Presenters in Focus

School-Based Motivational Interviewing: Promoting Student Success One Conversation at a Time

By Gerald Gill Strait

pp. 31-32

Volume 47 Issue 2

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Motivation is essential to changing behaviors, overcoming challenges, and achieving goals. School psychologists can play an important role in helping students, particularly those who are struggling, to develop the motivation to adopt the academic enabling behaviors they need to succeed. In this “Presenters in Focus” Q&A, convention presenter Gill Strait discusses how motivational interviewing can be used to help adolescents—and the adults working with them—to adopt behaviors consistent with their long-term goals and core values (NASP Practice Model Domains 3 & 4). He will describe these concepts in more depth during his Field-Based Skills Session, School-Based Motivational Interviewing: Promoting Student Success One Conversation at a Time, at the 2019 national convention in Atlanta.

Briefly, what is motivational interviewing?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a guiding and client-centered counseling approach used to motivate adults and adolescents to adopt healthy and constructive behaviors consistent with their values and reduce harmful or risky behaviors inconsistent with their values (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). Many of the tenets, principles, and hypothesized mechanisms of MI overlap with humanist (e.g., empathy, unconditional positive regard, and autonomy) and cognitive–behavioral (e.g., eliciting change talk) approaches to counseling.

What are some misconceptions about motivational interviewing?

Often, people believe that MI is used to persuade or trick adults and adolescents into adopting behaviors they do not want to do. However, MI's purpose is to help people adopt behaviors consistent with their long-term goals and core values. Ultimately, we are guides trying to help others safely and efficiently achieve value-based goals. Relatedly, people often think that MI is easy to learn and will work for everything and everyone (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). However, MI, like other therapeutic approaches, requires practice with feedback, and its effects vary across individuals, behaviors, and contexts.

What are some common applications of MI?

School-based mental health researchers and school psychologists have started using MI to motivate students to adopt academic enabling behaviors (Strait et al., 2012; Terry, Strait, Smith, & McQuillin., 2013) and to motivate parents and teachers to adopt positive behavioral support strategies (Frey et al., 2011; Reinke, Herman, & Sprick, 2011). The former is referred to as student-focused MI and the latter is referred to as consultative MI.

Does student-focused MI differ based on age?

Currently, there is growing experimental evidence that student-focused MI is useful in helping adolescents improve academic grades (Strait et al., 2012; Terry et al., 2013) and reduce risky behavior (Jensen et al., 2011). In addition, there is evidence that MI works well with adolescents in conjunction with other evidence-based academic interventions. For example, two studies (McQuillin, Strait, Smith, & Ingram, 2015; McQuillin & Lyons, 2016) found that a school-based mentoring program (i.e., Academic Mentoring Program for Education Development) infused with MI and the Homework, Organization, Planning, and Skills Intervention (Langberg, Epstein, Becker, Girio-Herrera, & Vaugn, 2012) produced significant improvement in middle school students’ academic grades in comparison to a school as usual control group. In this type of format, school psychologists could use MI to motivate students to set and commit to an academic goal while using other interventions to support their goal attainment.

In terms of younger students, school psychologists should exercise caution against using student-focused MI directly with elementary school students because there is limited research and younger students likely lack some of the cognitive skills (e.g., long-term planning) necessary to benefit from the discussion (Strait, McQuillin, Smith, & Englund, 2012). Instead, school psychologists should consider using MI with parents and teachers to promote behavioral management strategies. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that consultative-based MI increases teachers’ adoption of positive behavioral supports, resulting in reductions in disruptive behavior (Reinke, Lewis-Palmer, & Merrell, 2008).

Can MI be implemented in groups or only with individuals?

There is an abundance of research on using group MI with adults. For example, Lundahl, Kunz, Brownell, Tollefson, and Burke (2010) conducted a meta-analysis and found that group MI interventions for adult substance abuse produced outcomes similar to individual MI. In regard to student focused MI, research is limited to several small but promising pilot studies (Reich, Sharp, & Berman, 2015; Strait, William, & Peters, in press). Taken together, group student-focused MI has a bright future, especially considering its potential to maximize school psychologists’ reach and impact while minimizing the time required to provide the intervention on a large scale.

What are some of the systemic barriers that may prevent school psychologists from engaging in MI at schools?

In my opinion, the greatest barrier to school psychologists and their use of MI is finding the time to participate in MI training and then practicing and honing their MI skills after their initial exposure to the approach. In addition, there is a need for researchers to fully understand the mechanisms of MI and tailor trainings to teach providers how to fully harness these active ingredients. Currently, there is research demonstrating the positive effects of training on school-based MI providers’ skills (Small et al., 2014; Simon & Ward, 2014), yet there is no research linking those improvements to client (e.g., students, teachers, parents) outcomes. This is an essential step in the development of school-based MI (i.e., consultative and, especially, student-focused MI) given the need to match intervention components with the cognitive development of young people (Strait et al., 2013).

How much training, practice, and supervision would a typical school psychologist need before competently engaging in this strategy?

MI is similar to other complex tasks in that it often takes direct instruction (or an introduction to the approach), modeling, and repeated opportunities to practice with feedback. According to Madison, Loignon, and Lane (2008), most MI studies include 9 to 16 hours of training. Ultimately, school psychologists need to learn the underlying principles, processes, and skills related to MI and then seek out ample opportunities to practice these skills and receive feedback (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). Thus, attending workshops, reading books, and visiting websites on MI are typically the first steps in learning MI, followed by practice and feedback. Quality workshops incorporate ample opportunities for attendees to practice and receive group level feedback; however, MI learners must practice after initial training and seek feedback. There are several ways to do this: (a) develop MI practice groups with colleagues, (b) attend small group trainings, (c) arrange to send recordings of practice sessions to competent MI providers and trainers, and (d) set up online feedback sessions with MI training providers. The Field-Based Skills session on school-based motivational interviewing at the NASP convention is an opportunity for school psychologists to take the first step (i.e., direct instruction/overview and opportunity to practice basic MI skills) in developing MI skills and overcoming the initial barriers to implementing MI in the schools.

What online resources are available to interested school psychologists?

Readers interested in obtaining school-based MI resources can visit the following websites: and The site provides free access to a semistructured student-focused MI intervention that has undergone multiple randomized control trials (Strait et al., 2012; Terry et al., 2013), and it includes information for obtaining additional MI training, including workshops and individual MI practice/feedback sessions (conducted online or in person). The mifor website provides an overview of MI skills and principles. It also includes additional MI training resources (e.g., card sort activity, links to videos) and an exhaustive list of school-based MI trainers.


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Jensen, C. D., Cushing, C. C., Aylward, B. S., Craig, J. T., Sorell, D. M., & Steele, R. G. (2011). Effectiveness of motivational interviewing interventions for adolescent substance use behavior change: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 79(4), 433.

Langberg, J. M., Epstein, J. N., Becker, S. P., Girio-Herrera, E., & Vaughn, A. J. (2012). Evaluation of the Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS) intervention for middle school students with ADHD as implemented by school mental health providers. School Psychology Review, 41, 342.

Lundahl, B. W., Kunz, C., Brownell, C., Tollefson, D., & Burke, B. L. (2010). A meta-analysis of motivational interviewing: Twenty-five years of empirical studies. Research on Social Work Practice, 20(2), 137–160.

Madison, M. B., Loignon, A. C., & Lane, C. (2009). Training in motivational interviewing: A systematic review. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36, 101–109. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2008.05.005

McQuillin, S. D., & Lyons, M. D. (2016). Brief instrumental school-based mentoring for middle school students: Theory and impact. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 9(2), 73–89.

McQuillin, S., Strait, G., Smith, B., & Ingram, A. (2015). Brief instrumental school-based mentoring for first and second year middle school students: A randomized evaluation. Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 885–899.

Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Guilford.

Reich, C. M., Howard Sharp, K. M., & Berman, J. S. (2015). A motivational interviewing intervention for the classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 42(4), 339–344.

Reinke, W. M., Herman, K. C., & Sprick, R. S. (2011). Motivational interviewing for effective classroom management: The classroom check-up. New York, NY: Guilford.

Reinke, W. M., Lewis-Palmer, T., & Merrell, K. (2008). The classroom check-up: A classwide teacher consultation model for increasing praise and decreasing disruptive behavior. School Psychology Review, 37(3), 315–332.

Simon, P., & Ward, N. L. (2014). An evaluation of training for lay providers in the use of motivational interviewing to promote academic achievement among urban youth. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 7(4), 255–270.

Small, J. W., Lee, J., Frey, A. J., Seeley, J. R., & Walker, H. M. (2014). The development of instruments to measure motivational interviewing skill acquisition for school-based personnel. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 7(4), 240–254.

Strait, G., Smith, B., McQuillin, S., Terry, J., Swan, S., & Malone, P. (2012). A randomized trial of motivational interviewing to improve middle school students’ academic performance. Journal of Community Psychology, 40(8), 1032–1039.

Strait, G. G., McQuillin, S., Smith, B., & Englund, J. A. (2012). Using motivational interviewing with children and adolescents: A cognitive and neurodevelopmental perspective. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 5(4), 290–304.

Strait, G., Williams, C., & Peters, C. (in press). Classroom-based motivational interviewing for improving college student's academic performance: a randomized trial. Teaching of Psychology.

Terry, J., Strait, G., Smith, B., & McQuillin, S. (2013). Replication of motivational interviewing to improve middle school students’ academic performance. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(7), 902–909.

Gerald Gill Strait, PhD, NCSP, Texas licensed school psychology specialist, and Missouri licensed psychologist, is an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake