Effective Engagement Strategies

These strategies are based on Motivational Interviewing (MI). They are presented here for building relationships with students and children in both clinical and non-clinical settings. MI can be used to encourage students to explore and resolve their ambivalence around a variety of topics, from homework to personal relationships.
Motivational Interviewing involves expressing empathy, practicing active and reflective listening, avoiding arguments or direct confrontation, and supporting self-efficacy. The aim is to continue conversation with a young person, build and sustain connection, and work toward achievable goals.

Four Important Skills to Achieve Effective Engagement:

1. Build Trust

Introduce how you see your role with the student. Be friendly, positive and open-minded. Smile and maintain eye contact. Be respectful and culturally sensitive. Discuss their confidentiality.

2. Actively Listen

Active Listening is easily remembered with the acronym OARS:

Open-Ended Qs (Ask Sensitive Questions w/ care. See below for examples of Open-Ended questions.)

Affirmations & Validation

Reflection (build from what the young person shares.)


3. Adaptability

Meet the student where they’re at. Be mindful of Their Agenda vs. Your Own, and that there’s no “one size fits all!” approach.

4. Empathize and Have Patience

Tune into what they are saying explicitly and implicitly and go at their pace!


Scale Questions and Open-ended Questioning

An effective and concrete tool to use in MI is that of Scale Question(s). For instance, if working on engagement with an adolescent struggling to do their homework, you might ask:

On a scale of 1 to 10—with 1 being not likely at all and 10 being very likely—how likely are you to complete your homework, at least once this week?


On a scale of 1 to 10—with 1 being awful and 10 being great—how is your day going today?

You could also insert humor and slang into the scale, as an opportunity to get on the same level as the student. For example,

On a scale of 1 to 10 - 1 being staying in pajamas looking at tik tok all day and 10 being YOLO - how are you feeling about the class trip?

On a Scale of 1 to 10, how hopeful are you that that number can be higher or, that things can improve?

Scale questions are non-threatening and non-judgmental, and can help better assess someone's readiness and motivation for change. Asking relevant open-ended questions also allows the conversation to build. Possible follow up questions might include:

What might it take for that number to be higher?

What makes you say that? or Could you say more about what took place to make you feel that way today?

If you could change anything about today, what might you change and why?


A good ‘rule’ to remember when implementing Motivational Interviewing is to:

R- Resist telling the client what to do; avoid directing, or convincing them about the “right path.”

U- Understand their level of motivation, including their values, needs, abilities, and barriers.

L- Listen with empathy; seek to really understand their values and needs.

E- Empower! Work with the client to create SMART goals and to identify strategies to overcome barriers.

Be S.M.A.R.T.

Remember to set SMART goals with your student or child. These are:

S - Specific. E.g., not just "homework", but "Science homework", or not just "once a week" but "every Wednesday."

M - Measurable. E.g., "Read 3 pages" or "bullet point three questions for your teacher tomorrow."

A - Achievable. E.g., "Perhaps we can raise your test score by 5 points."

R - Realistic. E.g., "If you have your after-school job from 4-7, and need to decompress when you get home, you can watch TV/play video games for 20 minutes, but set a timer and start when it goes off. Do you think you can do that?" Be realistic that sometimes schedules will not work out with moods and other factors, but offer tools to build toward the goal.

T - Time-bound. E.g., "Try doing the work on Wednesdays for a week, and next week we will add another day."