History and Background

It has been almost two decades since Thinking for a Change (also known as T4C) was first designed and introduced as a promising cognitive behavioral intervention for individuals involved with the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Cognitive behavioral programs have evolved, impacted by a variety of theoreticians and practitioners. Much of the seminal work in cognitive interventions focused on cognitive restructuring aimed at addressing individuals’ thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs. This work is reflected by the contributions of Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Stanton Samenow, Samuel Yochelson, Robert Ross, Elizabeth Fabiano, and Jack Bush. Parallel to the development of the cognitive restructuring interventions, a number of social scientists were also exploring cognitive skills training as a form of psycho-social-educational intervention. Individuals such as Albert Bandura, Donald Meichenbaum, George Spivak, Myrna Shure, Arnold Goldstein, Barry Glick, and Juliana Taymans developed strategies and curricula to teach skills that support pro-social interactions. The work of these individuals set the foundation and benchmarks for many of the programs and cognitive behavioral curricula currently developed and implemented, including those used throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

The first edition of Thinking for a Change was the result of several factors. During the early to late 1990’s, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) offered a training seminar, Cognitive Approaches to Changing Offender Behavior, both at their training academy and as cooperative training throughout the country. The curriculum, developed by a group of experts in cognitive behavioral interventions, presented cognitive restructuring and cognitive skills concepts in a generic, yet practical manner. This was one of NIC’s most highly subscribed seminars. The consistent feedback from seminar participants was that correctional professionals wanted NIC to support the development of an intervention program and that the seminar should focus on preparing individuals for program implementation. Additionally, there was a growing body of research indicating that cognitive behavioral interventions could positively impact high risk offenders. As a result, the authors of Thinking for a Change took on the ambitious task of synthesizing the concepts and tools from both cognitive restructuring and cognitive skills paradigms into an integrated intervention.

The Curriculum Format

While the format for this revision of Thinking for a Change is different and improved, the theoretical and philosophical foundation of the program as originally developed, designed, and implemented has not changed. Each component is still presented in a systematic, logical fashion using the standard procedures for cognitive behavioral interventions.  What has changed is the author's ability to further synthesize the three fundamental components of Thinking for a Change to make the intervention more seamless such that each component shares each other's processes and conceptual content. The three components of Thinking for a Change are: cognitive self-change, social skills, and problem solving skills. Cognitive self-change teaches individuals a concrete process for self-reflection aimed at uncovering antisocial thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs. Social skills instruction prepares group members to engage in pro-social interactions based on self-understanding and consideration of the impact of their actions on others. Problem solving skills integrate the two previous interventions to provide group members with an explicit step-by-step process for addressing challenging and stressful real life situations. The program integrates these three types of interventions in the following way:

  • Lesson 1 begins the program with an overview and introduction.
  • Lessons 2-5 and 11-15 teach social skills.
  • Lessons 6-10 teach the cognitive self-change process.
  • Lessons 16-24 teach problem solving skills.
  • Lesson 25 provides a wrap up of the program with the option of extending the program based on the needs of group members. For example, groups may opt to meet for additional sessions to learn new social skills that they have negotiated with their group facilitators; along with further practice in applying cognitive self-change and problem solving skills to newly identified problem situations.

Lesson Format

Thinking for a Change is formatted with the expectation that each session will adhere to the flow of activities presented in detailed lesson plans. Each lesson is divided into two sections: Lesson Preparation and Lesson Activities.

Lesson Preparation
The lesson preparation section contains summary information about the lesson, as well as important notes to help facilitators prepare for a group. This section begins with a lesson summary and rationale, followed by important concepts and definitions, and then the objectives for that particular lesson. This section also provides an outline of the major activites of the lesson. All supplements needed for the lesson are listed, including links to downloadable versions.  The preparation section also contains notes on any special preparation considerations such as using materials across lessons.

Downloadable presentation slides and PDF's of all necessary charts, handouts, and scripts are found in both the lesson preparation section and in the lesson activities, precisely where they should be used during delivery of the lesson. The required videos, with the exception of the Breakfast Club clip, are now embedded within the presentation slides.  Graphic examples of charts are contained within the lesson activities section.   

The following icons appear in the curriculum, paired here with the appropriate description:

flipchart icon Chart

handout icon Handout

script icon Script

slide icon Slide

video icon Video

Lesson Activities
The lesson activities section comprises the script and directions for what happens during the lesson proper. This section is divided into two columns with very distinct, yet equally important, functions. The left-hand column, also known as the lesson script, is designed to be read aloud. Newer facilitators are encouraged to scrupulously stick to the script. While more experienced facilitators will feel more comfortable with the material, always bear in mind that the Thinking for a Change curriculum was developed as a script and not as a guide. Fidelity to the curriculum is critical to successful outcomes. The right-hand column of this section contains important notes and directions for the delivery of each lesson. Facilitators should pay special attention to this column when preparing for a lesson. Co-facilitators should be aware of the notes in this column as the other facilitator presents the information from the left-hand column. This column contains thumbnail graphics of all slides, which should be brought up for viewing by the group precisely where located in the script. This column also indicates when handouts should be distributed, when videos should be shown, or when scripts should be read. Finally, the right-hand column contains graphic representations of all charts required for a lesson, and when they should be used.

Group Facilitators should never conduct group sessions without using the lesson plans as roadmaps for implementation.

Curriculum Revision

Purpose of Revision Project

 Change: revamp, evolve, amend.

The manifest purpose of Thinking for a Change is to empower people to change. Change their thinking, change their behavior, and change their lives. As such, the curriculum itself must also be responsive to change. Thinking for a Change, version 4.0 represents a significant evolution of the curriculum to include innovations in delivery and advances in technology.

NIC has supported the production of this revised edition of Thinking for a Change. In consultation with the authors, each lesson has been carefully edited, with the primary goal of making the curriculum more user-friendly for facilitators and more accessible to group members. Every PowerPoint slide has been updated in line with the latest research on such tools. Supplements have been added and updated. But without question, the most striking development is the medium. Thinking for a Change 4.0 is now presented as an interactive online curriculum. It is navigational, searchable, and can be used on a desktop, tablet, or even smartphone. If updates or corrections to the curriculum are made, they will be uploaded immediately. Each lesson will feature an indication as to when it was last updated.

A printer-friendly version is available, but agencies no longer need to be burdened with a huge manual to run groups. Additionally, facilitators will have the choice to print out either individual lessons or the entire curriculum.

Trained Thinking for a Change facilitators will connect with NIC, which will permit unprecedented two-way communication. NIC will now be able to send important updates or information to all users. Facilitators and trainers will be able to suggest corrections to the curriculum. Individuals can submit ideas about how to enrich Thinking for a Change directly to NIC’s Thinking for a Change team. These features should result in a more vibrant Thinking for a Change community, and a venue for ongoing improvement.


While no special level of education or professional credential is required to deliver the program, NIC does require facilitators to provide verification of a minimum of 32 hours of formal facilitator training before gaining access to Thinking for a Change 4.0. 

Group Facilitator Selection

Being an Effective Thinking for a Change facilitator

The ideal skills for group facilitators include: empathy, facilitation/teaching techniques, understanding group processes and interpersonal interactions, and the ability to control a group of offenders, at-risk youth, or challenging individuals through non-coercive means. Almost without exception, studies of cognitive behavioral programs point to proper training as a key factor in achieving desired program outcomes. Training is the starting point for successful facilitators.

Research findings are unequivocal about another point: Fidelity to the program is critical for success. This means that facilitators should adhere to the Thinking for a Change 4.0 curriculum precisely as it is written, deliver it as it is designed, and facilitate groups according to training. 

Thinking for a Change is designed to be delivered by two trained facilitators. In the event that a trained co-facilitator cannot be present, another staff member should be recruited to assist. Roles for a non-trained group assistant include audio/visual operation, charting, group management, and co-acting during modeling displays. Assistants can also be invaluable during preparation.

Preparation is an essential component of each lesson. Prior to groups, the lesson should be read through completely. Handouts and skill cards need to be copied, charts need to be prepared, and models must be rehearsed. Facilitators must build time for preparation into their schedules, and their supervisors need to understand and support the need for such.

Group Member Selection

The group members (offenders, students, and at-risk youth) should be pre- screened and selected after a brief individual interview. Such a meeting need not take any more than five to ten minutes. It should set the tone of the learning sessions, direct and focus the group member to the usefulness of the program in their own lives, and set expectations that positive participation would greatly enhance their options. This applies to all settings: prison, jail or community.  In keeping with the research, Thinking for a Change is recommended for individuals who have been evaluated as medium to high risk by a validated risk assessment instrument. Thinking for a Change was created for both adult and youth populations, and it has been used extensively with each. Thinking for a Change is not a gender-specific program: It has been used with male and female populations. There is some need for reading and writing during groups, as well as homework assignments, so literacy or the availability of assistance for such should be taken into account.


For the purposes of this curriculum, lessons are defined as a unit of material comprised of activities and concepts that group members learn to apply to their daily life situations. This curriculum comprises 25 lessons, with the option of aftercare lessons. Sessions are defined as a unit of time in which groups meet to learn and practice the content taught in each lesson.

Sessions are usually one to two hours in duration, but are a function of the agency or system implementing Thinking for a Change and therefore may be longer or shorter in time. As such, it may take more than one session to complete all of the activities in a lesson. Group facilitators should take care to deliver each lesson completely and efficiently, but not hesitate to use a second session to complete its content and in-group role plays, if necessary.

Group Size/Frequency

Participation is a critical component of program implementation: In virtually every lesson, each group member must report out homework, and each group member must practice new skills by doing a role-play. Each group member must have a chance to contribute to every lesson. While the size of the group may be determined by agency policy, it is recommended that groups include between 8-12 members in order to preserve program integrity. More than 12 group members, given the activities and learning involved with each lesson would require more time than is allotted per group session.

Closely linked to group size, is the duration of each group session. One to two hours is generally needed to complete a session of Thinking for a Change. Since each lesson is built largely on group participation and practice, the precise length of each lesson will vary based on group size. Additionally, some lessons may take more time than others due to content.

There are 25 lessons in the Thinking for a Change 4.0 curriculum. This does not translate, however, to 25 group sessions. Many lessons, especially those from the cognitive self-change and problem solving skills components of the curriculum, may require two or even more sessions to complete. There are two critical aspects to remember about Thinking for a Change lessons. First, no lesson is complete until every group member has the chance to practice a new skill, usually in a role-play situation, and occasionally through other exercises. This is why some lessons may require multiple sessions. Second, never begin a new lesson immediately after completing a lesson. The reason for this has to do with learning. Group members must have an opportunity to practice a new skill in a real-life situation, by doing their homework, before they will be ready to try to learn an additional skill.

In addition to the 25 core lessons, the appendices of Thinking for a Change 4.0 allow for the creation of an aftercare program that can take on many forms. There are three appendices, one for each component of the program. Appendices A and C provide opportunities for group members to hone their cognitive self-change and problem solving skills, respectively. Appendix B is unique because it offers the chance to introduce 41 new social skills, in addition to practicing the nine covered in the primary curriculum. Facilitators are encouraged to collaborate with group members in developing an aftercare program. Aftercare can take the form of continuing group sessions as before, creating a different meeting schedule, or the skills can even be practiced with group graduates on a one-on-one basis.

Most cognitive behavioral interventions recommend at least two sessions per week. The Thinking for a Change curriculum is best delivered two to three times per week. Facilitators are strongly encouraged to schedule a minimum of two sessions per week. The total number of sessions per week is a function of staff resources, schedules of group members and group facilitators, as well as policy direction from agency or jurisdiction executives.

Finally, group facilitators have the option to extend the curriculum as described in lesson 25. The decision to extend Thinking for a Change after completion of the program may be based upon such factors as: length of stay of the group members within the agency or system; needs of individual group members; agency or system mandates; availability of staff; and fiscal resources.

Group Norms

The program should also have established group norms and expectations. While these may be based upon individual institutional or agency policy, the group norms should consider the learning environment and ensure the safety and security for all involved. As such, the group facilitator should consider the following as minimal group norms:

Confidentiality: It is expected that all information shared in the group setting will be kept within the group, unless such information indicates possible harm to the individual or others. This norm is subject to agency guidelines for disclosure (which should be shared with group members as applicable).

Respect what is shared: All statements should be accepted as information for learning purposes. As such, individuals should ensure that opinions and statements shared are constructive for the purpose of meeting the objectives of the lesson and content of the curriculum.

Take turns speaking and sharing: Individuals need to speak one at a time, listening to what is being said, remaining focused on the topic and subject matter, and providing opportunities for others to respond should they disagree with something.

No aggression or violence: Physical or verbal aggression and violence is not permitted and should not be tolerated.

Implementing and Administering Thinking for a Change

Emerging research around effective and successful implementation of any evidence-based practice illustrates the need for a philosophical shift for leaders and staff, mastery of new, complex skills, and a progressive and sustained effort on the part of agencies to continually monitor and evaluate program fidelity.  In other words, it takes a lot of work to get the job done right!  Mounting documentation indicates that evidence-based innovations alone do not create the desired impact; rather they must be supported by evidence-based implementation. Without effective implementation evidence-based innovations will produce poor results and may even cause harm.

If you are just embarking on implementing Thinking for a Change or if your agency has been delivering the program for some time, now is a great time to plan for or review your current delivery structure to make sure it is effective.  Consider the following: 

  • Who is leading your implementation efforts?  Successful implementation requires active involvement and support from the top down.  A leader’s involvement demonstrates commitment and the importance of the program to the organization’s mission.
  • How will you know Thinking for a Change is effective?  Agencies must have clearly defined goals and measurable outcomes for the program.  Think broadly when determining what you want to measure to include the implementation process, staff performance and short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes for the justice involved individuals who participate in the program.  Monitor progress towards those goals and use the data collected to make program adjustments and improvements when necessary.   
  • How are you selecting your facilitators?  Getting the right person for the job is critical.  Consider developing a clear selection process which includes an interview of potential facilitator candidates.  Ideal skills for group facilitators include: empathy, objectivity, facilitation/teaching techniques, understanding group processes, and the ability to manage groups through non-coercive means.  Most importantly, selected staff should never be forced to become a Thinking for a Change facilitator.
  • Who will provide ongoing supervision, coaching, and support for the overall program and individual facilitators?  Having all staff properly trained to deliver the curriculum is a critical first step but it isn’t enough.  In order to ensure fidelity and quality assurance, make sure staff receive ongoing supervision through expert coaching and feedback.  Be sure to use a quality Thinking for a Change fidelity observation tool and include group observation, or the use of video reviews as part of your on-going quality assurance program.

Successful implementation and long-term sustainability of this evidence-based program requires a continued commitment on the part of agency leadership, facilitators, and the entire organization to work collectively to ensure program fidelity.  This is best accomplished through continuous performance monitoring, coaching, training, and outcome measurement to maintain high level program delivery. The time and effort put into implementation and ongoing administration of Thinking for a Change will prove to be worth it as agencies begin to realize the benefits of effective correctional practices resulting in improved agency outcomes, improved lives and healthier communities.

As you facilitate groups using this revised Thinking for a Change curriculum, keep in mind that the goal is to effect change in thinking so that behavior is positively impacted.

Good luck as you embark on this most challenging journey!

Jack Bush, Barry Glick, Juliana Taymans and NIC's Thinking for a Change Initiative Team