How can neuroscience support a coaching approach to enhance the performance of school leaders?

In today’s complex, interconnected and rapidly changing world, the demands placed on our leaders and organisations have grown exponentially (Wright, A., McLean Walsh, M., Tennyson, S., 2019). In this multi-dimensional leadership landscape the need for coaches to be fully equipped to support school leaders to meet these demands is essential.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) held their 2019 UK conference in London themed ‘remaining coaching’. The keynote speaker, Dr. Laura Watkins, delivered a presentation titled ‘neuroscience to go beyond’. Discussions centred on incorporating neuroscience to transcend traditional coaching relationships helping leaders to thrive under pressure, develop and adapt to situations.

Research suggests that a first step in cultivating the above can be seen to lie with fostering strong brains through developing personal agility and enhancing self-awareness to notice what we are thinking and feeling.


Personal agility toolkit

Promoting personal agility necessitates setting leaders up with brain friendly environments and exploring how as coaches, we can help cultivate a strong brain by possessing an awareness of and engaging with the following five areas:

  1. Head: Thoughts and focus

Example: Growth mindset and visualisations.

  1. Heart: Emotions

Example: Harnessing emotions, emotional labelling and gratitude.

  1. Breath: Deliberate breathing or attention

Example: Mindfulness, meditation, breath control and counting.

  1. Body: Internal attention or movement

Example: Yoga, shape making and exercise.

  1. Hand: Writing or making

Example: Inspirational activities.


How does this work in practice?

A coaching relationship could begin with a diagnostic of how the leader is currently engaged with the above five reference points. Is there a prevalence for a particular point or is there an under or over dialling of certain areas? What category might it be more fruitful for the client to explore and why?

Further sessions could entail unpicking what category a leader would like to focus on going forward and setting action plans to ensue these are carried out to develop agility and promote healthy performance. In terms of timescales, the implementation of the above could be across days, weeks or months dependent on the situation. A monthly example could look like the following:

January: Hand- expressive writing through journaling.

February: Breath- taking pulse, calming down and mindfulness techniques.

March: Hand- ensuring time to play the piano.

April: Head- mindset, don’t forget priorities.


Rapid Cycle learning

A quick and easy way to track progress can be to focus on learnings and intentions as part of a daily review.

Learnings: What I learnt yesterday (focusing on what you leant about your self).

Intentions: Your intentions for today (and how you will ensure these are implemented).

Incorporating the above outlined personal agility toolkit and rapid cycle learning can appreciate a coaching repertoire, developing environments that support a strong brain and enhance the performance of school leaders.



Wright, A., McLean Walsh, M., Tennyson, S., (2019) Systemic coaching supervision: Responding to the complex challenges of our time, Philosophy of Coaching: an international journal Vol. 4, No.1, pp107-122.

Watkins, L., (2019) ‘Brain matters: using neuroscience to go beyond’ [PowerPoint presentation] (assessed 8th May 2019).

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