Art of motivation

Art of motivation is an online resource for administrators, counsellors, teachers and others who want to help students avoid drug problems and other obstacles to reaching their full potential. Using basic communication skills and "art of motivation" principles, any school professional can help a young person assess themselves, explore things they may want to change and make plans to take action.

Practising the art of motivation does not require special training in mental health or substance use. But, as in any human relationship, it does take a mix of curiosity, empathy, sincerity and skill to work with young people and support their health and development. And it all starts with connection and trust. Connecting and building trust with students requires good listening skills and a sincere interest in what really matters to them. Even youth who are resistant, reluctant or only considering making changes can move toward improving their situations if they feel safe, listened to and cared for.

Based on the principles of motivational interviewing, this resource provides ways and means of engaging students in conversations that keep them moving in a forward direction. The information and tools remind us to help young people articulate and reach their own goals, not tell them what we think or want them to do.

Express empathy: Build a respectful and accepting relationship

Empathy is about good rapport and an accepting, non-judgmental approach. It involves trying to understand the young person‘s point of view while drawing out their reflections about their situation and deciding if and what they would like to change. Without a respectful relationship it will be difficult to help a young person move toward positive changes.

    • Do: be accepting, understanding and encouraging, make the young person feel comfortable and at ease and use reflective listening.
    • Don't: judge, preach, blame or criticize, use labels such as “alcoholic” or “drug addict", or do more than 50% of the talking.

Develop discrepancy: Explore the status quo and what matters to the student

Discrepancy is the feeling that a behaviour is out of line with a goal or value. Young people are more likely to be motivated to change a problematic behaviour when they see a difference or discrepancy between the way their life is right now—for instance, their current use of alcohol or other drugs and any related problems — and the way they‘d like their life to be.

The aim is to amplify this difference and help the young person explore the present situation in relation to what is wanted and valued, and identify their own reasons for change.

Roll with resistance: Pushing too hard will push students away

Rolling with resistance means avoiding arguments with a student who is challenging their need for change. It means acknowledging that the youth is ultimately the one who‘ll make decisions about their health and well-being.

Showing respect for what the student thinks is more helpful than trying to force or convince them. Focus on showing interest in what they have to say, and on being non-judgmental. Express a desire to understand and accept (but not necessarily agree with) reasons for their behaviour and for their choices.

Support self-efficacy: The students are the ones in control of their lives - not us!

Self-efficacy means believing in yourself and your abilities. It's about knowing or trusting that you can succeed at setting and achieving a goal.

Like adults, young people are more likely to follow through with a change in behaviour if they believe they‘ve freely chosen to make the change and can accomplish it. It‘s important to help students build confidence by remaining optimistic, reminding them of their strengths and past successes, and affirming all their efforts to make changes no matter how big or small.

Open-ended questions: Engage the student to talk about their situation

Open-ended questions often start with one of the 5 W’s — who, what, when, where, why — and require a student to explain something. (Closed questions, on the other hand, start with words such as “do and don’t” and ask for a yes/no response.)

Using open-ended questions can help young people think through their situations and weigh their desire to change. It's effective in pulling out detailed information because it requires them to both think more about what they’re saying and make statements that may serve as internal motivation to change.

To illustrate the difference between open-ended and closed questions, consider these examples:

    • “What’re some of the things you like about using drugs?” versus “Do you like using drugs?”
    • “What’re some of the things you dislike about drugs?” versus “Don’t drugs make you feel bad?”
    • “What concerns you about _______?” versus “Don’t you think ______ is a problem?”
    • “How do you feel about_______?” versus “Doesn’t that make you feel _________?”

Affirmation: Praise students' strengths and applaud their successes

Giving affirmation involves using statements of appreciation and understanding to express confidence in the student's ability to continue positive behaviours or make positive changes. These statements can help to create a supportive atmosphere and build rapport with young people.

Recognizing a young person's strengths and efforts to change helps them build confidence. And affirming self-motivating statements encourages readiness to change. Here are some examples of affirmation:

    • “Thanks for coming today.”
    • “I appreciate your willingness to talk to me about your substance use.”
    • “You’re obviously a resourceful person to have coped with those difficulties.”
    • “I can see that you're a really strong person.”
    • “That’s a good idea.”
    • “It’s hard to talk about _____. I really appreciate your keeping on with this.”

Reflective listening: Build a connection and work through ambivalence

Reflective listening has two purposes. It builds a connection with the student. And, it offers a way to guide the young person through the ambivalence they may be feeling about change by helping them focus on the discrepancy between their present situation and their goals and values.

Reflective listening involves truly trying to understand what the young person is saying and anticipating what they are trying to communicate. Reflecting isn’t the same as agreeing or paraphrasing. Instead, it involves selectively reflecting what was said in order to draw attention to those statements that reveal a desire to change.

Reflective listening reinforces the young person’s own positive statements about change and offers insight not by directing but by highlighting. To do this effectively, it is important to pay attention to those areas where the student expresses discrepancy between their desires and their current situation. For instance, we can focus on the positive things the student said about changing, i.e., emphasizing "change talk."

If only negatives about changing are mentioned, we can explore what it might take for the student to consider change or why they think change is not an option.

Here are some tips for reflective listening:

    • Strip the statement down. State only the most important elements of what was said. “You’re angry” versus “So, what I’m hearing you say is that you’re angry.”
    • Continue the paragraph. Try not to parrot back what the student has said, but instead paraphrase or guess what would come next to give the conversation momentum. Consider this example:
      • Youth: I don’t know why this is such a big deal for everyone. All my friends drink like I do.
      • School professional: Others have some concerns, but it hasn’t been an issue for you.

Summarize: Recap conversations and guide students forward

Summarizing is a way of gathering what a student has said and preparing them to move on. Summaries serve to remind the youth about major discussion points, their plan of action and their reasons for taking action.

If the youth slows or stops talking, summaries can act as a bridge to help them continue. They may also help to remind the youth of what they said, or point out a connection between statements.

Summaries often include these basic elements:

    • specific problems or behaviours that were discussed
    • the young person’s most important reasons for wanting to make changes
    • what their plan of action will look like, including both measures of success in completing the action and incentives or sanctions for completing or not completing the action
    • the date and time of next contact

Keep the summary short and succinct. Here’s an example of a summary:

    • “So, you really enjoy using alcohol and other drugs at parties, and you don’t think you use drugs any more than your friends do. On the other hand, you’ve spent a lot more money than you can afford and that really concerns you. You’re finding it difficult to pay for things you really need. Your boyfriend is angry and you really hate upsetting him. And you’ve noticed that you’re having trouble sleeping and remembering things.”

Support positive behaviour: Helping students use their strengths

Supporting positive behaviour involves raising a student's awareness of their developing strengths and the role they can play in their overall health and well-being. It means helping youth both see their strengths and how to nurture and use them to build motivation, confidence and self-efficacy for changing any problematic behaviour, including harmful use of alcohol and other drugs.

How can I be supportive?

The best way to support a young person is to help them identify their strengths. One way to do this is by asking questions that get them talking about their habits, qualities, values, skills and resources for support (e.g., family, faith, community). Here are some examples:

    • "How do you stay healthy?"
    • "What are you good at?"
    • "What do you do to help others?"
    • "Who are the important adults in your life?"
    • "What are your responsibilities at home? At school?"
    • "If I were an employer, what are all the things that would make me want to hire you?"
Tip: Try using the Strength Meter to guide the discussion.

During your discussion, listen for cues that illustrate the strengths important in making a person feel balanced and "whole." Consider using the strengths emphasized in Navajo culture: generosity, independence, mastery and belonging. For more details, see the Circle of Courage.

Here are some examples of how to do this:  

Questions to identify strengths Example response indicating strength Strength
How does your current work fit with your life goals? Well, its not really the job I want but I'm able to save money for college. Independence
What do you do for fun? I volunteer at a food bank. Generosity
What do you do when you feel sad? I usually listen to music or go for a walk. Mastery (of successful coping skills)

Note: Some of these questions may identify both a risk and a strength. For example, if a student says, "My boyfriend is my family," you could recognize "belonging" as a strength. Or, if a youth says, "I don’t have time for school because I work a lot," you could recognize their show of independence.

What can I say to show my support?

Here are some examples of ways to respond when you recognize a trait worthy of praise or see that a student needs some cheering on:

Strength Strength is present Strength is absent
Generosity Your willingness to care for others is inspiring. It shows generosity and that's a very important skill to develop. I'd like you to think about sharing your obvious athletic skill with others. What do you think about showing the ropes to some younger kids?
Independence I'm very impressed with your decision to stop hanging out with the friends you were telling me about. I know it must have been difficult. I'm wondering if there's something we can do to help you start finding your own way and developing your independence.
Mastery You should feel really good about finishing this school year. I know it took a lot of hard work but you did it! Getting really good at something can help you feel good about yourself. Let's think about how you might be able to develop mastery in something. Tell me something that you really like to do with your time.
Belonging You have a lot of strong relationships in your life. I know this sense of belonging must be a lot of help when times get tough. It's important to develop relationships that help you feel happy and safe during this stage of your life. Can we think of some people you might be able to rely on when you need it?

Support change: Helping students think things through and make decisions

Supporting change means openly recognizing the ways in which a student is making good choices (e.g., choosing not to smoke cigarettes) while giving them strategies and information on ways to reduce their risk of harm (e.g., low-risk drinking guidelines). It also involves drawing out the student's thoughts about both the possibility of change and potential ways to change.

An overall framework

It's important to understand what exactly we're trying to do, where our responsibilities lie, where our influence is, and how we can help young people make healthy decisions and encourage positive change. The following framework involves movement that leads to increased motivation on the part of the student.

    • Engagement and safety: Showing empathy and respect toward young people (being curious and skillful at asking questions to understand their interests and concerns) is a good way to start.
    • Self-awareness: An emotionally safe environment encourages youth to develop self-awareness and to critically assess their current situation.
    • Discrepancy: Exploring the possibility of change or maintaining current patterns can uncover discrepancy between goals and values and current actions.
    • Motivation: Greater awareness of discrepancy and greater belief in their own ability leads to greater motivation to change.

Solidify change: Helping students build commitment and capacity

Solidifying changes involves helping students build their capacity for, and commitment to, change. This means helping them develop skills and supportive networks to continue their healthy behaviours while avoiding lapsing back into their old patterns of harmful behaviour.

Applying a health lens

Helping young people continue to make positive changes is not just about addressing individual behaviours (e.g., those related to personal choices about substance use). Students' choices and behaviours are often the result of what they see, hear and experience in the world around them. Therefore, it is crucial that we try to identify and influence opportunities at both the school and community level to build healthier environments in which to grow and learn.

Creating a school that enhances the health and well-being of students requires that a health lens be applied to all of the school’s structures, policies and programs. For instance, when developing a new policy, these two core questions deserve consideration:

    • What impact will the policy have on the healthy development of students?
    • Will this policy increase or decrease school connectedness?
Connectedness and building bridges

Connections with family, school and community are significant protective factors for harms related to using alcohol and other drugs. The more protective factors young people have in their lives, the more resilient they will be in the face of obstacles or challenging circumstances.

This is especially important for students returning to school from a service or program in the community. Relationships with friends, teachers and family members may have been negatively affected by the student's previous behaviour. Therefore, bringing the student back into a normal classroom situation will of course involve helping them restore relationships and build connections within the school and community.

Some ways to support a student's return to school include

    • engaging with parents or guardians around how the school and home might work together to support the student, and
    • facilitating discussions with teachers about ways to ease the student's integration back into the classroom.
Preventing relapse

Students who are trying to maintain positive behavioural changes need affirmation that they’re doing a good job. They also need encouragement to stay on track, even if they lose their way sometimes. We can do this by checking in with them about their progress and praising them for the changes they’ve maintained (or for their continuing to stay connected to us despite not sticking to their goals such as reducing their use of alcohol or other drugs).

Since preventing relapse is a routine part of the relationship, it’s best not to think of the process in terms of linear steps. Nonetheless, the following elements are involved.

  1. Remind them of their commitment to change

    One way to do this is to help the young person create a list of benefits and suggest they carry it around as a reminder and motivator. For example, this may involve reviewing the costs associated with using alcohol and other drugs, and the benefits of change. Another way is to encourage them to acknowledge everyday at least one good thing that happened because of the positive changes they made.

  2. Help them identify high-risk situations

    A high-risk situation is when a student finds it particularly difficult to stay on track with the changes they are making because of one or more of these factors: emotions, thoughts, places, events, or people. Self-monitoring is one way for a young person to identify times when they’re particularly prone to lapse into old patterns (e.g., harmful use of drugs). Other options include simply asking them about situations that have caused them difficulties in the past, or using a worksheet such as Identifying and Managing High Risk Situations to help guide the conversation.

  3. Help them manage high-risk situations
    During the early stages of change, young people may find it easiest to simply avoid high-risk situations. But it’s not always possible to steer clear of risky situations. For this reason, they may need help in developing a plan to cope with situations if/when they arise. This could involve introducing various problem-solving techniques and practising them through role-playing. Or it could involve introducing them to harm reduction strategies. Harm reduction strategies are also useful when dealing with youth who are using drugs alone because of shame or fear of detection. (Note: These situations put young people at higher risk of overdose, intoxication and assault, so it’s crucial to address them as safety issues.)

  4. Support them if/when they relapse
    When a young person has a relapse, they should not be made to feel guilty. Instead, they should be encouraged to brush it off and try again. Remind them that relapse is a normal part of the change process for many people. And repeat the techniques used to get them on track in the first place.