Cognitive Coaching Model: 26 Questions, Steps, and Strategies

Cognitive Coaching ModelCognitive coaching is a person-centered intervention model that helps coachees develop into self-directed learners with metacognitive skills that optimize professional practice.

It was pioneered as a supervisory approach for educators to provide them with an opportunity to reflect on and improve their teaching practice (Edwards & Newton, 1995).

Today, different forms of cognitive coaching have evolved for application in a range of areas, including the business and corporate world, peer coaching, mentoring, and instructional coaching.

This article will explain the cognitive coaching model, how cognitive coaching is conducted, and review the best training certifications, books, and apps.

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What is Cognitive Coaching?

Cognitive coaching was developed to support educators’ reflections on the thinking that informs their teaching practice. Essentially, cognitive coaching is a metacognitive collaborative coaching intervention that facilitates the development of coachees’ thinking about their thinking (Costa & Garmston, 2015).

To that end, it did not follow a formula or specific method of instruction but began as a strengths-based approach to helping teachers expand upon their existing but under-used capacities as educators.

Cognitive coaching has now extended its reach as an approach to coaching leaders about their professional practice in general. The cognitive coach encourages the coachee to reflect upon their practice, desires, capacities, and goals.

Reflection is facilitated by asking coachees a range of questions, paraphrasing their answers, and questioning them again to identify latent strengths and any knowledge or skills deficits that are blocking the achievement of specific goals (Gyllensten, Palmer, Nilsson, Regnér, & Frodi, 2010).

In short, cognitive coaching follows a model based on a collaborative Socratic inquiry. This approach develops the coachee’s thinking about their practice, and acquisition of the skills required to become self-directed learners.

Cognitive coaches understand it is difficult to build on someone’s motivation to reach a particular goal; however, the knowledge and skills required to achieve goals can be developed.

The cognitive coaching process, therefore, focuses on identifying a coachee’s goals, strengths and development needs and planning to meet those needs through continuing professional development and lifelong learning (Costa & Garmston, 2015).

For a further explanation, take a look at the TEDx talk in the video below.

Cognitive Coaching Model Explained

The cognitive coaching model is an inquiry-based coaching model that empowers coaches to help their clients develop resilience. This is done by using a person-centered, strengths-based approach to gain the additional knowledge and skills required to meet the client’s goals. The model focuses on developing coachees’ capacity for self-directed lifelong learning (Costa & Garmston, 2015).

Cognitive coaching evolved out of a need to address the deficits of behavioral-based approaches to teaching and learning (Borg, 2009).

Previous research found that educators who used higher conceptual metacognitive strategies with their students became more flexible and adaptable in their approach to teaching. They also acted out of their commitment to human values (Thies-Sprinthall, 1984), which produced higher achieving students who were more cooperative and invested in their education.

The cognitive coaching model provides a space for coachees’ self-reflection to revise their self-concept and see their practice from a fresh perspective. It uses a non-judgmental and reflective approach to a coachee’s development that combines the interpersonal skills of humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow (Maslow, 2013 [1968]) and Carl Rogers (Rogers, 1951) with cognitive psychology interventions.

The model is informed by current research in neuroscience, constructivist theories of learning, and best practice approaches to teaching and learning. The fundamental focus is on the coachee’s cognitive development.

The overall aim of the cognitive coaching model is to reorientate the coachee to live life as a process of inquiry aimed at transforming thought. Using the person-centered approach pioneered by Carl Rogers, the non-verbal behavior of the cognitive coach aims to develop rapport while their non-judgmental responses are used to build trust and engagement.

In this way, cognitive coaches model congruence through integrating humanistic values and behavior, while facilitating their coachees’ cognitive development and learning process (Costa & Garmston, 2002; 2015).

In summary, cognitive coaching consists of a set of communication skills and capabilities that navigate between a set of four mental maps during the coaching conversation (Smith, 2008).

These are

  • The planning conversation
    Required before the coachee attempts a new task.
  • The reflective conversation
    Required after the coachee completes a new task.
  • The problem-resolving conversation
    Required when the coachee feels stuck, unclear, or needs extra resources.
  • The calibrating conversation
    Required to support a coachee’s self-assessment and the continuous performance evaluation.

Cognitive coaches believe that behavior change is underpinned by shifts in a coachee’s perception and thinking. Their interventions are committed to facilitating the development of the coachee’s self-directed learning (Batt, 2010).

The diagram below displays the historical roots of the cognitive coaching model and the developmental direction of the cognitive coaching relationship based on trust, holonomy (developing the coachee’s capacity to work collaboratively and autonomously), and self-directed learning.


Source: Fig 1.1 The Roots of Cognitive Coaching (Costa & Garmston, 2015)

How to Perform Cognitive Coaching: 5 Steps

Cognitive coaching is a non-judgmental, collaborative inquiry process comprising five steps that are used in an ongoing cycle (Ellison & Hayes, 2013). The five steps need not be followed in order but depend on the type of conversation taking place. The typical order pursued during the initial planning conversation is outlined below.

1. Posing invitational questions

In the spirit of person-centered inquiry, open-ended questions that invite the coachee to share their concerns and goals should be posed first. For examples, see the section “Best Tools and Questions to Ask” below.

2. Paraphrasing

This essentially consists of reflective listening demonstrated by paraphrasing the responses coaches give to the coach’s initial questions. This enables the coach and coachee to check they have understood each other.

3. Posing clarification questions

As the cognitive coaching conversation evolves, there will be areas of the coachee’s responses that require further probing for clarification and focus.

4. Pausing

Pausing in silence gives the coachee space to think through their responses in the event they find themselves unsure about their goals or values. Holding space for the coachee with silence while they consider their responses is an important component of the person-centered approach. It supports reflective practice and problem-solving.

5. Presenting data

Coaches assist their coachees in designing strategies to achieve their goals. The coach suggests data-gathering techniques and discusses how to collect evidence-based data about strategies that can guide the coachee toward achieving their goals.

The video below demonstrates how to conduct cognitive coaching courtesy of Iowa City Schools.

9 Techniques and Strategies To Apply

The five states of mind

The five states of mind described below are embodied and modeled by the cognitive coach to facilitate the coachee’s metacognition (Costa & Garmston, 2015).

1. Consciousness

Consciousness involves being aware and is the parent of all other states of mind. The cognitive coach must be aware of themselves, others, the professional setting, and their own thinking and communication style to monitor the coachee’s decisions and their effects.

2. Efficacy

Efficacy describes the belief the cognitive coach has in their own effectiveness, which the coach models to the coachee. Self-efficacy motivates the coachee to believe that they can make a difference by solving problems that positively transform their practice.

3. Interdependence

Interdependence shifts the coachee’s self-concept away from self-centeredness to other-centered thinking and, eventually, systems thinking that positions them as part of something much larger.

The coachee begins to understand how their practice affects their organization and the wider professional community as a whole.

4. Craftsmanship

Craftsmanship involves taking pride in one’s work and professional practice by striving to improve continuously. Moving to a higher standard should be data-driven to track improvement.

This includes being intentional, refining skills by seeking clarity and precision, and pursuing excellence through lifelong learning.

5. Flexibility

Flexibility requires adaptability to change and is where creative problem solving begins. The coachee acquires flexibility by learning to seek and develop alternatives, tolerating ambiguity, perspective taking, remaining open to change, and being willing to adjust to others’ preferences when working as part of an organization. In contrast, egocentricity results in high rigidity and poor problem-solving skills.

Combined, these five states of mind help the coachee develop holonomy- the capacity to act autonomously while working interdependently within an organization. The diagram below illustrates this process.



Cognitive coaching conversation maps

Cognitive coaching conversation maps are also useful techniques for guiding the coaching process. These conversations require the cognitive coach to model the five states of mind described above, using the five staged cyclical process (Smith, 2008).

1. The Planning Conversation map

The Planning Conversation map is the initial conversation map used to clarify a coachee’s goals and identify the indicators of success, how to collect evidence of success, and the focus of the learning process.

Strategies are planned and the coaching process refined as the coachee’s goals and needs become clear.

2. The Reflection Conversation map

The Reflection Conversation map can be used when the coachee attempts to implement new practices. Cause and effect relationships are determined, expectations and achievements compared, and new learning approaches identified. The coaching process is continuously refined throughout the reflection conversation.

3. The Problem Resolving Conversation map

The Problem Resolving Conversation map honors the coachee’s existing state and frames the coaching conversation in terms of reaching the desired state. Resources required to solve problems are identified and located. Congruence between stated aims, values, and behavior is examined and the coaching process refined further.

4. The Calibrating Conversation map

The Calibrating Conversation map introduces ongoing self-assessment and self-directed learning strategies to support the cyclical nature of the coaching process while developing the coachee’s self-efficacy.

12 Best Tools and Questions To Ask

Questions to askCosta and Garmston (2002; 2015), the creators of cognitive coaching, explain how invitational questions engage, mediate, and transform thinking.

Invitational questions are open-ended and use tentative language and positive presuppositions to focus on the coachee’s goals. Meanwhile, clarifying questions mediate the coachee’s thinking about how to meet those goals.

The cognitive coach works on the premise that the coachee has the resources required to meet their goals, but needs empowerment to clarify and apply their knowledge and skills (Edwards & Newton, 1995). Try the following examples.

4 Invitational questions

Begin your initial questions by inviting the coachee to discuss their needs by using ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions. These open-ended questions avoid yes and no answers and engage in more complex thinking.

  1. What goals would you like to be the focus of conversation today?
  2. How do you think cognitive coaching might help you achieve your goals?
  3. What have you tried so far to meet your goals?
  4. How have you dealt with any difficulties or obstacles you have encountered so far?

4 Clarifying questions

Clarifying questions should again be open-ended as far as possible and are used to focus the cognitive coaching conversation on the precise specifics of practice and to mediate the development of metacognition. Rather than specific questions, you could try the following question stems:

  1. Could you say something more about…?
  2. Let me see if I understand…?
  3. How did you decide… (come to that conclusion)?
  4. What’s another way you might…?

For further question stem ideas, look at this coaching tool provided by the Bright Morning Team.

4 Reflection tools

Reflection is a key cognitive coaching technique used to convey respect and honor the coachee’s experience and needs. It has much in common with active listening.

  1. Paraphrasing the coachee’s words and restating them helps the coach to check their understanding and can help the coachee clarify their thinking.
  2. Pausing involves the coach following the coachee by pausing during the reflection, using silence to invite deeper thinking.
  3. Summarizing can focus the conversation down to specific problems or issues when the coachee is seeking greater clarity.
  4. Verbalizing emotions can help build trust and convey respect by validating the coachee’s inner experience.

Training in Cognitive Coaching: 2 Certifications

1. The Thinking Collaborative

Thinking CollaborativeThe Thinking Collaborative is the training platform operated by the founders of cognitive coaching and offers a list of Cognitive Coaching Foundation Seminars available at a range of locations worldwide.

Cognitive Coaching Advanced Seminars are also available across the USA. They also offer a portal of Cognitive Coaching Resources that aims to build on these foundational seminars using self-directed learning.

2. Thinking Matters

Thinking MattersThinking Matters provide Cognitive Coaching training workshops during what they call Deep Dive Days. This training in cognitive coaching is aimed at teachers participating in the Thinking Schools project in the UK, and senior teachers, headteachers, and other educational leaders interested in developing their staff as self-regulating thinkers and learners.

3 Helpful Books and Apps

1. Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners – Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, and Carolee Hayes

Cognitive Coaching

This book is the go-to guide for cognitive coaches and is a useful self-directed learning tool for coachees that can be used to aid self-reflection.

The book suggests readers track their own inner dialogue when using the text to identify the questions they ask themselves repeatedly, their passions, and practice excellence.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Cognitive Coaching: Weaving Threads of Learning and Change into the Culture of an Organization – Jane L. Ellison and Carolee Hayes

Cognitive Coaching Learning

This book comprises a collection of essays in three parts that describe how to use cognitive coaching tools and maps.

These, in turn, will connect a classroom, school, and district into a community of educational practice enriched by the self-directed lifelong learning of staff and students.

The chapters in part one use cognitive coaching tools to examine the organization as a system. Part two focuses on the school as a locus of change, while part three explains how classroom practices can introduce coaching to students.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Cognitive Coaching app by the Thinking Collaborative

Cognitive Coaching™ app

This free app provides helpful information for those interested in learning more about cognitive coaching and for those who have completed the Cognitive Coaching Foundation Seminar®.

Planning, reflecting, and problem-resolving conversation videos are offered. States of mind self-assessments are included. The app also features a coach’s log for monitoring coaching conversations.

The Apple IOS app is available on Apptopia.

The Android app is available on APKPureapp.

Resources From

Our Developing Self-Leadership article contains eight cognitive self-leadership strategies you may find useful for introducing a cognitive coaching approach to self-development.

This Goals & Strengths worksheet is a free resource that can support your coaching clients’ ability to build on their strengths to achieve new goals in a cognitive coaching context.

Our Past, Current, & Future Strengths Worksheet can be used to help clients identify the strengths they need to develop to meet their goals in the future.

In addition, the Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains The Performance Goal Orientation and Learning Goal Orientation Scales, useful tools for closing the gap between performance goals and learning goals.

A client might be performing well but aspire to improve their skills through further learning. This tool can help a client identify areas in need of further development. In addition, The Strengths Self-Efficacy Scale, also in our Toolkit, is designed to assess a client’s perceived self-efficacy in using their strengths in everyday life, including in work and education settings.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, this collection contains 17 validated motivation & goals-achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

A Take-Home Message

Cognitive coaching is a collaborative coaching intervention that mediates and develops a coachee’s metacognitive capacities: their ability to reflect upon their own thinking.

It uses a personal centered, non-judgmental approach in combination with cognitive psychology tools to support coachees developing into self-directed lifelong learners. It is used widely in the education sector to coach teachers and leaders with the objective of introducing self-directed learning into school culture in general.

However, recently the approach has been designed to meet the needs of other types of organizational cultures, including the business and corporate sector, with the long-term goal of normalizing the metacognitive capacities required for advanced problem solving and lifelong learning.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.


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