What’s the difference between coaching and counselling and how do you choose which is best for a young person?

coaching_or_counselling_for_young_people_how_to_choose
Communications Officer - Jen Lees | Worth-it

Jen Lees
Communications Officer & Coach

Senior Mental Health & Wellbeing Consultant - Liz Robson-Kelly | Worth-it

Liz Robson-Kelly
Managing Director

January 2021

Before we begin delving into this topic further, we have to let you know that Worth-it is a provider of Coaching interventions. Therefore, we are potentially more in favour of coaching than counselling as an approach. But we are biased!

So firstly, before we explain the difference between coaching and counselling (in our opinion), we think it’s important that we distinguish the difference between some of the key terms as Counsellor, Psychotherapist, Therapist and Coach can often be used interchangeably. This often adds confusion especially when you are looking for support for a young person.  We will also provide some tips on the qualifications or accreditations to look out for.

Counsellor

A Counsellor has completed training that includes a set number of hours of counselling practice to allow them to achieve a certain level of counselling qualification.

The lowest level to become a qualified Counsellor is a level 4 Diploma. This is the equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate degree although individuals might then have other professional development certificates. Anything lower than level 4, means that an individual is qualified to use the skills of a counsellor but they haven’t completed the required number of hours to practice professionally.

A qualified counsellor is usually a member of a Counselling Professional Body for registration such as BACP or NCS. But surprisingly this is not mandatory.

Schools may have a School Counsellor. This individual could be a qualified counsellor or may be a member of staff who is referred to as a Counsellor. It is possible that this individual is not qualified to level 4 but they are experienced in using counselling skills as they have lots of on-the-job know-how and have completed CPD.

Psychotherapist

A Psychotherapist is someone who has often completed a higher level of training compared to a Counsellor. Usually having postgraduate or masters level qualifications that include learning about child and adolescent development and therapeutic approaches.

Psychotherapists will have often had to have completed more hours with clients before qualifying and the coursework will have been at a higher level. They may also be a member of a professional body such as the ACP.

In this article, we use the term Therapy as a catch-all term for any therapeutic intervention in general. Whether it be Counselling or Psychotherapy; but not Coaching. 

Advice on Choosing a Counsellor or Therapist for a young person

If you are looking for a Counsellor or Therapist for a child or young person, make sure that they are accredited by the correct professional body and have experience and qualifications in working with children or young people.

Counselling may be provided locally by third sector organisations of CAMHS. This can vary depending on where you are based in the UK so always check locally. Young Minds have provided this helpful blog and also have a parent’s helpline. 

What is a Coach?

The term ‘Coach’ is HUGELY used within Sport and Personal Development. But for this context, we are talking about practitioners who are offering a service of Coaching within personal development and have a level of knowledge and experience in coaching young people.

Ideally, these individuals have a Coaching Qualification AND are a member of a professional body, with whom they follow their code of ethics. But again, this is not essential or mandatory. 

This really matters to us here at Worth-it. We are an organisational member of the Association for Coaching and our team all have qualifications in coaching including at postgraduate and masters level and are also members of professional bodies for coaching, coaching psychology and positive psychology. See our team page to find out more about us and meet the team.

Interested in becoming a Coach?

Find our more about our Worth-it Coach Training

Coaching Young People

Although coaching is very popular and well established as a helpful approach for adult professional or personal development, it is still a relatively new field as an approach to support young people. 

So what is the difference between Counselling and Coaching?

This is not a simple question to answer and can be subjective depending on who you are asking (did we mention we are coaches!). It has also been a debate in the field of coaching for over 20 years so we will do our best to cover the topic from our perspective as Positive Psychology Coaches.

Counselling tends to concentrate on past events and emotions, working backwards to bring the individual back up to the present time and can be a useful approach for addressing and dealing with trauma.

Coaching on the other hand works more in the present and is future-facing. Objectively looking at the past/patterns to help identify a different way forward. It enables the individual to look at difficult solutions and develop skills and coping strategies to form new habits, attitudes, or abilities to deal with these.

The lines between Coaching and Counselling have become slightly blurred as Coaching has evolved to be more psychologically underpinned and Counselling has broadened its approach. However, there are distinct areas where the differences still stand out and below is a guide of behaviours and situations under which schools should refer to.

How do you decide which is best between Coaching and Counselling? 

In our experience, we have found that the easiest way to choose between Counselling and Coaching as an approach to support young people is to focus on the starting point of the young person and what it is they are looking for. Do they have a level of moderate mental health, but aren’t diagnosed as being mentally ill? Or are they languishing (low mental health without elevated levels of mental illness(1))?

A coach can help a young person move from languishing up the mental health spectrum towards moderate mental health. They then may want to help the young person go from having good levels of wellbeing towards flourishing or thriving (typically a Coach supports this process of change).

Alternatively, the young person may feel that they are in emotional distress and they that they are really struggling with something traumatic or psychologically distressing (typically a Counsellor or therapist will help with this depending on the level of distress).

However, when it comes to putting this into practice, it’s not always this black and white. Young people are often not self-aware enough to be able to explain or understand what type of intervention would help them. Or some interventions such as therapy may not be accessible locally or within the school.

On the whole, Counselling or Therapy is required for young people who are in a deeper level of psychological distress than a young person requiring Coaching. It is possible for a coach to work with a young person struggling with more severe mental health problems, they will however work on supporting them to improve their wellbeing rather than address the levels of distress they are feeling. For some young people they really appreciate and benefit from this way of working(2, 3).

For many young people who are struggling emotionally and socially, Coaching can be a great intervention for them as it is positive and proactive. This can give them an instant boost to their levels of wellbeing, which helps them feel like the intervention is being helpful immediately. 

We would argue that some young people opt for Coaching as it feels psychologically safer and a more positive and proactive step. They may not yet realise that their struggles would be better served by therapeutic intervention. But in this case, Coaching can be a step into a therapeutic intervention through engaging with a trusted adult and increasing self-awareness which can result in them accessing other professional or therapeutic support.

How do you decide which is best between Coaching and Counselling? 

We have been using coaching with young people to support their mental wellbeing for over 10 years and conducted our own published academic research(2) as well as drawing upon the growing literature and applied practice from the field of coaching. The Worth-it method of coaching young people is grounded heavily in coaching psychology evidence and research. This combines humanistic, solution-focused, cognitive behavioural and positive psychology approaches. This is known as Positive Psychology Coaching and focuses on developmental areas of coaching around the development of psychological wellbeing and resilience in young people. This means supporting young people move away from languishing and towards flourishing(4).

Analysis of data from a coaching intervention with young people we have worked with showed us that:

  • For one set of 140 young people that we coached, the levels of anxiety, depression and stress all significantly reduced after having being coached (DASS21).
  • In another set of 173 young people, levels of emotional symptoms of stress (nerves, unhappiness etc), conduct problems, hyperactivity and peer relationship problems all significantly reduced after having been coached. Pro-social behaviour, such as being considerate of other’s feelings, sharing, being kind, and being helpful, also increased (SDQ 11-17).

So putting it simply, it can be as simple as a matter of preference, does the young person like their Coach and do they think Coaching is helping them? If so, then it is the best intervention for them at that time.

We hope you found this helpful. To find out more about our approach to coaching and how you can train to use our approach to coaching and work with young people yourself. Join our Coaching Discovery Workshop 

Interested in becoming a Coach?

Find our more about our Worth-it Coach Training

  1. Keyes, C. (2006). Mental health in adolescence: is America’s youth flourishing? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76, 395–402.
  2. Robson-Kelly, L., & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2016). What does coaching have to offer to young people at risk of developing mental health problems? A grounded theory study. International Coaching Psychology Review, 11(1), 75-92.
  3. Pritchard, M. & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2016). The perceptual changes in life experience of at-risk adolescent girls following an integrated coaching and positive psychology intervention group programme: An interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. International Coaching Psychology Review, 11(1), 57–74
  4. Keyes, C. (2003). Complete mental health: An agenda for the 21st century. in C.L.M. Keyes & J. haidt (eds.), Flourishing. Positive psychology and the life well lived (pp.293–290). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.