By Gen Muir-Smith and Stavroula Zandes.

Motivational interviewing is “client-centered counseling style for eliciting behaviour change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence” (Rollnick & Miller, 1995).

The approach is evidence-based. It is focused and goal orientated, with the helper focusing on intentionally facilitating change for the individual, i.e. pursuing their goal by eliciting ‘self-motivational’ statements. It strengthens the individual’s motivation for change by creating a discrepancy between their current situation and the desired one.

The aim of motivational interviewing is for the individual to present the arguments for change rather than against (Rollnick & Miller, 1995; Miller & Rollnick, 1991).

Motivational interviewing was first used in the 1980s to treat alcohol abuse, and was used to motivate clients to modify their drinking, and to reduce their risk of developing ill health. Since then, the practice has grown in popularity and is much more extensively used in a range of settings, including health care, mental health, child welfare, corrections, forensics, and more recently within the school setting.

It can be used by all sorts of health, community and education professionals including busy teachers, school nurses and counsellors, student welfare coordinators, administrators and other staff who work with students or parents, and who wish to facilitate improved outcomes.

What’s the appeal of this approach?

Motivational interviewing is particularly useful in helping people who are ‘stuck’, resistant and angry, as well as individuals who are in the early stages of behaviour change.

It can be done quite briefly (within 5 minutes) by asking one or two key questions, or it can be practiced more extensively (20 – 30 minutes) as part of a longer conversation. Alternatively, it can be carried out over the course of a number of follow up sessions.

Why are schools and the education setting so interested?

Although the use of motivational interviewing in the education sector is relatively recent, several studies have shown that motivational interviewing improves outcomes for students, teachers and parents (Reinke, Herman & Sprick, 2011; Stormshak & Dishion, 2002; Strait et al, 2012).

It can be effectively used in every day interactions, including when having brief conversations with students (and their parents) about ‘any kind of behavioral, academic, or peer-related challenge’, and is therefore seen as a powerful opportunity for change (Rollnick et al, 2016).

Want some examples? It can be effectively used with students who are:


  • unmotivated in class
  • off-track
  • rebellious; in conflict (or in disagreement) with their teachers and their peers, including bullying
  • dealing with personal issues
  • dealing with issues that are related to their parents, other caregivers and/or authority figures
  • vulnerable and/or at risk
  • disengaged with the education sector
  • considering dropping out (motivational interviewing can also be used to re-engage dropouts or truants)
  • planning for their future (for e.g. whether to complete further studies, explore job opportunities and/or chat with the careers’ counsellor)
  • often responding in an argumentative/confrontational, and/or aggressive way (“even when the emotional ties are high, (motivational interviewing) can serve you in continuing to help the young person swim to his or her destination” (Naar-King & Suarez, 2011).

When motivational interviewing is combined with experiential learning, it is particularly effective with marginalised high school students (Rollnick et al, 2016; Herman et al, 2014; miforschools, 2017; Naar-King & Suarez, 2011).

As the key principle of motivational interviewing is one of collaboration and without judgement, it can be effectively used to engage parents, teachers and students in conversations that facilitate change – it supports individuals to make positive choices, as the individual feels that the educator (helper/counsellor) is ‘on their side’ and is focused on what’s best for them.

What are the benefits for teachers?

Participating in motivational interviewing training increases staff’s commitment to improve their communication and approach with students, parents and other staff. Motivational interviewing:


* Makes staff’s work a lot easier, efficient and effective

Lengthy counter arguments with students (parents or other staff members) is time consuming and can be stressful. Reducing the individual’s resistance on the other hand, saves time. Once resistance has been diffused and rapport has been gained (which can be achieved within minutes), motivation and self-confidence towards change can occur.

* Increases staff’s confidence in handling difficult and challenging conversations

Learning to resolve ambivalence and deal with an individual’s resistance (and aggression) in a constructive and positive way, is a skill that can be learned. Through the use of motivational interviewing and practical communication skills, a positive and respectful conversation can follow. This conversation and collaboration that is centred on the individual, strengthens their motivation for change….

* Increases staff’s cultural sensitivity with multicultural students and their families 

Motivational interviewing helps limit ‘cultural baggage’ when communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse students; it can prevent labelling and disharmony.

*Increases staff’s empathy and confidence in the belief that people can change 

As adolescents often have strained relationships with adults and authority figures, being empathic (one of the key skills of motivational interviewing) is essential for the development of internal motivation. Empathy facilitates change, while its absence may deter it.

Motivational interviewing is based on the premise that everyone possesses the ability to change. The intention is to facilitate, empower and support young people to progress towards change. The aim is for the young person to present the arguments for change (not the educator/helper/counsellor)…

* Builds on staff’s current practices and skills

Staff already have a solid foundation in basic listening skills and effective consultation; they genuinely care and are committed to promoting their students’ best interests; they are engaged and connect with students (their parents and other like professionals) to support student learning in a positive and encouraging environment; they affirm students’ existing skills and strengths; connect with their curiosity; nurture and cultivate students’ personal and academic growth, and encourage and inspire positive change to name some examples.

Training in motivational interviewing sharpens current skills and allows school professionals to focus on areas that need improving, as well as allows a structured approach to eliciting and supporting change to be applied.

* Encourages independent decision-making, without staff fearing that they are ‘losing control’ of the conversation

Motivational interviewing respects the person’s autonomy and right to make their own decision. As the individual thinks about their own actions and the pros and cons of their current behaviour, it helps them recognise the differences between their present behaviour and the preferred change. As a result, the individual is more motivated to change when they see what they’re currently doing will not lead them to a future goal. The motivational interviewing process helps to encourage, empower, move, and motivate the individual towards change. The individual is the one in control of the conversation, whilst the educator/helper/counsellor subtly and gently guides (‘leads’) conversation towards change. It encourages the individual to follow as they answer a series of open ended questions.

What are the benefits for students?

As motivational interviewing honours and respects the young person’s autonomy, recognises their strengths and capabilities to support their learning, and is one of acceptance, students are:

Blond female high school student poses with a backpack and school supplies. Vertical shot. Isolated on white.

  • empowered and much more confident in ‘controlling’ their life
  • able to effectively use concrete strategies when interacting with their peers (and others)
  • much more resilient
  • able to resolve conflict constructively
  • able to learn how to problem solve effectively and find solutions for themselves (self-directed learning and decision-making)
  • more open to the possibility of change (enhancing the ‘growth mindset’)
  • able to self-regulate their thoughts and feelings (reflective listening acknowledges their frame of reference and helps guide students’ thought processes in a productive and positive way)
    (Rollnick et al, 2016; Herman et al, 2014; miforschools, 2017; Naar-King & Suarez, 2011)

A core skill of motivational interviewing is listening reflectively, which seeks to acknowledge and understand the individual’s story and perspective. “Given that adolescents often perceive themselves as not being listened to, when you choose to offer the gift of a reflection, we find that your present will most always be received with open arms” (Naar-King & Suarez, 2011).

By affirming the students’ strengths whilst acknowledging their independence, motivational interviewing helps students decide (without pressure) what to do about their situation and how they wish to proceed/move forward (Rollnick et al, 2016).

Motivational interviewing provides you with a toolkit of skills and strategies

Motivational interviewing can provide educators (and staff trained) with a toolkit of skills and strategies that can be engaged to enhance a student’s internal motivation to learn, or change behaviour.

Motivational interviewing can be done individually in the corridor, more formally in an office, or it can be done in a group setting, such as in class, or as part of a team discussion.

Motivational interviewing: a positive and fresh change in the school setting

Rather than change for change’s sake, motivational interviewing training provides busy teachers with an invaluable additional communication tool. It complements the skills and strategies underpinning many health and wellbeing programs; life skills, positive behaviours (anti bullying), restorative practices, mindfulness and resilience programs in place in the education sector. Furthermore, it enhances personal and professional development and improves personal and academic outcomes.  Additionally, motivational interviewing training is equally relevant to parents, counsellors and some support staff within the school community.

In conclusion, in the modern educational context, where teachers are no longer the ‘experts’ but more partners in education or facilitators of learning,  a collaborative and student centered approach to behaviour change makes perfect sense.

Want to learn more? Want to know how to use this highly effective approach within the school and education setting?

Want to improve your knowledge, confidence and skills in motivational interviewing?

If you would like to learn more and would like to learn how to engage and communicate with parents, teachers and students that will motivate them for change, rather than against it, then sign up for one of our upcoming training days in motivational interviewing.

Alternatively if you would like a session on motivational interviewing presented in your school setting or network, please contact us today.

Applying the principles of motivational interviewing in every conversation is possible and achievable. Let us show you how.

We hope you found this post useful, and until next time wishing you all great health and wellbeing.

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Motivational interviewing for schools. To support student engagement, persistence & outcomes (2017) website:

Miller, W.R. & Rollnick S (1991). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People To Change Addictive Behavior. New York: Guilford Press.

Naar-King, S. & Suarez M (2011). Motivational interviewing with adolescents and young adults. New York: Guilford Press.

Reinke W.M., Herman K.C. & Sprick R (2011). Motivational Interviewing for Effective Classroom Management. The Classroom Check-Up. Guilford Press.

Rollnick S. & Miller W.R. (1995).  What is motivational interviewing?  Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23, 325-334. 

Stormshak E.A. & Dishion T.J. (2002). An ecological approach to child and family clinical and counseling psychology. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. Vol 5, No.3.

Strait G., Smith B., Mcquillin S., Terry J., Swan S. & Malone, P.S. (2012). A Randomized Trial of Motivational Interviewing to Improve Middle School Students’ Academic Performance. Journal of Community Psychology 40(8):1032–1039.