Daughters plant flowers in the yard with their mother.Reality therapy, developed by Dr. William Glasser in 1965, is founded on the principles of choice theory and has developed into a widely recognized form of therapy. Parents as well as many professionals in the fields of education, mental health, and social services have embraced the fundamentals of this therapy, which suggests that all human issues occur when one or more of five basic psychological needs are not met and that an individual can only control their own behavior. Glasser believed that when someone chooses to change their own behavior rather than attempting to change someone else's, they will be more successful at attaining their own goals and desires.

Understanding Reality Therapy

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Reality therapy focuses on current issues affecting a person seeking treatment rather than the issues the person has experienced in the past, and it encourages that person to use therapy to address any behavior that may prevent them from finding a solution to those issues. This type of therapy encourages problem solving and is based on the idea that people experience mental distress when their basic psychological needs have not been met. These needs are:

  • Power: A sense of winning, achieving, or a sense of self-worth.
  • Love and belonging: To family, to a community, or to other loved ones.
  • Freedom: To be independent, maintain personal space, autonomy.
  • Fun: To achieve satisfaction, enjoyment, and a sense of pleasure.
  • Survival: Basic needs of shelter, survival, food, sexual fulfillment.

The fact that everyone is constantly striving to meet these basic needs is at the heart of reality therapy. When a person feels bad, reality therapists maintain it is because one of the five needs have not been fulfilled. People participating in reality therapy might learn ways to be more aware of any negative thoughts and actions possibly preventing them from meeting their needs, as according to the tenets of reality therapy, changing one's actions may have a positive effect on the way that individual feels and on their ability to attain their desires. These changes ideally take place through the use of Glasser's choice theory, which uses questions such as "What are you doing/What can you do to achieve your goals?"

Overview of the Therapeutic Process

In reality therapy, the therapist might begin the therapeutic process by guiding a person's attention away from past behaviors in order to focus on those that occur in the present. Present needs are what are relevant, as they are the needs that can be satisfied. Reality therapists also tend to not focus on a person's symptoms, as Glasser believed symptoms of mental distress manifest as a result of a person’s disconnection from others.

Individuals who enter reality therapy generally have a specific issue of concern, and the therapist may ask them to consider the effects their behavior has on that area, helping that person focus on things they can actually change rather than things beyond their control. In reality therapy, the focal point is what the person in therapy can control. By understanding one's own needs and desires and developing a plan to meet those needs while refraining from criticizing or blaming others, reality therapists believe that a person may be able to form, reform, or strengthen connections with others.

Role of the Therapist in Reality Therapy

Because reality therapy seeks to treat individuals who experience difficulty in their relationships with others, forming a connection with the therapist is an important beginning in reality therapy. This connection is considered by reality therapists to be the most important dynamic in facilitating healing. Once this relationship is stable, it can be used as a model to form fulfilling connections outside of the therapeutic environment.

Those in therapy can learn how to best strengthen relationships outside of therapy while in the “safe” therapeutic relationship and as a result, be able to more easily expand on those methods in daily life. Reality therapists hold that when a person in therapy can employ the behaviors, actions, and methods developed through therapy in life successfully, they will often be able to improve external relationships and experience a more fulfilling life.

Application of Reality Therapy

Reality therapy is considered an effective therapeutic strategy for addressing many issues, but it can be especially valuable in treating difficulties faced by children and young adults at school and in their communities.

Research has shown improvements in overall classroom functioning, cooperation, and a decrease in challenging behaviors when teachers and school counselors are adequately trained in reality therapy. Studies have also indicated that reality therapy is useful when applied to certain issues with behavioral components, including teen pregnancy. Reality therapy works from the perspective that people must assume responsibility for their behavior if they wish to change it.  

Reality therapy has also been effective in the broader community, such as when integrated into athletic coaching and in work with juvenile offenders, to facilitate behavioral change. This form of therapy can help bridge the gap between intolerance and ignorance through education and equality, often resulting in a more unified group.

Concerns and Limitations of Reality Therapy

Findings show that reality therapy has been applied with positive results in schools for problems concerning behavior. However, little long-term research on the effectiveness of this approach in school populations has been conducted. These studies are also limited due to the lack of experimental control in areas such as sample size and training of teachers, as well as questions concerning voluntary participation. 

While reality therapy has been found to reduce issues with misbehavior of target groups in schools, findings are limited regarding its capacity for improving the personal experiences of youth, their self-esteem, and self-concept. These findings suggest that reality therapy is effective in addressing symptomatic behavioral issues but not underlying causes and reasons for the behavior.


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