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Motivational Interviewing With Students – Part 2: Change Talk

Motivational Interviewing With Students – Part 2: Change Talk

Last week I wrote about the principles of Motivational Interviewing and how they could be used in working with an academically unmotivated student. I discussed how adopting the spirit and principles of MI serves as a framework by which we elicit change talk from our students.

Change Talk is defined as statements made by the student revealing consideration of, motivation for, or commitment to change. Change talk is the pathway by which motivation is increased. Research indicates that making statements about change is linked to improved outcomes. In short, the more a student talks about change, the more likely they are to change.


There are 7 types of change talk that we are seeking to elicit from our students. They can be described using the mnemonic DARN-CAT

Preparatory Change Talk

Desire (I want to change)
Ability (I can change)
Reason (It’s important to change)
eed (I should change)

Implementing Change Talk

Commitment (I’m going to change)
Activation (I’m ready to change)
Taking Steps (I’m taking these steps to change)

There are a number of strategies we use to elicit these forms of change talk. The following strategies were found in a handout on and can also be found (with much more detail) in the book: Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (Third Ed.)

Ten Strategies for Eliciting Change Talk

1. Ask Evocative Questions:
Ask an open question, the answer to which is likely to be change talk.
“Why do you want to make this change?” (Desire)
“How might you go about it, in order to succeed?” (Ability)
“What are the three best reasons for you to do it?” (Reasons)
“How important is it for you to make this change?” (Need)
“So what do you think you’ll do?” (Commitment)

2. Explore Decisional Balance:
Ask for the pros and cons of both changing and staying the same.

3. Good Things/Not-So-Good Things:
Ask about the positives and negatives of the target behavior *Always start with the positive*

4. Ask for Elaboration/Examples:
When a change talk theme emerges, ask for more details.
“In what ways?”
“Tell me more?”
“What does that look like?”
“When was the last time that happened?”

5. Look Back:
Ask about a time before the target behavior emerged.
How were things better, different?

6. Look Forward:
Ask what may happen if things continue as they are (status quo).
Try the miracle question: If you were 100% successful in making the change you want, what would be different?
How would you like your life to be five years from now?

7. Query Extremes:
What are the worst things that might happen if you don’t make this change?
What are the best things that might happen if you do make this change?

8. Use Change Rulers:
Ask: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how important is it to you to change (target behavior) where 1 is not at all important, and a 10 is extremely important?”
Follow up: “And why are you at a _____ and not a zero?”
“What might happen that could move you from a _____ to (a higher number)”

9. Explore Goals and Values:
Ask what the student’s guiding values are.
What do they want in life?
Ask how continuing the behavior fits in with the student’s goals or values.

10. Come Alongside:
Explicitly side with the negative (status quo) side of ambivalence.
“Perhaps _______ is so important to you that you won’t give it up, no matter what the cost.”



Here’s a continuation of the video series by the Heart Foundation. The presenter uses DARN-C when referring the change talk as the DARN-CAT is a newer development within Motivational Interviewing.


Well that wraps up change talk. If you haven’t already, I hope you’re beginning to see the congruence of Motivational Interviewing and the philosophy of social work. MI draws from theories for which we should be familiar: client-centered, strengths-based, and solution-focused brief treatment. I also hope you are beginning to see the applicability of Motivational Interviewing to working with students. In the next post I will be discussing the core clinician skills of MI and how to apply them to students.

Posts in the series: Motivational Interviewing with Academically Unmotivated Students:

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.

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