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Motivational Interviewing with Students – Part 1: The Principles

Motivational Interviewing with Students – Part 1: The Principles

Before pursuing a career in school social work I worked with adolescent substance users. Nearly all of the  adolescents I worked with did not arrive in my office on their own accord. Most were mandated by the court system and the rest were pressured into treatment by other systems (parents, schools, other mental health providers).

Much of the work involved in substance abuse counseling is centered on increasing and sustaining motivation for change. In the past two decades, Motivational Interviewing has revolutionized the way clinicians address motivation issues in their clients.

Motivational Interviewing is a collaborative, goal oriented method of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen and individual’s motivation for and movement toward a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own arguments for change.

Literature from counseling and education suggests that Motivational Interviewing may have applications over a variety of settings. Although the number of studies are limited, research appears to suggest that Motivational Interviewing may be effective in addressing the academic motivation of students.

Through a multiple post series I hope to elaborate on the principles and techniques of Motivational Interviewing (MI) and how it can be utilized with students who are under performing or engaging in high risk behaviors. In this first post I will be discussing the spirit and general principles of MI.

The Spirit of Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is more than a set of therapeutic techniques. MI is a “way of being” with students. It is both client-centered and directive. MI is based on three key elements: collaboration between the social worker and student, evoking or drawing out the student’s ideas about change, and emphasizing the autonomy of the student.

Collaboration (vs. Confrontation)

MI stresses the importance of developing rapport and partnership with student. Oftentimes it is easy to fall into the trap of confronting a student with all the reasons why they should change their study habits or other behaviors that are getting in the way of their success. Sometimes confrontations are successful, however they often result in greater resistance from the student. Still worse, savvy students may respond to confrontation with false compliance and promises to do better that never materialize. Collaboration encourages us to meet the student where they are at and work alongside them to achieve their goals (not ours).

Evocation (Drawing Out vs Imposing Ideas)

Lasting change is most likely to occur when the commitment comes from the student. Trying to convince the student for the need to change is likely to elicit reasons from the student as to why they should not (or can’t) change. The social worker’s role is to draw out the student’s motivation for change, not to install it. I will discuss specific techniques to elicit change talk in a later post in the series.

Autonomy (vs. Authority)

Motivational Interviewing emphasizes that the power and responsibility for changes rests with the student. The social worker reinforces that there is no single “right way” to change a behavior and that there are multiple ways that change can occur. The role of the social worker is to help the student develop their own “menu of options”  to achieve change.


The Principles of Motivational Interviewing

Express Empathy

MI draws a lot of its philosophy from the work of Carl Rogers and his client centered approach. Expressing empathy allows the student to feel less threatened and understood. This in-turn allows them to be open and honest in discussing their reasons for being ambivalent about change. Building rapport is central to motivational interviewing and it begins with the student feeling that their reasons for ambivalence are respected (not necessarily agreed with).

Promote Self-Efficacy

Consistent with the philosophy of social work and the strengths-based model, Motivational Interviewing stresses the belief that all students posses the capacity for change and growth. Motivational Interviewing encourages social workers to focus on past successes and highlight the strengths and the resources the student already has.

Roll With Resistance

Motivational Interviewing asserts that resistance results for the student and social worker having different views of the problem or solution to the problem. When resistance occurs, the social worker is NOT to challenge the student. Challenging the resistance, especially early on, will most likely result in even greater resistance. Instead, the social worker should “roll” with the resistance and allow them to develop their own view of the problem and their own solutions. Motivational Interviewing often uses the metaphor that we are “Dancing” with our students, not “Wrestling” with them. We must refrain from engaging in the “righting reflex”, the tendency to make sure that the student understands the need to change and to fix the student’s problem for them.

Develop Discrepancy

Motivational Interviewing argues that people will develop motivation for change when they perceive a mismatch between where they are and where they want to be. Social workers work to help the client examine the discrepancies between their current behaviors and the future goals or values. The social worker does not, however, utilize techniques to develop discrepancy at the expense of other principles.

Video of MI

Here is a video by the Heart Foundation that further elaborates on the points made in this article. The focus is on changing patients behavior in a medical setting, but the principles are the same and the gentlemen does a really great job of explaining the spirit of Motivational Interviewing.


Well that wraps up the Spirit and Principles of Motivational Interviewing. In the next post I will be discussing the different types of Change Talk (the pathway to behavior change) and methods for eliciting Change Talk from students.

For more information about Motivational Interviewing visit

You may also consider buying the manual on Motivational Interviewing here.

As always, feel free to leave any comments or questions about the material in this post.

Posts in the series: 

Part 1: The Principles of Motivational Interviewing
Part 2: Change Talk



About The Author

Scott Carchedi

Scott Carchedi is the founder and co-editor of SSWN. Scott provides technology support and consultative services to school social work associations across the US. Scott is also a practicing school social worker in the western suburbs of Chicago, serving grades 9-12.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Rutschman

    We use it along with experiential education for students identified in the “early warning” (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports) along with experiential education (adventure based counseling). Have found good outcomes, more engagement, improve grades and graduation rates.

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