Applying Glasser's Choice Theory to Classroom Management

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  • 0:03 Glasser's Choice Theory
  • 0:40 Choice Theory
  • 3:06 Classroom Applications
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we investigate the work of the American psychiatrist William Glasser and his pioneering choice theory and how to apply it in a classroom setting.

Glasser's Choice Theory

In life, there are needs and there are wants. For example, I need to drink water to live, but I might want to have a cola or a beer instead. Cola and beer are things that I like, but they're not necessary to my survival. Physiologically speaking, needs and wants are rather clear-cut, but the difference between needs and wants in a psychological sense is up for debate. In this lesson, we'll explore what the psychiatrist William Glasser considered to be social needs, and we will examine how his approach can be applied in the classroom.

Choice Theory

Born in 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, William Glasser was an American psychiatrist who held considerably different beliefs than many psychiatrists of his time. He originally studied to be a chemical engineer, but Glasser went back to school in 1947 to become a psychiatrist. Over the course of his career, Glasser published extensively on behavioral psychology and educational techniques, and he developed his own style of therapy called reality therapy. This unique therapy eschewed the idea of mental illness and instead advocated teaching patients to take responsibility for their behavior, encouraging them to take real steps to improve their circumstances.

Glasser is perhaps best known for his 1998 book, Choice Theory, which details his perspective on how humans behave and what motivates us to do the things we do. According to this theory, a person's immediate needs and wants, not outside stimuli, are the deciding factor in human behavior. Moreover, Glasser identifies five basic social needs that all humans have:

  • Survival
  • Love and belonging
  • Power
  • Freedom
  • Fun

Survival encompasses our basic physiological needs, such as water, shelter, food, and the like. The other four needs are necessary for our psychological well-being. Love and belonging (that is, feeling accepted and appreciated by those we consider our closest friends and family), is considered to be the most important of these. Without love and belonging, Glasser argues, the other three psychological needs are virtually unattainable.

According to choice theory, all of our actions stem from these five basic physiological and psychological needs. Our total behavior, as Glasser terms it, is made up of acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology. While all four of these have an impact on our behavior, people only have control over how they think and how they act.

Glasser's choice theory places most of the onus for our actions and day-to-day behavior on our choices, not our circumstances. In this way, Glasser's approach conflicts with mainstream psychiatry and psychology, both of which pathologize many behavioral disorders. In contrast, Glasser believed that mental illness could only be said to exist if a doctor could confirm physiological anomalies in a person's brain.

Classroom Applications

This is all interesting to think about, but what, if anything, can Glasser's theories do for us in our classrooms? Fortunately, in addition to his work in psychology, Glasser also wrote extensively on education, and he and his followers have come up with some suggestions for translating his theories into classroom techniques.

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