Coaching Diverse Learners to Success

In the United States Marine Corps (USMC) thirteen week bootcamp, many lessons are imparted to recruits from their drill instructors. One more recent lesson specifically designed by the USMC is to awaken a recruit’s internal locus of control. This is the belief that people can influence their future by the choices they make in the present. Studies have shown that internal locus of control can be linked to greater academic success, higher social maturity and self motivation, less stress and depression, and longer life span. USMC recruits are given opportunities to make decisions for themselves as an individual and a platoon, so they can start to realize how powerful it feels to be in charge of their lives. When faced with a decision, drill instructors want their recruits to make decisions during boot camp, even if it goes carries consequences. The Marines call this a “bias toward action.” This approach is extremely helpful when Marines are in a battle and they need to make their own decisions in real time.

Mansfield Hall’s coaching model operates in a similar manner to hopefully increase students’ internal locus of control. For many of our students, it is their first time away from home and they are not used to making many decisions throughout their day or semester. Having a new found ability to make many different choices surrounding time management, academics, what to eat, or where to go can be daunting at first. This is what we refer to as “the landing period.” The staff provide a comfortable buffer for students in this area through different coaching sessions or just having a presence in the building for students to ask questions or help problem solve.

The staff at Mansfield Hall have a similar role to drill instructors. What we lack in bulging muscles and extremely angry facial expressions, we make up for in patience and empathy. We work really hard to establish relationships with students through various means: having meals, going on weekend trips, helping with academics, playing games, etc. Also our approach using  Motivational Interviewing (MI) helps students to be in charge of their decisions and goals. MI’s research based approach is student-centered and non-directive. Mansfield Hall staff coach students to look at their behaviors or goals to see where they want to make changes, and we help the student to explore various strategies that lead them closer to their goals.

As a staff member, it is incredibly rewarding to reflect on the difference between a student at the start of the first semester and now as we start the second semester. They are able to make so many more of the decisions that would have been challenging in July or August. The second semester is when many students can really start to take over more ownership of their goals or areas of focus as they have had the first semester to land and gotten used to a “bias toward action.”

Another great thing drill instructors do for the recruits during boot camp is by asking the question “Why?”. Recruits go through many long days of difficult and arduous work to become a Marine. Drill instructors often ask “Why are enduring this long run?” or “Why are you completing push ups?” or “Why are you crawling through the mud?” Many recruits come into bootcamp with greater goals then to be able to run a longer distance or do more pushups. They might have goals to have more discipline in their lives, get an education later, be a better husband/wife or father/mother. Drill instructors help recruits connect the difficult moment they are presently enduring to their larger goals or values. Anytime someone can make an unpleasant task or chore into a meaningful decision, greater self-motivation will emerge allowing the person to push through and accomplish the mundane or difficult task. This feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction from getting through a difficult moment provides a sense of accomplishment and helps to increase their ability to complete a similar or more challenging task in the future. Mansfield Hall provides the same opportunity for our students. Students and staff work closely together throughout the days and evenings constantly connecting the present moment to identified larger goals. Any time a staff member can help a student answer a question such as, “Why is it important for me to come to SST tonight?” or “Why do I need to exercise?” or “Why would I want to play ‘Exploding Kittens’?” by connecting it to their larger life goals, it works to increase the likelihood that they will follow through. Obviously, staff at Mansfield Hall can’t make any choices for students, nor would we want to. Our job is to work hard to show students the choices they make now are important for the future and their goals.

Authored by Mansfield Hall- Burlington’s Drill Sergeant and Director of Student Life, Bryan Wilkinson

Information from this blog post was taken from Charles Duhigg’s chapter on motivation in his book, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity (2016).