Motivational Interviewing for Teachers: Understanding MI in Education

At Share Collaborative, one of our favorite areas of focus is education. We have worked with public and private schools to share concepts behind motivational interviewing for teachers in the classroom and support staff to enhance student engagement and wellbeing.


Those familiar with Motivational Interviewing or MI may think of it as something used primarily in counseling and social work settings, but the truth is that MI fits seamlessly in almost any human interaction—especially with students. Why? Because at the core of MI is empathy, and empathy is crucial for building human connections and rapport. Plus, MI helps us increase students’ investment in their education.


Here’s why motivational interviewing in education is a vital skill that we can all recognize, foster, and apply in the classroom and with students.


“Where Will I Ever Use Algebra?”

We’ve all heard people joke about how they aren’t sure they will ever need those algebra skills in “real life.” But as educators know, every skill and concept that students learn is crucial for their cognitive growth and have real-life applications.


So, how can a math teacher apply Motivational Interviewing in the classroom to help students make this connection? If I’m teaching math, I might start a conversation about whatever concept I plan to share with students.


“How do you use math in your life?” From this evocative question, we can help students discover reason and ability. We’re drawing out and evoking a response from the person while we highlight the benefits of investing their time, heart, and brainpower into the mathematics concept they’re about to learn.


It’s important to note that MI isn’t meant to manipulate or “trick” students into discovering their rationale. Instead, it’s intended to help educators (and any MI practitioner) tap into their ability to empathize with students. When we see others for their true, authentic selves, we can start to build rapport—the foundation of a connection.


So, when students aren’t sure how to respond to the question of how a math concept applies to their lives, educators can start helping them understand how math will help them in their finances. How will math help them calculate their rent someday? How will it help them earn more money and find success when they’re on their own? Be more independent? Own fancy cars? How can these concepts help them better meet the challenges and day-to-day encounters they face in their lives? How can these concept support them to live their dreams?


Furthermore, how will math help achieve their dreams of a future career? Let’s say they want to be a sports analyst. There are all sorts of data that go into working in sports analysis. Or they want to work in music—understanding data and math concepts can help them there too. No matter their areas of interest, they engage when the learning is tied to their future goals and dreams. They start to connect how the lessons apply to their lives now and on down the road.


Helping Teachers Connect with MI in Education

Often when we carry out Motivational Interviewing training, we hear feedback like, “This is such a great way to think about how we listen to students and how to foster an open relationship with kids,” or “Wow, this is directly linked to what I do in the classroom.”


We walk through real-life scenarios so that educators have hands-on experience and examples to take back to them and apply immediately. One of the most important ways to employ motivational interviewing techniques is to practice them regularly. It’s a natural way of conversing, and by keeping the principles and concepts of MI in mind, you’ll make little changes that can solidify your rapport and student connections.


MI is a very genuine and authentic way of communicating. It draws on what we do every day—when we listen to a friend talk about their struggles and say, “That sounds really rough!” We might not think that we’re applying MI, but it’s really a way of relating. It doesn’t mean we always agree with the behavior or choice, but we’re showing that we empathize, we deeply understand.


Motivational Interviewing in education helps teachers and staff build those vital relationships, rapport, and trust with students. When you’re a teacher, having empathy is a crucial skill. Of course, all humans have empathy, but teachers must learn to employ their empathy muscles at every turn.


When a student is distant, disengaged, and struggling, educators often step back and think about all the obstacles that stood in the way of students walking through the door that day. How many busses did they need to take? How many gang lines did they need to cross to get to school? Did they get to eat breakfast this morning? Are they worried about their situation at home?


Many students start each day carrying in some degree of trauma. Empathy is the skill that will help teachers connect and help them get further with their students. MI works with students of any age and any cognitive ability level. Educators may need to modify their approach to be appropriate for the situation, but no matter what, we can find a way to meet in and hold space for another person.


The empathy built by applying MI doesn’t only relate to the work with students, though. Teachers often have to interface with many others during their day—their faculty peers, administration, and especially parents. Most of these parents fall somewhere on a continuum from easy-going to the far extreme of the other end—not so easy-going. Parents may not be engaged at all in the students’ lives. They may blame the educators and administrators for their issues and frustrations. Parents can be grumpy with teachers. When a student has behavioral issues, there’s often a discrepancy about who’s responsible for “dealing” with the issue, and often feelings can arise.


When an educator allows the parent space to express and share their feelings, it often diffuses the situation. From there, the conversation can shift and move forward as a brainstorming session on ways parents and educators can partner together. The concept of partnership is another crucial element of MI and a critical component of building rapport. When this rapport is reached, the situation often moves forward more smoothly for students, parents, and educators together.


Motivational Interviewing Techniques in Education Teams

Another place where Motivational Interviewing can be highly beneficial is working with teams. Teaching today is a tough job. Days can be fraught with stress, pressure, and frustration. People need spaces where they can unload, empathize with each other, and share their discombobulation over what is happening throughout their day. Sharing is an integral part of well-being. Another crucial skill from MI is listening. When educators learn MI, they often become better listeners, not just to their students but to each other—even at home.


Many people know how to ask questions and extract information from each other, but they don’t always know how to listen. It’s rare nowadays for people to sit back and truly hear and see each other without distractions.


Skilled listeners respond with empathy and affirmation. Affirmations can be extremely helpful in conversations with colleagues, parents, and students because it lets others know that we see their inner strength. We’re acknowledging their humanity and goodness. It’s very powerful.


When working in group settings (like the classroom), we may adjust or modify our approach, but the same basic concepts apply. There’s a great resource called “Motivational Interviewing in Groups” and another called “Motivational Interviewing in Education.” We’ve shared these and other sources on our Resources page for MI.


Motivational Interviewing isn’t a magic technique or a “formula” to extract answers or gain compliance. Instead, it’s simply a way to help others bring out their best through conversing and connecting. As a result, MI practitioners become intentional and, thus, skillful and efficient at expressing empathy. Empathy leads to connection or rapport, and rapport is the biggest indicator of a positive outcome in any human services field, including teaching.


When students know we “get” them, empathy is a path toward that connection. Empathy is especially critical for kids that have had bumpy rides in their school experience and haven’t experienced empathy and affirmation in the classroom before.

Motivational Interviewing in All Aspects of Education

Of course, MI also works in other aspects of education like counseling, social work, and school psychology. These spaces are often where we think of more traditional applications for MI techniques. But when the entire faculty understands the concepts of Motivational Interviewing, it becomes a beautiful space to sit down in a group and share. Each person is learning from each other. For example, in student services meetings, you might have a caseworker from an outside organization, a school psychologist, administrator, teacher, parent, and the student; if everyone goes in with the intention to engage and connect with the parent and student, the atmosphere shifts.


From engagement and connection, the next step is to find a focus—what’s the topic of this conversation? From there, we start to draw out their reasons for wanting to make changes (“change talk” as we refer to it in MI). Discuss why they’d be invested in following the rules. What will it do to help them? Then the whole team works together for a shared positive outcome. They become cohesive and coherent—everyone moving forward on the same page.


We’ve all been part of a team where some people are punitive, blaming, or shaming in their approach to the issue. Unfortunately, the attitude can throw off empathy and discount the feelings and experiences of others. It can make the situation disorienting and confusing for those we’re trying to help too—including and especially the students. When we model how to navigate the challenging conversation, we might just influence some of our teammates to do as well. In this way and many others, MI can help us with our own Wellness.


MI gives us a methodology and an approach for a better conversation. It helps lead us into conversations, where we can assure students that they have a choice. Change talk helps to motivate students to follow through on their beneficial plans. For example, “what are the benefits of you taking three deep breaths before getting frustrated with the situation?” Or “What are the benefits of doing your homework and getting it turned in on time?”


When we share ideas, instead of directing or telling students what to do, we make sure they’re ready to accept and understand the idea too. MI is a particular way to partner with our fellow human beings—students, teachers, and parents. We can discover what they know, affirm them, share their ideas, and express how they think and feel about the ideas we’re discussing.


At Share Collaborative, we’re honored and excited to help educators apply some of these concepts to show up and support each other. Folks that employ MI in their work experience more joy and longevity and less compassion fatigue—something crucial for educators today.


Reach out to learn more about Motivational Interviewing in education or other parts of our Healing-Focused Care model. We enjoy designing and customizing for the entities we serve. We also offer many supports for continuing your journey through MI. Let us know your challenges, and we’ll help you figure out how to apply motivational interviewing for better connections in any setting.

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