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Stages of Change
Cassie Nelson Craig, Upper School Counselor


Happy New Year!  As we enter this new semester, you may be thinking through goals, resolutions, and strategies for the coming year. My husband and I are thinking through the bedtime routine for our SK student.  Some parts of the routine work well.  Each night, one of us is in charge of bedtime duties.  We have a set list of bedtime tasks that our daughter does independently.  However, we are considering shifting to an earlier bedtime and not laying down with her to create more time for ourselves after she is in bed. Like any established pattern, this new change won’t happen without some intentionality.

What are the shifts you are thinking about for this semester or year? Maybe your family needs a new routine? Maybe your student needs helping achieving a goal? As these questions arise, it is helpful to know how change works.  James Prochaska, clinical psychologist, created a model of how change works based on research he did with addiction. The model highlights 6 distinct sequential stages that happen in change. Knowing where we are in the change process can be helpful as we work on our goals this year.

  1. Precontemplation is the first stage and it is when you are not even considering a change. Others might question the behavior, but it has not risen to a problematic level for you in a way you are willing to acknowledge. Maybe a change would be scary or you don’t feel you have the energy to commit to it.

    Questions to consider in this stage: Have you tried to change this behavior before?  How would you know this is a problem?
  2. Contemplation is the second stage of change and means that you are intending to make a change in the near future, recognizing that current behavior is a problem. Someone in this stage, however, has a lot of ambivalence about making a change.  Even though changes could be helpful, the anxiety in making the change is overwhelming. For the bedtime routine in our house, contemplation looks like thinking through how important making a change right now is to our family. How much energy will it take to make a new routine? Are we ready to invest in making the shift (which might make bedtime longer for a time), to eventually have more time as a couple?

    Questions to consider in this stage: What really motivates your change? What are the biggest barriers? What do you need to be successful with these barriers?
  3. Preparation is the third stage of change and it involves committing to action (usually within 30 days). In preparation, you begin to gather information to help you make change, and it might also be helpful to get support from others such as a group, or family and friends.  A therapist can also be helpful with understanding what gets in the way of making new patterns, especially for changes you have tried to make before but have been unsuccessful. For bedtime, this might look like us asking other parents how they have been successful in changing the night routine. We might start to have conversations with our daughter about how the new routine will work.

    Question to consider: What are some things you can say to yourself to keep motivated? What resources or support do you need?
  4. Action is the fourth stage of change and this is when you execute the new behavior. In the action stage, it is still important to remind yourself why you are making the change, and to reward yourself for the progress you have made even if it is small. When action works only for a short time, it may be because you need to revisit the earlier stages.  Maybe you need more information or support, or maybe this change is important but you need to put it aside to work on another higher priority goal. Remember, action can take the form of adding in new behavior or taking away problem behavior. For our house, starting the bedtime routine just a few minutes earlier, or setting a timer for how long we lay down with her and gradually decreasing that time would be putting the plan into action.  We could also set up a reward system for nights we met our goal.
  5. Maintenance is the fifth stage of change and this is when the changes have been maintained for a longer period (over 6 months).  In this stage, the hope is that even if there are back-slides, they will not be permanent. Continuing to review your motivations, your resources, and your support remains helpful.
  6. Termination is the sixth and final stage of change.  This is when the new behavior becomes cemented in your life. This changes becomes the new way of living. Some may never reach termination around a goal, which is also okay.

One final thing to remember is that change is slow. A pattern takes a long time to form and making a new pattern will also take time. Also, movement back and forth between stages is common and part of the process. Reminding yourself of any small amount of progress you have made will help sustain you during these shifts! Your brain is slowly forming new neuronal pathways as you repeat the new behavior and pruning away those pathways that aren’t being used.  As you live into this new semester and see what behavior changes you would like to make, I hope that understanding a little more about the process of change is helpful!