going back to school

Going Back to School? See How Ready You Are to Make the Change

going back to school

The willingness to embrace change rather than defend against it is critical for making progress in life. Change is good for us—we all need it and want it to some extent—but it is rarely easy. If you are thinking about going back to school, it helps to be aware of your readiness and motivation for making this change in your life.

The Stages of Change Model (Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005), originally developed to assist therapists with understanding and motivating clients with addictions, has been adapted for general use related to a variety of health issues and behaviors (Prochaska, DiClemente & Norcross, 1992). One adaptation, the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), focuses on three types of behavior change: 1) creating behavioral patterns; 2) modifying habitual behavioral patterns; and 3) stopping problematic behavioral patterns.  Whether you want to start a study regimen, limit caffeine, or stop biting your nails, TTM can provide insight and guidance to embrace change.

There are five stages of change according to Prochaska and DiClemente (2005): Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance. The following describes each stage in the context of going back to college.

This stage is best described as avoidant or not ready.  Individuals who are in the precontemplation stage are not considering any need for a change, they are not intending to make any change and do not see a need to change their behavioral patterns. Colleges and universities rarely see precontemplators, because it takes decision making, commitment and effort to apply and enroll. The priority in this stage is to keep the status quo because there is an unwillingness to disrupt current behavioral patterns. Many individuals go through life in the precontemplation stage until something or someone interrupts their thinking and behavior. An awareness of the need for change or concern for the current pattern of behavior can shift individuals into the next stage.

Individuals in the contemplation stage are doing exactly that, thinking about the possibility of change, but may be ambivalent or frightened by the unknown.  There is no commitment for change yet, but individuals are beginning to consider the potential for change. During this stage it is helpful to develop a risk & reward list, otherwise known as a “pros and cons” list.  Evaluating the benefits and the drawbacks of making a change against those relating to maintaining current behavioral patterns provides clarity.  Precontemplators may underestimate the benefits and overestimate the drawbacks, whereas contemplators’ pros and cons tend to be more balanced.  Consider the example of returning to school. Depending on one’s life circumstances, a change like this involves numerous benefits and risks.  Contemplators typically think about behavior change happening within the next six months.  This stage is resolved when an individual’s decisional balance is tipped toward change (Prochaska, Velicer, Rossi, Goldstein, Marcus, Rakowski, Fiore, Harlow, Redding, Rosenbloom, & Rossi, 1994).

Individuals in this stage are now ready for change, and begin planning to make it happen.  Developing a plan of action, creating strategies to accomplish the plan, and gathering resources for support are all part of this stage (UCLA, 2013). This requires a great deal of courage, determination and commitment.  Change takes time and energy and thus, it makes the preparation stage rather tenuous.  The likelihood for success is increased when individuals reach out for support, talk about the upcoming change, and focus on the benefits of change. Rather than focusing on big leaps of faith, making small steps leads to progress toward behavior change. Enrolling in higher education is a major decision that requires a grand vision of life’s possibilities, but it can, and should, be broken down into small steps. Enlisting trusted friends and family members for support, organizing a study space and a schedule for studying, and experiencing excitement for learning can be considered “baby steps” to provide the trajectory toward the action stage.

Individuals in this stage are easy to identify.  They are practicing their new behaviors, drawing on internal and external motivation, and utilizing tremendous willpower and determination to create, modify or stop behavior patterns.  This stage lasts for approximately three to six months, depending upon the nature of the behavioral pattern(s) in question. New behaviors must be sustained for a period of time to become a habit, whereas old patterns can be incredibly challenging to resist (Dean, 2013). It is critical for the new behavioral patterns to become routine for individuals to overcome feelings of loss or feelings of being overwhelmed by the obstacles. Success breeds self-efficacy, so taking time to reflect on and celebrate little accomplishments provides incentives to continue practicing the new behaviors.  Learning and applying new concepts, earning good grades and building new relationships with classmates are examples of highlighting the benefits of returning to school. Focusing on the positives derived from the change combats the stress and time management demands resulting from postsecondary education. Within the first semester or year, individuals incorporate necessary academic behavior patterns to launch them into the maintenance stage.

Continued commitment to sustained behaviors marks the maintenance stage (Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005).  When the behaviors are routine, habitual and integrated into one’s daily life, individuals are considered to be in the maintenance stage of change. Actions are automatic and do not require a lot of effort or thought, however, there is still threat of relapse into old behaviors.  Continuing new behaviors in different situations can be challenging, therefore, talking about coping with relapse, reinforcing effort and determination, and keeping one’s eyes on the prize are effective methods during the maintenance stage.  Support systems and motivation remain critical in the maintenance stage. Focusing on the positive results of change can provide incentive to continue the new behaviors until they become the new status quo (UCLA, 2013). Earning a degree takes time and commitment, but a consistent study regimen can be integrated into one’s daily life, especially with online programs that support busy, working adults.

When thinking about making a significant change in your life, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What worries you about your current situation?
  2. How has your current situation stopped you from doing what you want to do in life?
  3. How would you like things to be different?
  4. When else in your life have you made a change like this? What strategies did you use?
  5. How important is this to you?

Making lasting change in your life is all about awareness. If you’re thinking about going back to school, be aware of how much you want to make this change at this point, so you’ll know where to take the process from there. If you think you’re ready to take the plunge and return to school, use this worksheet to help you start exploring your priorities and options.

Dean, J. (2013). Making habits, breaking habits: Why we do things, why we don’t, and how to make any change stick. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.
Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C.C. (2005) The transtheoretical approach. In J.C. Norcross & M. R.   Goldfried, (Eds.) Handbook of psychotherapy integration. (2nd ed.). (pp. 147-171). New York: Oxford University Press.
Prochaska, J, O., DiClemente, C, C. & Norcross, J. C. (1992). American Psychologist, 47(9), 1102-1114.
Prochaska, J.O., Velicer, W.F., Rossi J.S., Goldstein, M.G., Marcus, B.H., Rakowski, W., Fiore, C., Harlow, L.L., Redding, C.A., Rosenbloom, D., & Rossi, S. R. (1994). Stages of change and decisional balance for 12 problem behaviors. Health Psycholology,13. 39–46.
UCLA Center for Human Nutrition (2013). Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model. http://www.cellinteractive.com/ucla/physcian_ed/stages_change.html

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