How to Promote Teen School Engagement With Reality Therapy

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 show higher levels of school achievement. Reality Therapy can help to improve teens’ academic motivation and engagement in school.

Teens desire autonomy, they want to disengage from 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 parent-child relationship at this stage.

Parents and teachers need to gradually increase the responsibility that they give to teens. The fact is, teens want to feel capable of making decisions for themselves. Parent, 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 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.

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 are 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 in essence 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.

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 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 interest 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 the 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 the teens accept responsibility for their actions. Teen needs 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 the 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 plan, 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.

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, for 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 the 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.

  • 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 wku.edu. Accessed April 2013.
  • Voelkl, K. (1997). Identification with School. American Journal of Education,105, 294-318.