, police. And yeah, it’s never fun, right? So what kind of advice could you give a parent in that situation? Are there small things they can do to help empower their student to start taking small steps for themselves or being more willing to accept outside help?

Liz: 

My gut is saying that maybe asking their their student you know, imagine your biggest challenge right now. Are you imagining it? Absolutely. Coach mouth, just imagine, just consider the possibility that it just flies away. It just disappears. How do you feel? How would you feel if it just disappeared?

Sheila Akbar: 

I mean, I felt immediately lighter. I felt like the muscles in my around my heart just sort of relax. I feel like a headache kind of just went away like a headache that’s sort of always there in the back just kind of went away.

Liz: 

Well, I think that that’s what kind of the feelings that you could emulate with, with coaching, when it’s done, right. And so that could help with their openness to coaching, if they’re really facing some challenges, and also letting them know that like you’re saying, Sheila, it does alleviate tension in the house. And then it doesn’t give stress on their relationship. And they can just focus on things that are more fun and they can bonds and they want to be

Sheila Akbar: 

apparent instead of right, you know, whatever this academic police’s

Liz: 

Right, exactly. Put down the police hat. Yeah, right longer. Right

Sheila Akbar: 

abolitionists over here. Yeah. Can you tell us about students you’ve seen that are not quite ready for coaching? Like, what does that look like? What’s the difference between a student who’s ready for coaching and who’s a student who’s not

Liz: 

a student that’s not ready for coaching, is not willing to experiment with other ways to do things. And they’re very, like stuck in their own way, and not open to hearing someone hearing a more maybe effective, you know, productive way to do something, they just aren’t having it. There definitely needs to be an openness to, to bring new ideas in and to actively try things at home that we talk about. That’s very important, big, big on the kind of equation to create success and coaching.

Sheila Akbar: 

Anything else?

Liz: 

Maybe they don’t see it as a problem. Okay. So I think like recognizing whatever challenges that are maybe really clear for the parents, maybe the child doesn’t see it

Sheila Akbar: 

yet. Yeah, I can think of many parents who have called us who either, you know, their, their child has had some sort of neuro psych evaluation or academic evaluation that suggests there’s a learning difference or an executive function challenge. They have been told you should seek out coaching. And the student is just not on the same page. Right. Right. And sometimes it’s because of the things you said that they don’t see that there are new problems. Like there are many kids who have learning differences or a different sort of neurological profile. And they do very well in school. Yeah, they have figured out ways to accommodate those challenges. A lot of times aren’t getting enough sleep. They’re working so so so hard. Yeah. And they’re getting great grades. So they’re like, what more do you want from me? I’m getting great grades. I work really hard. And in those cases, it’s like, well, there may be a way to just make things a little easier on you. Yeah, it’s not always about a difference in grades.

Liz: 

No, sometimes it’s actually sleeping at night. Or having, like, a school life balance, maybe.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, time for social life. Yeah, actual time that you can be on tick tock and not feel like oh, I have this thing hanging over my head that I need to do.

Liz: 

That’s the best time on tick tock, right. Yeah. Yep.

Sheila Akbar: 

So sometimes there’s, there’s situations like that where the student just feels like so overtaxed because they are working so hard to do as well as they’re doing or even if they’re not doing well, in school, they’re already working very hard. And they think that there’s not possibly any more that they could put into it. Right coaching can really help them. There are a lot of students whose parents are like, I don’t care what you say you’re doing it. And they may be in that rigid mindset of like, I’m not open to trying different things. I don’t see a problem here or whatever it is. And then I think there’s another group of students that really does want to change, but they really struggle to follow through on things. For whatever reason, sometimes it’s like, you don’t really believe things could change. Or maybe you just have like such such a an attentional challenge or an organizational challenges you actually like don’t know how to follow through. So for that last category of student, like, what are things that people can do or a coach could do in that situation to help them through it?

Liz: 

Yeah, I think for some of my students, we do like accountability checks between our sessions, to really kind of build that muscle of theirs, and to create some more routine and regimen and stuff and reinforce all those things.

Sheila Akbar: 

And I would imagine, in order for you to preserve that coach In relationship but still provide accountability. There’s got to be like, zero judgment.

Liz: 

Yeah, exactly. You’re never in trouble with me. You’re never in trouble with me. If something goes off course or just not to plan, something comes up. That’s okay. Like, just let me know. And I can help you adjust accordingly and figure out what a new plan

Sheila Akbar: 

is. And sometimes there’s some really valuable learnings in that if it didn’t go to plan, we need to understand why so we can make a better plan. Exactly. That’s fantastic. All right, I’m gonna ask you one last question. And then we’ll wrap it up. What do you get out of coaching?

Liz: 

I love getting to know new people. And I just love helping people, especially through what feels like the mightiest challenge they have ever faced. And, and then feeling victorious afterwards. Like it’s, it’s really great. And I’ve just, I’ve built some really special connections with so many people. And then I just want to do it more and more, you know, it’s addicting.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I mean, I think that those are the same reasons that I do what I do at Signet. So yeah, it’s great that we’re on the same page and share those same values. Liz. Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and all of these details about how you approach coaching and how you’re able to help students. Yeah, I know that. I’m so grateful for what you do. And I know the parents whose students you’re working with are just over the moon with the transformations that they’ve seen. So thank you on their behalf as well.

Liz: 

Yeah, thanks for having me. I’ve loved being at Signet, and I can’t wait for even more transformations.

Sheila Akbar: 

Well, thanks for listening everyone. I hope you enjoy that as much as I did. To learn more about me and my team, you can find me on LinkedIn or at Signeteducation.com. We hope to hear from you and see you next time.

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