We all know from personal experience that adopting new behaviors and attitudes can be a complicated endeavor. Changing well-established personal behaviors, habits, and routines requires a great deal of commitment and persistence. Thus, it should come as no surprise to us to be met with pushback and resistance when we attempt to stimulate change in complex systems such as schools and families. These systems are composed of individuals with longstanding preferences and habits that have been reinforced, sometimes for years, by the context in which they occur. Expecting these behaviors to change simply because it makes sense to do so runs against the tide of behavioral patterns and usually only leads to frustration when the intended change never happens. Quite often, no amount of education, information exchange, or encouragement is enough to create enduring change in people.
Thus, many school professionals find themselves in a predicament, tasked with improving student outcomes by encouraging adults in their lives to behave differently. Administrators, school psychologists and consultants, special educators, teachers, instructional coaches, and behavior consultants encounter the challenge of trying to influence change at some point in the course of their work with others. If only it were enough to explain to a parent about research showing the benefits of being involved in education to produce an increase in his or her homework participation. If only it were as easy as telling a teacher about the importance of using high rates of specific praise in the classroom to alter their positive to negative ratio of interactions. On the other hand, if it were that easy, the challenges we encounter in schools would likely never have existed in the first place.
We actually know a lot about the types of environments that are healthy and that promote student learning and positive adjustment (see Biglan, Flay, Embry, & Sandler, 2012). The irony is that we have devoted most of our science to identifying the characteristics of nurturing environments and much less of it to figuring out how to get people to actually create them. It is as though we have assumed that people will change because it is logical to do so. In this sense, our science has lagged behind common sense. On a personal level, we know that changing a behavior is not often as easy as simply wanting to do so.
Fortunately, a strand of research has surfaced in the last two decades focused on this critical aspect of change. From this research comes a new perspective on motivation, an understanding of common factors that undermine readiness to change, and an approach to help move people toward change. The approach, called motivational interviewing (MI), has been developed to address barriers to motivation, foster compliance and engagement with services, and increase the likelihood that positive change will occur. Our book, Motivational Interviewing in Schools, is about the application of MI in schools.