Tina Rae discusses how to use the technique of motivational interviewing (MI) to trigger behavior change in students. MI accepts that students may not always be ready or willing to modify their behavior, so focuses on exploring ambivalence before change

Motivational interviewing (MI) was originally developed by Miller & Rollnick (1991, 2002). It was defined as a person-centered directive method for enhancing an intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence. The central premise of the motivational interviewing approach is that people aren’t always ready to change their behaviors, so it abandons any presumption or assumption that people actually want to. Behavior change then becomes reliant purely upon the individual’s motivation.

Understanding change

It is important, when working with young people, to emphasize the fact that people may not always be ready to change their patterns of behavior. Motivational interviewing as an approach acknowledges this, as well as the fact that many of us have good reasons for choosing to maintain our behaviors. For example, a student who is ‘badly’ behaved may find it more fun and gain more attention from this behavior than they would if they changed their behaviors and remained passive within the classroom setting.

Key to the approach is the focus on ambivalence. This is the uncomfortable feeling that we have when we are not sure whether or not we want to change. This is what students need to be further attuned to if they are to effectively make changes for themselves which are not imposed on them by others within the learning or social context. It’s also vital to emphasize the fact that change is not in itself a comfortable process.

Exploring ambivalence

Change is all about ambivalence. When we make a change it’s not just a matter of making a simple yes or no decision as there are always pros and cons to change. Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons and we can begin to move forward in the right direction. Sometimes the cons seem to outweigh the pros and then we can get stuck or relapse. Ambivalence is the bit in the middle that is a normal part of change and not a particularly comfortable place to be. Students can be introduced to this concept when considering a change that other people might want to make on their behalf. For example, the form tutor might want the student to participate more fully in PSHE sessions and not simply sit at the back of the class giggling and making fun of everything that is said by other members of the peer group. The student can be asked to record a list of negatives, i.e. why I don’t want to change this behavior, and then a list of positives, i.e. this is a good idea because… Prior to making this list they may wish to rate themselves. What do they think about this change? Do they agree that they need to make this change? Where would they place themselves on a scale of 0-10, i.e. 0 being strongly opposed to the change and 10 being totally willing to accept it? Subsequent to recording the negatives and positives, i.e. the pros and cons of making such a change, they can then re-rate themselves. The idea here is to reinforce the fact that, once we start to analyze the problem and work out why we may need to change, we can move forward from this uncomfortable position of ambivalence because due our thinking has shifted more in the direction of where we need to be.

The stages of change

Exploring the potential benefits of change is a key element of motivational interviewing, and is supported by increasing an understanding appreciation of the stages of change. Stages of change have been redefined by McNamara (1992, 1998) from the work of Prochaska and Diclemente (1982).

This model can be used by professionals supporting young people in schools, primarily to identify how ready (or not) they are for making a change in their behavior. It is also be vital to reinforce the fact that relapsing is part of this process. It is a normal and natural part of the whole cycle of change, and young people need to be made aware of this fact and reassured that relapsing does not equate to failure – it simply means that you begin the whole process/cycle again.

It is often useful to adapt the stages of change in order to make them more user-friendly for young people, and to also provide examples of what someone might say to themselves at each stage in order to further clarify the process. For example,

  1. Pre-thinking – the statement might be, ‘I don’t care if teachers don’t like me I’m really not bothered at all.’
  2. Thinking – the statement might be, ‘I realize that sometimes the lessons go better when I don’t try to get on the teacher’s nerves.’
  3. Deciding – ‘I’m going to try and get on better in more of my lessons so that people feel better about me in general.’
  4. Doing – ‘I’m working harder now and paying more attention in most of my lessons.
  5. Maintaining – ‘I haven’t had a detention or fixed term exclusion for over six weeks now.’
  6. Relapsing – ‘I told Mr Francis where to go when he told me I wasn’t trying hard enough in my maths project.’

Framework for developing a personal goal

In other approaches to behavior change, students are often encouraged to identify personal goals, targets and aims for themselves. This is not always done in a SMART manner, and goals are very rarely separated out into long-term and short-term initiatives. It is also quite unusual to clearly specify the action steps. The motivational interviewing approach, by contrast, ensures that students work through this process in a systematic way, stating the problem and identifying long-term and short-term goals and action steps for themselves. The framework is as follows:

  1. Reflect on a behavior you want to change or that you are already working on. Identify a problem area or concern and write a personal goal. Ensure that you use SMART criteria to write your goal i.e. that your goal is small, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound.
  2. State the problem – what is it that you want to do differently? Clarify this. Present the problem in the form of a ‘how to’ statement.
  3. Long-term goal – what would be different in your life if you changed your behavior and how will you know that things are better for you and others around you?
  4. Short-term/SMART goal – this goal must be achievable within 30 days. What would be different over the next few days and weeks if you make this change? What will you be doing or saying differently as a result of the change? What is the greatest barrier to change?
  5. Action steps – write down a list of action steps that will be achieved in order to meet the short-term goal. Finally, set a date when you will review this with someone who is important to you and has your best interests at heart .

Some useful references

  • McNamara, E. (1992) Motivational Interviewing: The Gateway to Pupil Self-Management Pastoral Care, September, 22-28
  • McNamara, E. (1998) The Theory and Practice of Eliciting Pupil Motivation: Motivational Interviewing – A Form Teacher’s Manual and Guide for Students, Parents, Psychologists, Health Visitors and Counsellors Ainsdale, Merseyside: Positive Behaviour Management
  • Miller, W.R., & Rollnick, S. (1991) Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People to Change Addictive Behaviour New York: Guildford Press
  • Prochaska, J.O., & Diclemente, C.C. (1982) Transtheoretical Theory: Toward a more integrative model of change Psychotherapy, 20, 161-173
  • Rae, T., & Smith. E. (2009) Motivational Interview Approach for Secondary Staff and Students London: Optimus Education
  • Stallard, P. (2002) Think Good – Feel Good. A Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Workbook for Children and Young People Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd
  • Thompson, G.L., & Jenkins, J.B. (1993) Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion New York: Quill

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country