Dr. John Murphy Professor, University of Central Arkansas

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                 Special Topic: Values and School-Related Goals



Pre-publication material from Chapter 7 (Clarifying the Student’s Goals) of the upcoming book,

Murphy, J. J. (in preparation). Interviewing students for solutions to school problems. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Exploring “Big Values”

He who has a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how.”

--Frederich Nietzsche

Why should I change just because they think I should?

                                                                        --Cara, 10th grade  

Values represent a vital and underrated client factor in working with school problems. The term “values” is used here to refer to what is most important to a person – the highly individualized meaning, purpose, and vision of a person’s life. The importance of values and direction in people’s lives has been emphasized by various renowned theorists and therapists in psychology including Frankl (1959), Rogers (1951), May (1983), and Yalom (1980). More recently, the systematic incorporation of values in the change process has been seen in contemporary forms of behavior therapy (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999; Jacobsen & Christensen, 1996).

Despite the emphasis on values in various therapeutic approaches, their role in school-based intervention has been largely untapped. Failure to include values in the intervention process jeopardizes the relevance of school-based interventions for students. Many adults assume that students should naturally want to perform well in school. This assumption may not be applicable to many students who are referred for services. For some students, successful school performance is of little intrinsic value or interest. Lacking a personally relevant reason for performing well in school, students understandably adopt a “Why should I?” or “What’s the use?” position.

We can help students explore connections between their current school experience and bigger visions in their lives by enlarging the conversation beyond the scope of school-related issues. By inviting students to “step outside of school” and reflect on their most cherished values and visions, we can help to create a meaning-rich context for discussing school-related issues and goals. In the absence of this context, it should come as no surprise when students appear uninterested in changing their school behavior despite what others perceive as an urgent situation requiring immediate change. Regardless of what adults may say or do in an attempt to convince the student otherwise, school-related goals that are relatively unimportant to the student are not as effective as goals that are perceived by the student as meaningful and relevant. Box 7.1 provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of important values in your own life.

Box 7.1 Your Values, Your Life

What do you want your life to stand for? What are the most important aspects or values in your life (family, spirituality, work, relationships, etc.)? What are you already doing to support these values and what would it take to more of this? What obstacles are currently blocking you from a life that is more compatible with these values? What are the costs of living in ways that are incompatible with your most cherished values for yourself and your life? On a scale of 1 (not very willing) to 10 (very willing), how willing are you to take action toward bringing your life in closer alignment with your values? What one small action are you willing to take next week for this purpose?

         The big values and visions in a student’s life provide an effective context for developing goals that really matter to the student. Conversations about values are based on the pragmatic assumption that all people, including children, have a natural tendency to envision what they want their lives to stand for. This may seem like a bold assumption, but it is a necessary one if practitioners are committed to developing interventions that are owned and embraced by the student who is expected to implement and benefit from them.

     People of all ages generally are not accustomed to discussing their most cherished visions for themselves and their lives. We can help students acknowledge their values and behave accordingly. In this sense, the practitioner does not give students something they do not already have or try to convert them to the practitioner’s or other people’s opinion about what is best for them. Since students may not automatically connect school-related issues and goals to larger visions and values in their lives, we can invite them to consider such connections.

The following questions encourage students to consider their most cherished visions related to who they want to be and the type of life they want to lead: 

Once a person’s key values are identified, practitioners can ask questions that explore links between big values and specific school-related goals and behavior. The questions below invite students (1) to consider existing and future actions that either help or hinder their movement toward important values and goals in their lives, and (2) to make behavioral commitments and changes in accordance with their stated values. As indicated by italics in the following examples, it is important to use the student’s actual words whenever possible in exploring the relationship between their school performance and stated values: 

·    If you were doing just what you needed to do in school to become a more loving and caring person, what would you be doing? 



  The explicit discussion of values promotes a powerful motivational context for school-based intervention. Given that most students are referred for counseling by a teacher or parent, it is understandable that they may initially be less than eager to change solely because someone else thinks they should. Some students may not understand why they were referred for intervention or counseling in the first place, while others may feel coerced into participating. Successful outcomes are seriously compromised if these issues are ignored or unresolved. It is no mystery why interventions fail with students who do not perceive the relevance of such interventions in their lives. Attempts to verbally convince or otherwise coerce students to invest in the intervention process, such as telling them “it’s for your own good,” can undermine the change process because these comments are usually viewed by students as superficial and disrespectful.

The ultimate aim of questions and conversations that explore students’ values and visions is to promote interventions that encourage students to act in accordance with their deepest beliefs, convictions, and hopes. These conversations invite students to articulate what is important to them, to examine their actions in light of this, and to participate in developing interventions that move them toward living out their values.

Hayes et al. (1999) recommend therapeutic conversations that deal with values-driven actions and behavior. Questions such as, “What are you already doing at school that is moving your life in an important direction?” and “What is blocking you from living out your values at school?” help students focus on specific goals and actions that support their values. These questions invite students to perceive important connections between their global long-term values and the short-term goals and actions required to pursue these values. For example, a middle school student who wants to have a loving marriage and successful career can be encouraged to increase school behaviors that support these values (e.g., studying, paying attention) and reduce actions that work against them (e.g., teasing, skipping class). Likewise, a fourth-grade student who wants to be a kind person can be encouraged to define and increase “kind behaviors” at school (e.g., allowing other students to be first in line or volunteering to help a student with math). In order to be useful in improving school performance, the student’s values must be translated into specific school-related goals and actions.

Designing school-related goals and intervention strategies in ways that reduce the gap between students’ values and actions increases their motivation and investment in the change process. The more invested and self-accountable students are, the more likely they will be to maintain positive behaviors after formal intervention has ended and to generalize these behaviors to other settings and situations (Goldstein & Martens, 2000). The next two techniques -- the miracle question and scaling – are key solution-focused strategies for helping students develop useful goals.