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How to Promote Teen School Engagement With Reality Therapy

Reality therapy can help teens take responsibility for their actions.

Reality therapy can help teens take responsibility for their actions.

Reality Therapy in School Counseling

As a counselor, I understand the dismay of parents and teachers when teenagers are not motivated to perform to their highest potential in school. School engagement involves students' positive attitudes towards school, which includes their approach to teachers, peers, and academic learning.

While some teens perceive school as boring and irrelevant, school exerts great influence on teenagers through factors such as its curriculum, climate, and extracurricular activities. The challenge is to get teens to recognize the value of school and its importance for achieving goals in life.

Students who are actively involved in school, and feel that they are important members of the school community, are more likely to show higher levels of school achievement. Reality therapy can help to improve teens' academic motivation and engagement in school.

Responsibility in the Teen Years

Teens desire autonomy; they want to disengage from the attitudes and beliefs of their parents. In so doing, they are striving for independence and a sense of their own identity. This means, then, that parents may need to redefine the parent-child relationship at this stage.

Parents and teachers need to gradually increase the responsibility that they give to teens. The fact is that teens want to feel capable of making decisions for themselves. Parents, teachers, and other authority figures need to understand this. Thus it is important to create effective communication between teens and significant persons in their lives.

Many teenagers try to escape parental authority to gain autonomy. What is needed is a balance of parental authority with trust and understanding for teenagers. Thus strategies from reality therapy can help teens to learn better ways of satisfying their needs. Teenagers can learn to identify their wants, evaluate their behaviors, and then plan more productive ways to satisfy their needs.

What Is Reality Therapy?

William Glasser, a psychiatrist, developed a method of counseling called reality therapy. This therapy is based on choice theory, which assumes that behaviors are based on choice, and humans are motivated to satisfy five basic needs. Survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun are the five needs.

Reality Therapy and Choice Theory

Reality therapy, based on choice theory, is formulated to make it useful to therapists, school counselors, teachers, and others. According to Glasser and Wubbolding, this therapy "helps people to examine their wants, and needs, evaluate their behavior and make plans for fulfilling needs" (Glasser & Wubbolding, 1995).

An important ingredient to reality therapy is the concept of choice. So reality therapy rejects the idea that people are victims of their behaviors and circumstances. Instead, they choose the kinds of behavior they produce. In other words, people choose how to behave.

Reality therapy, then, provides the structure to help people satisfy their needs for survival, love and belonging, achievement, fun, and freedom or independence. People's behavior is the vehicle that is used to meet their needs.

WDEP System

According to Glasser, personal history is only important to the degree that it influences present choices, and so the emphasis is on current and recent lifestyle behaviors. Reality therapy uses interventions that lead individuals to evaluate their lives and make decisions to move in more productive directions.

Each letter in WDEP, formulated by Robert E. Wubbolding, represents skills and techniques to assist people in taking control of their lives and fulfilling their needs.

W: Asks clients what they want. This helps clients to clarify and prioritize their desires. This line of questioning helps them to describe what they want from themselves and others, including their parents, teachers, and peers.

D: Asks clients what they are doing. This question helps clients to be more aware of their choices and where these choices might take them.

E: Ask clients to conduct self-evaluation. Self-evaluation is a key element in reality therapy. This is the most important question, which asks clients, "Is what you are doing getting you what you want?"

P: Ask clients to make plans to effectively fulfill their needs. This asks clients for detailed strategies for change that will help them to take charge of the direction their lives are going.

Steps to Using Reality Therapy With Teens

Reality therapy, using the WDEP strategies, can help school counselors to assist teens in developing better "need-satisfying behaviors" (Glasser & Wubbolding, 1995). This approach could be one of the best therapies to be implemented by school counselors to improve school engagement.

The following steps describe the procedure that a school counselor could use to help students clarify the relationship between behavior and consequences, and so make positive choices about their lives, and specifically their attitudes to school and performance in school.

1. Establish positive involvement with the teenager.

Teens need to know that their teachers and parents care for them and have their best interests in mind. Thus a key ingredient in reality therapy is establishing a positive relationship between the counselor and teens. The emphasis is on a relationship that is firm yet friendly that exudes warmth, understanding, acceptance, and concern.

After this relationship is established, school counselors can help teens to gain a better understanding of the consequences of their current behavior.

2. Focus on current behavior.

There is a need to determine what the problem is. So counselors can help teens to assess their own condition. The question is, "What are you doing to get what you want?"

The goal is for the teens to identify all they are doing to improve the situation, for example getting better grades at school.

3. Teens must accept responsibility for their behavior.

Counselors help teens accept responsibility for their actions. Teens need to determine whether their current behavior is getting them what they say they want.

4. The teen should evaluate the behavior.

Counselor asks teens if their behaviors are helpful or harmful. In other words, "Are the choices you are making giving you what you want?'

5. Develop a plan of action.

Counselors and teens collaborate to come up with plans of action for their specific needs. The plan for each teen must be realistic and aimed at helping the teen to change his or her behavior.

6. Teen makes a commitment to carry out the plan.

Teens must make a commitment to carry out the plan. This commitment should be workable and written as a contract.

7. Teen carries the plan through and follows up.

Finally, teens should carry out their plans, and if the plans are not working, they alter them or come up with a more feasible plan. However, if teens do not meet their obligations, the school counselor will need to implement the consequences written in their plans.

In the process, teens learn a valuable lesson that they are not victims, but they can choose more need-satisfying behaviors.

Summary of the Use of Reality Therapy to Promote Teen School Engagement

StepsTeens' ResponseExpected Result

1. Involve teens in need-satisfying relationships

This type of relationship appeals to one or more of teens' human needs

Teens get a sense of belonging and respond to the support

2. Focus on teens current behavior

Teens assess their own situation

Teens identify how what they are doing is helping to improve their situation

3. Teens accept responsibility

Determine if their own behavior is getting them what they desire

Teens take responsibility for their actions

4, Teens evaluate their behavior

Decide if their behavior is helpful or harmful

Determine if their choices are giving them what they want

5. Teens develop a plan

Make realistic plans to address situation

This shoud help teens to change their behavior

6. Teens commit to carry out the plan

Contract commitment to plan

Contract serves as motivation to carry out plan

7. Follow Through

Teens carry out plan, or alter what is not working

Achievement of goals to satisfy their needs (for example, greater school engagement and achievement)

Reality Therapy and Adolescents: Teens Fulfilling Their Needs

Reality therapy assumes that behavior is based on choices. Further, these behaviors are motivated by certain psychological needs, including belonging and independence. So teens can be guided to examine their needs, for example, autonomy and personal identity, then evaluate their behaviors, and make plans to satisfy their needs.

Using the WDEP system, school counselors can encourage teens to examine specific needs and wants in areas such as school engagement and academic achievement. This should challenge them to evaluate how well they are moving in the direction of what they really want.

Reality therapy is an effective approach to use with adolescents. If teens are convinced that their present behaviors are not getting them what they want, it is likely that this could motivate them to change to more productive behaviors.

References and Further Reading

  • Glasser, W. & Wubbolding. R. E. (1995). Reality Therapy. In Corsini, R. J. & Wedding, D. (Eds.), Modern Psychotherapies (293-321). Itasca, IL: Peacock Publishers.
  • Palmer Mason, C. & Duba, J. D. ( 2009). Using Reality Therapy in Schools: It’s Potential Impact on the effectiveness of the ASCA National Model. Retrieved from Accessed April 2013.
  • Voelkl, K. (1997). Identification with School. American Journal of Education,105, 294-318.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

Share in the conversation ...

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 28, 2014:

Thanks for you comments grand old lady. Yes, Reality Therapy can be used effectively at all stages of life. It helps people to fulfill their needs through making the right choices.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on June 28, 2014:

Reality Therapy sounds like a wonderful thing, and it is applicable to people of all ages, whether you are 6 or 60. But of course, it is very important that it is applied during high school, as this is a pivotal time in a child's life.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on April 20, 2014:

Thanks so much CyberShelley. These techniques from Reality Therapy are useful to help teens (and others) satisfy their needs by taking charge and making right choices.

Shelley Watson on April 20, 2014:

Excellent professional article a subject you are obviously well versed in. Thank you for sharing. Up, interesting and useful

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on May 03, 2013:

I agree Denise, Reality Therapy helps people at different age, to realize that they are not victims, but have the ability to make choices to meet their needs. In his book, "Reality Therapy in Action," Glasser describes how he counseled a variety of clients using the approach with good results.

Thanks for sharing, Denise.

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 03, 2013:

I have read some of Glasser's material, and appreciate his research. He has some great theories that make a lot of sense when used in the school setting. I have also found these concepts useful in the family when working with preteens and teens. These youth need and want to determine their own futures. As we help them by giving them responsibility and guide the choices they make, they will become highly responsible adults.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on May 03, 2013:

Thanks Sheri Faye. Using the strategies of Reality Therapy to deal will issues such as student engagement, is an area that I feel I will continue to explore. Having been a high school teacher for many years, I see the need for this information to help teachers and school counselors. I spent some time researching the area before I wrote the article. I'm considering writing a workbook for schools using Reality Therapy principles and strategies.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on May 03, 2013:

Thanks happiness coach, I really believe that Reality Therapy an effective method that can used in schools to deal with issues such as student behavior and school engagement. It's great to know that you have had positive results using these strategies.

Sheri Dusseault from Chemainus. BC, Canada on May 03, 2013:

Very professional article. You should do well with this one. I wish I had had this info when my boys were teens. Sharing this great info!

Karen McGibbon from Jamaica on May 03, 2013:

Purpose Embraced, this information is very clearly and thoroughly presented. I have had much success using this approach with my students.