MI in School Experiences
We welcome your stories and comments about your journey integrating MI as we become a community of practice that crosses political and geographic boundaries in an effort to help nurture students in their learning and development in a way that supports their intrinsic curiosity and decisions to change. As a learning community we all learn from the experiences of other. You may also want to join the Facebook Group “Motivational Interviewing in Schools” to share and hear stories, about resources, ideas, challenges and the value of introducing this new tool in educational settings.
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Here is a story of an experience I had early in my MI work with students that shows the importance of the skill of EPE (elicit-provide-elicit). I changed his name and the narrative is based on memory rather than a recording.
Jon was a high school Senior and was working hard to meet graduation requirements by attending both regular day and night school to obtain enough credits to graduate. He was excited to be doing something none of his siblings had done: walk across the stage to receive his diploma as his family looked on and cheered. It had not been an easy four years and night school was helping him make up credits for classes he’d failed.
As Jon walked into his Chicago high school one Spring day six weeks before graduation, he was asked by a security guard to open his book bag. The guard found two cigarettes and three single dollar bills. “You’ve been selling cigarettes!” he said in a judgmental tone. “You know it is illegal to bring in cigarettes.” Jon replied: “I haven’t been selling cigarettes and anyway I’m 18, so I can smoke [buy cigarettes] and they’re there for after school.” The guard replied, “It is illegal to bring cigarettes into the school, you’ll have to go talk to Dean Johnson.”
The Dean and Jon had a long history of confrontational interaction. As he waited in the Dean’s office, Jon made a derogatory comment about the Dean to another student also waiting in the office and was overheard by the Dean, who quickly retorted, “You’re not spending one day in In-School Suspension, you’ll spend the week there!”
Jon was boiling with anger as he sat in In-School Suspension. He was informed that because of a special university program, he and the others were going to do something different. Once a week a team would provide an alternative to the regular punishment: requiring quiet and busywork doing rote worksheets. The university team consisted of staff and graduate students trained in Motivational Interviewing. After teambuilding activities, Jon who was still very mad, had a chance to share his circumstance and think about what to do. Following some introductory conversation, the interaction continued between Jon and the Interviewer (I).
I: Would you mind telling me a bit about what is working for you and what isn’t with school?
J: Things were going fine until I walked in today and the security guard had me open my bag and they found a few lousy cigarettes. Then he accused me of selling them! Like they found 2 cigarettes and three dollars and right away they jumped on me accusing me of selling cigarettes. I tell you, I wasn’t selling them. So I got sent to the dean’s office and now I’ve got to spend the whole week in ISS. If that happens, I know I’ll get too far behind in two of my classes to pass. Like right now I’m already just barely passing and if I don’t pass I won’t graduate.
I: You’re really upset about this. Just because of bringing 2 cigarettes into school the dean is making you spend a whole week in In-School Suspension and if that happens you’re likely to fail some classes and that would mean you wouldn’t graduate. I sure can see why you are so upset.
J: Like this year I’ve turned a new leaf, I’m even going to night school to catch up on credits. Mr. Johnson has hated my guts for years; and now he’d going to keep me from graduating. What worse is, I called my mom and she just gave me attitude, like this whole thing is not fair and she like blamed me. I swear I was not selling cigarettes.
I: It doesn’t seem fair. You’re accused of something that you didn’t do. So the dean is giving you the whole week for bringing in 2 cigarettes. Do you mind telling me why a whole week?
J: Well, I mean we’ve had issues for a long time the dean and me. When I went in the office, I was talking to my friend Giovanni and I kind of blasted the dean and he like overheard me. And that is when he told me I’d be spending five days in ISS. I might as well walk out of this school right now and never come back! If I miss 5 days that is basically the same thing, I’ll likely fail. Plus on top of that if I’m failing, I won’t be able to go to prom.
I: You really care about your future and you’re determined to graduate. The Dean does not seem to know how hard you are trying to do all it takes to graduate, like keeping up with some hard classes and even night school. And now, just because of a few cigarettes you’re thinking that dream could be destroyed. You’ve been so looking forward to prom and graduation.
J: Yes, exactly, all because of the Dean. He just hates my guts and has for years!
I: And the good thing is you’ll likely never have to see him again once you graduate.
J: I know him; he’s serious about making me spend the whole week in ISS. I swear I should just leave. He’s always blamed me for things and OK, I’ll admit other years I’ve caused some problems, but this year I’m really trying hard to not get in trouble and get my credits. I go home and have to not only do my regular schoolwork, but my evening schoolwork.
I: So, you haven’t been a saint, but this year has been different and you can almost taste graduation. What are your options at this point?
J: I don’t know, like I said, I should just walk out and never come back. I know the dean is not going to change his mind. I tell you, he really hates my guts.
I: Do you mind if I share some information that I recently heard about?
I: Well, the report was an Anthropology research about human cultures and they found that every culture, no matter where in the world, people were more lenient to those who made mistakes if they admitted it. So, they made the punishment less harsh if the person recognized that it was a mistake. I’m not sure if this is helpful at all.
J: Oh, so you’re trying to tell me I should apologize.
I: I’m not trying to tell you what you should do; really, that is totally up to you! I just heard that report last week and thought it might be useful to know.
J: Huh…Oh no, that is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. [Quiet pause]. I don’t know. Like it’s my honor. He doesn’t deserve my apology.
I: You’re not sure if you can get yourself to apologize for insulting him, that seems really hard based on your past history with him. On the other hand, you’ve been doing everything to be able to graduate and enjoy prom with your class.
J: Maybe I could. I can’t miss a whole week and not flunk. I swear, six weeks from now I’ll never come back to this school. Ok, I guess I could. Maybe it would help.
I: So you’re thinking that talking to Mr. Johnson might help cut the time you’ll have to spend in ISS.
J: And hope he’ll give me a break. Oh, man that’s going to be hard.
I: Do me a favor, would you keep me posted on what happens, Ok?
J: All right, sure.
I: Nice talking to you. I’ll look forward to hearing what happens when you talk to him. I guess we are out of time. Good luck.
J: Cool, thanks.
J: Hey, I told you I’d let you know what happened. Well, Mr. Johnson gave me a break and only had me stay another day. Those three days will make all the difference. I really want to thank you.
I: I’m happy to hear about that. Really you need to thank yourself for having the courage to do what you did.
Thanks for that narrative Rich. There is a shift happening in Rochester, NY and more schools are becoming aware of the impact of Adverse Childhood Events on the school experience/outcomes when the school does not have a trauma responsive culture. The ACE questionnaire was given to our middle school students within a NYS Dept of Health survey. Schools that have had an opportunity to review the outcomes data from this survey are seeking more support and guidance. For me, this includes the “way of being” with MI. The concepts within MI match up with the principles of trauma responsive schools (safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment) and offer additional guidance for the schools who are committed to being trauma responsive. These are exciting times.
While this did not occur in a school setting, it was certainly in a learning environment. This story is about a 17-years old girl who was detained in a Juvenile Detention Facility (name and place omitted for privacy of all). She was led a group of other girls as they participated in a “large dorm disturbance.” (Others would have called it a “riot,” if they were to see the injury to staff and other youth and the destruction of property.) I met her while she was detained in a cell while awaiting a court appearance.
I told her, “I have never met you. I do not know you. I wasn’t here when it all went down. Others have tried to tell me about the whole thing, but I’m interested in hearing your side, if you’re willing to tell me your story from your perspective. I won’t even know if it’s true or not. I’ll just listen and won’t make fun or judge any of it.”
She gave me a quirky look and then proceeded to tell me her story. When she finished, I simply said, “Wow. You are far more intelligent than anyone gives you credit for being.”
She put her elbows on the table, put her chin in her hands and looked right into me, “Why do you say so?”
I said, “Well, first of all, you’re very observant. Most people wouldn’t have caught all that detail you have shared. Also, you seem proud you’ve made such brilliant decisions and are genuinely happy with the way they turn out. And then, there’s other times when you think the decisions you have made aren’t so good, and you’re a bit upset about they way the actions you took turned out. You’re just sitting here weighting it all out now.”
Whoa. She lit up and poured herself out. She leaned deeply into the four feet of space between us and said, “You know, no one has ever taken the time to listen. You’re different.”
That conversation took a whole ten minutes.
The following day, as she was returned to her living unit, she tried to light things up again. Staff were ready to restrain her. I asked if I could “talk” with her. Staff told me I could; however, they didn’t hold much hope of it calming her as “she is always going off on everyone. We always have to restrain her. She doesn’t know how to calm down.”
I stepped out into the outdoor space where she was demonstratively pacing back and forth between the buildings. I was alone with her. No protection, no threat, no back-up. I said, “Hello!” She answered in a deep growl, “Who the fuck are you?” I said, “I’m really nobody. I met you yesterday. You mind if we take a minute to talk?” She stopped in her tracks and said, “Why?” I said, “Well, staff are going to come out and do what they feel they have to do, so I figured you might have nothing to lose to take a minute with me. You don’t have to. I just thought you might want to.” She agreed and walked toward me. I asked her if we could sit on the steps with our backs to staff, “so we can keep our conversation private and you can speak freely without interruption.” She agreed.
I said, “Seems like something isn’t working out the way you hoped. This is really upsetting you. Seems like you’d like to find a way out of this that might work best for you. We both know you’re smart enough to figure this out.”
She started crying and admitted she had said some things that had really backfired and now felt trapped by her decision. I asked her what she hoped would happen, if nothing stood in the way. She told me and then I asked her what she was willing to do to make that happen. It all seemed simple enough, so I asked her what strengths she thought she had that would help her to successfully follow through. She said, “Yes. I can. I’m smart.” And, so she did.
Staff were amazed as she sat quietly and allowed them to write up the Incident Report. They were amazed they didn’t have to restrain her. It had never happened before.
So I asked them, “What was the difference this time?”
And so, we all learned a little something.
Guilford Press (www.guilford.com) has a special for the book MI in Schools conversations to improve behavior and learning for 20% off (US$20) using this code: 2E
Here is an interesting clip on the importance of emotional responsiveness for brain development: Emotional Responsiveness with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
Wouldn’t you say that MI’s affective reflections do just this? What do you think?
Jesse Berg who is an MI practitioner (also member of the MINT) is an academic advisor at a university and has a great blog on the use of MI in that role. You can check it out:
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