Inspired by… Motivational Interviewing in Schools: Conversations to Improve Behavior and Learning

If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.

-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

As part of the WISEducation blog I thought that I’d quite like to share brief articles that have been inspired by books, articles and podcast episodes, that would serve half as a review, and half as a discussion point for both myself and anyone that has found their way to reading this blog. 

During the lockdown period one such book that I picked up was ‘Motivational Interviewing in Schools: Conversations to Improve Behavior and Learning’ by Rollnick, Kaplan and Rutschman (2016). Last summer I had the opportunity to attend a Motivational Interviewing workshop with Stephen Rollnick in Cardiff and it has provided me with a counselling and conversational framework that has guided many of my conversations with both colleagues and students since. 

Motivational Interviewing (MI) in essence focuses on improving one’s motivation to change through conversation, and in this book, Rollnick, Kaplan and Rutschman (2016) assure us that we can refine the skills that we already have in order to help inspire change through our schools, whether as an administrator, teacher, counsellor or support staff. Motivational Interviewing, by its own admission, is complex as it does not offer a 5-step process for change, rather MI done skillfully involves high-quality listening at its core. A layperson definition of Motivational Interviewing offered by Miller and Rollnick (2013, p. 12) states that:

“Motivational Interviewing is a collaborative conversational style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change.”

Whilst there isn’t the space to do MI justice here, I just wanted to bring up a couple of the core ideas related to MI that stood out for me when learning about this method, that may be useful in the international school context (and beyond) which undoubtedly leads to supporting wellbeing. The first is the ‘righting reflex’ which is an inclination to fixing the problem for the student. Sometimes when students present us with a dilemma, a quick and concise response may be what is needed, however trying to fix a problem for the student in the long run proves unsuccessful in bringing about motivation for change. Take for example a student in Maths class sitting down and saying ‘I just don’t understand how to do algebra, I’m never going to be able to do it’… to which a common response may take the form of ‘if you sit down and concentrate (and stop bothering David sitting next to you), and really try your best then your grade will improve.’ Whilst well-meaning, I’m not sure anyone saying to me ‘just try harder’ when I have found things genuinely challenging has really truly ever worked (perhaps only in the short term). Couple this with the concept of understanding ‘ambivalence’ which is central to MI, the notion that we all experience a sort of ‘mental chatter’ that allows your mind to go back and forth between ‘for’ and ‘against’ making a change. When students hear your ‘righting reflex’ or your making a case for change ‘just concentrate and try harder’, what you often hear back is ‘I’ve tried before but it never works’ and in doing this the student is telling us why change is not a good idea. What Rollnick, Kaplan and Rutschman’s (2016) book does very simplistically is to show how we can encourage students to hear themselves make a case for change, whether that be handing in homework on time, finding ways to motivate themselves in classes they struggle in, or how to motivate themselves to choose their future when it comes to applying for universities, rather than adults taking up that space for them. 

This book is really helpful at modelling some of these conversations which not only highlight and capitalise upon ‘change talk’ made by students, but also shows that through the use of affirmation and reflection (amongst other tools) we can help students feel heard and not judged. In our role within education it is important to note that whilst we often, in a well-meaning way, try to encourage students to do better, we inadvertently in the process highlight some sort of deficit within them, rather than focusing on the strengths that they show. What impresses me the most is not necessarily the high flying students that ace all of their tests, it is often the students that show up day after day, ready to try despite achieving results that leave them demotivated as well as hearing comments like ‘you’ll improve next time, you just need to try a bit harder’. If it was that simple then surely we as adults would also have everything figured out by now… but alas we meet the same sort of challenges as our students, we’re just not tested in the same public way.

At times I have struggled with the simplicity of MI because people not changing is often the result of us receiving some sort of benefit for keeping things as they are, for example if we are the student that fails and that becomes part of our identity, it shields us from the scariness of ‘What would happen if I tried? Would I ever be good enough?’ However, I have been able to experience first hand the benefits of giving students the space to find and build off their own motivation, and whilst in a egotistical way sometimes it’s nice if we play a role in that (isn’t that a part of why we choose jobs that help others), there’s nothing more empowering to see that people changing and doing things for themselves.


Miller, W.R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (3rd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Rollnick, S., Kaplan, S.G., & Rutschman, R. (2016). Motivational Interviewing in Schools: Conversations to Improve Behavior and Learning. New York: Guilford Press.

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