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How to Use Motivational Interviewing with Students

Today, I will teach you how to use motivational interviewing with students.

Motivational interviewing, or MI for short, is a powerful tool for fostering executive function skills in students.

Like declarative language, it encourages students to reach their own conclusions and make executive decisions.

Peer-reviewed research has shown that MI is an effective technique for supporting behavior change in adolescents and adults, although there is limited research on how to use it with students.

Why people fail to use motivational interviewing with students

Many educators, parents, and coaches fail to use MI effectively for a few reasons:

  • They've never heard of it or been taught how to use it

  • They believe students should do what they are told without needing to be "motivated"

  • They prefer an authoritarian approach over a coaching approach

Since you are someone who values executive skills in your students, read on to learn how to use MI in your classroom, in executive function coaching sessions, or around the kitchen table with your kiddos.

What are the stages of motivation for students?
What are the stages of motivation for students?

How to use motivational interviewing with students

If you've read my previous work, you know I love a good concept model.

I learned about the importance of developing models in 2021 from Seth Perler in this episode of my podcast and I've been creating them ever since.

I've broken down the key steps for using MI into the C.H.A.N.G.E model.

Hopefully, this acronym makes it easier for you to remember and implement the steps with your students.

C – Connect

Connection is key. As ADHD Parent Coach Allison Solomon taught me, "Connect before you correct."

At the Executive Function Coaching Academy, we teach coaches to connect by being fully present and attentive during coaching sessions by using strategic questions:

  • Asking students, "Is there anything on your mind before we work on school-related items?"

  • If a student appears disengaged, ask them, "What is the cheat code to working effectively with you?"

  • When students share something personal, encourage further sharing by saying, "Tell me more."

By focusing on connection, you lower the student's affective filter, priming them to acquire new ideas.

H – Highlight the Gap

Instead of "calling out" I like to "call students in."

After establishing rapport, I will ask the student what grades they want to see on their report card at the end of the semester.

"I would love to have all A's and B's," they might share.

To activate their non-verbal working memory and guide them to plant the goal deep in their subconscious, I'll ask, "How would it feel to have all A's and B's at the end of the semester?"

"Amazing," they say.

"OK, I noticed you currently have a D- in Chemistry. Do you want to determine how you can raise that grade to make progress toward your goal of earning an A or B in Chemistry?"

Gently highlighting the difference between where they are and where they want to be can improve their self-awareness and open the door to behavior change.

A – Accept Resistance

When supporting your students, there will be moments where they:

  • Refuse to try your suggestions

  • Turn in less-than-satisfactory work

  • Don't follow through on independent work outside of class or coaching sessions

In these moments, you can use resistance as a teachable moment.

For example, a student may say, "I don't want to email my teacher. They are too busy to worry about correcting my assignment."

This resistance may stem from various places, including anxiety or a lack of skill.

A quality EF coach can use the technique of approximation to build toward the goal of sending an email by saying something like:

"Would it be ok if you just drafted the email, then you can decide whether or not to send it?"

N – Nurture Self-Efficacy

When speaking to schools and parent organizations about executive function skills, I often start with this:

The quickest path to raising a healthy and independent student is to focus on progress, not perfection.


Parents, educators, and coaches nurture behavior shifts by noticing incremental gains.

Praise can be just as powerful, if not more so, then Skittles 🍬

And praising the incremental gains creates a compounding effect that over time fosters massive change.

As an example, if a plane flying from Los Angeles to New York takes off just 3.5 degrees to the south upon departure, it will land in Washington, D.C., instead of NYC.

Small tweaks can have HUGE peaks!

Make sure to notice them in your students if you want to see more.

The impact of improving by 1% each day.
The impact of improving by 1% each day.

G – Generate Change Talk

As your student completes small tasks and begins to develop a new identity of someone productive, you can use MI to reinforce new modes of thinking.

After a work session, you can ask, "What was most helpful about that session? Why?"

This question invites the student to notice the growth and specify the actions or behaviors that were most helpful.

This self-reflection improves the student's metacognitive abilities while also providing you with useful data on what to do more of.

Instead of saying something like, "Tell me what you didn't like about this meeting," which forces the student to find something negative about the experience, you can also ask this question:

"Was there anything we didn't address that you would like to explore further?"

This sets the stage for a productive follow up meeting which they are intrinsically motivated to engage in.

E – Encourage Action

End each interaction with students by asking them, "What is one thing you would like to do independently before we meet next?"

By doing this, you encourage them to prioritize one thing while also creating a realistic benchmark for success.

This nurtures self-efficacy by creating change momentum and allows them to "test" their new habits between meetings.


The C.H.A.N.G.E method of motivational interviewing with students fosters enhanced executive functioning by inviting them to take ownership of their learning process.

If you want to try this technique with your student, pick something that feels overwhelming to them, like starting a job application, and go through these five steps:

1. Connect by showing understanding: "It sounds like you're feeling really stressed about starting your job application."

2. Highlight the gap by noting the difference between current behaviors and goals: You want to get this job, but not starting the application is holding you back."

3. Accept resistance by using it is a teaching tool: "It's okay to feel unsure about this. Let's talk more about what's making it hard."

4. Nurture self-efficacy by noticing their ability to change: "You've successfully completed challenging tasks before, like your school projects. You can handle this, too."

5. Generate change talk by verbalizing reasons for change: "What do you think might be some benefits of finishing your job application?"

P.S. These are skills that executive function coaches work on with their students. If you want to try working on them with your students, consider joining hundreds of other educators and parents who have completed my Semester Success Blueprint Course. In less than 2 hours, this comprehensive course will teach you and your student the system I developed to help hundreds of students learn how to manage school effectively and raise their self-awareness and engagement with school.

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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