Teaching Tip: Observations on the Use of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy

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As part of International Education Week 2009, the APEC Education Network is providing an opportunity for teachers across the Asia-Pacific region to exchange teaching tips for teacher professional development.  

Return to full list of International Education Week 2009 Teaching Tips.


Anthony Murphy




Moriah College


Behaviour Management


Choice Theory

Choice Theory attempts to explain that people choose their behaviour and that this choice is based on their needs. Glasser (1999) explains that we have survival needs, as well as the needs of love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. People have an internal world that is referred to as the quality world. The quality world is our ideal place, the place where all our basic needs are met. The real world is the world that we perceive through our sensual, total knowledge and value filters. We are constantly attempting to align our perceived world with our quality world. When they are in equilibrium, we have no need to behave in a way that tries to adjust our perceived world. When our perceived world is markedly different from our quality world, then we behave in a manner that attempts to bring these worlds into balance. Behaviour in itself is neither good nor bad; it is learnt and serves the useful purpose of bringing our perceived world into balance with our quality world. It is when the behaviour we choose brings us into conflict with the people around us that there are problems. Students may have a limited knowledge of behaviour options available to them, as teachers we can help them make better choices. Interesting, relevant classes conducted by caring professional educators help place education into a student’s quality world

Reality Therapy

Reality Therapy is the process of applying Choice Theory. It is a counselling tool which can help stimulate a student’s intrinsic motivation to choose a more appropriate form of behaviour. While it can be challenging to use in the classroom, it can produce excellent results. I will try to briefly outline the process and how to use it in different scenarios.
It is easy to think of the process as a linear one, but it can be applied by jumping back and forth among the following steps.

A) What do you want? ? B) what are you doing? ?C) Evaluating what are you doing. ?D) other options. ? E) Plan. (SMART)

A – What do you want? All behaviour has purpose. Try to be positive, as a positive relationship will enable you to possibly move into a student’s quality world. Ask them what happened in the classroom and question them about what they were hoping to achieve in the classroom.

B – If you can work out what they wanted, the next phase is to try to work out what they were doing in order to achieve that outcome. I.e. identify behaviours.

C – Evaluate behaviours. Question: How’s that working for you? They evaluate their current behaviour patterns in terms of achieving their identified goals. Unless a student realises that what they are doing is not achieving their purpose, they will just keep repeating the same behaviour over and over again.

D – Is there a better way? What other things can you do that would work? Identify other behaviours the student could try. If possible have the student suggest possible options, prompting may be necessary.

E – Now you need a plan, the acronym SMART is effective. Specific, Measurable, Attractive,
Realistic and Time framed.

School and Classroom Scenarios

Scenario 1

A student calls out a lot in class, interrupts and is difficult to motivate. You ask the student to come back in their own time to discuss the situation.

The student turns up; you thank them for arriving, and ask them what was going on in class. The student replies 'You never answer my questions.' You could reply with 'It sounds like you want more attention from me. What are you doing in class to get my attention?’ It may take a while, but calling out and interrupting may be behaviours identified by the student.

Evaluation could involve replying 'You have my attention now, is this what you wanted?' The obvious answer is no. A follow up question may be 'How's your behaviour in class working for you?'

Plan – The student may agree to sit away from their friends and put their hand up. Was the issue resolved? The simple answer is no, but over time you can replace phrases like 'Don't call out; raise your hand.' with 'You agreed to... I thought you wanted.... Did that type of behaviour work for you before?' In other words the onus goes back to the student to recognise what they wanted, and how they may best achieve that.

Scenario 2 – The quick interaction.

While the scenario above is quite lengthy, I find that for dealing with minor disruptions in the classroom, you might want to try the following questions as you walk around the classroom and observe off task behaviour. 'You've got lots of choices available to you, what are you choosing to do right now? How's that working for you? What choices are available to you? Is there a better choice you can make?'

I find this line of questioning works well. It places the responsibility back on the student to find a solution. It also identifies that the student has made a choice with their behaviour.

I have attempted to illustrate the use of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy in the classroom. The examples are simplistic. An interview situation can take many paths, and there are many issues that teachers deal with every day. Reality therapy requires practice and determination to use effectively and its use will be enhanced by those who have positive relationships with their students. In the end having students who are conscious of their needs and how best to achieve them will help provide a better atmosphere for learning


William Glasser, (1999) “Choice Theory, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom”, Harper Collins, New York.
Bob Sullo, (2007) “Activating the Desire to Learn,” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.