From The William Glasser Institute website,

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925, William Glasser was educated at Case Western Reserve University where he received his BS (1945) and MA (1948) in Clinical Psychology, and his M.D. (1953) in Psychiatry. He completed his medical internship at UCLA from 1954 to 1957, his Psychiatric Residency at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, and was Board Certified in Psychiatry in 1961. The University of San Francisco awarded Dr. Glasser the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa in 1990.
Dr. Glasser has written nineteen books, most published by HarperCollins, including his best selling Reality Therapy (1965), Schools Without Failure (1969), Positive Addiction (1976), and The Quality School (1990). His latest books include Choice Theory (1998), Reality Therapy in Action (2000), What Is This Thing Called Love? (2000), Getting Together and Staying Together (2000), and Every Student Can Succeed (2000).
He is president of the William Glasser Institute in Chatsworth, California, an international organization consisting of over 48,000 people who have received training in choice theory, reality therapy, quality education and choice theory management all over the world.


The following is from a paper written in 1994 for a Special Education class. Dr. Glasser has since renamed his theory Choice Theory.

As I read Glasser’s Control Theory and Control Theory in the Classroom, I was struck not so much by how different his theory is from some traditional behavior modification plans, but how many factors they have in common. Control Theory (formerly titled Take Effective Control of Your Life) outlines ways to make positive changes in one’s own life, and makes the point quite clearly that each individual is in control of his or her own choices and actions; Control Theory in the Classroom makes the same point about behavior, and then goes on to offer theories and suggestions on how to involve students in schoolwork. These suggestions seem to me to differ from behavior modification plans in philosophy, but not in the goals set forth, and only to a degree as far as methods are concerned.

We in education are on another swing of the pet theory pendulum, this time heading away from behavior modification programs and toward other classroom management strategies. Glasser has moved away from reward systems and the paradigm of stimulus-response, but has not eliminated the use of praise. Instead, he has more precisely identified what will work as positive reinforcers—namely, the fulfillment of what he terms people’s basic needs.

According to Glasser, we always choose to do what is most satisfying to us at the time. What is most satisfying is that which helps us meet our basic needs: for love and belonging, power, fun, freedom, and survival (physical needs). Physical needs (for water, food, shelter, and to reproduce) are fairly straightforward; it is the non-survival, essentially psychological needs that are more difficult to fulfill and occasionally in conflict with each other.

Glasser is not concerned with only observable behavior, as are the behaviorists; he prefers to look at what he calls total behavior, which has four components: actions, thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses. These four parts act together, and

while we may not choose every part of the total behavior (for example, we don’t choose to tremble with rage), we almost always choose the total which is the sum of all four parts…the parts need not, and in fact usually are not, present in equal amounts, but each is always present in all we do in some amount. 1

This four-part approach to behavior is very important in terms of the medical aspects of Glasser’s theory, expressed more at length in the 1984 Control Theory. He makes a convincing argument for the fact that we sometimes choose, for example, to depress or to headache, because at the time it is an action which meets our needs. In terms of changing our behavior, however, of taking control of our life and our actions, he advocates focusing on the doing component to behavior:

When I fail the test, I have no ability to change how I feel, separate from what I do or think, but I have almost complete ability to change what I do, and some ability to change what I think, regardless of how I am choosing to feel. I have arbitrary control over both these components, especially over what I do. 2

As evidence of this superior control over actions, Glasser offers the reader the following experiment: we are invited to try to feel angry. Next, we are asked to think of the color green. Because there currently exists no good reason to feel angry, most people will find it difficult to do. Likewise, focusing our thoughts on something nonsensical, like a color, is also difficult, because it seems like an arbitrary request. The reader is then asked to raise her right hand. Despite the fact that this request is equally arbitrary, it is simple to do. Glasser’s point is that, at this stage of our development, we have more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts, feelings, or physiological responses, and that we should use this knowledge and control to our advantage. This is striking to me because it seems to fit with behaviorism; although Glasser acknowledges other components to behavior, he, too chooses to focus on actions when it comes time to make a change.

Glasser has outlined what he believes to be people’s basic needs, and he writes convincingly that, unless schools find a way to allow students to fulfill their needs in the classroom, they will seek other means in other places. People, Glasser says, develop positive images of actions that have in the past produced pleasurable feelings of belonging, love, fun, freedom, or power. These images, which he refers to as snapshots, are stored in our heads and consulted as we would consult a menu; when we feel a need, we look to see what activities have fulfilled that need before and we choose to repeat those actions, much as we would order a meal which had satisfied a particular craving in the past. Unfortunately, many students do not have pictures in their heads of school as a need-fulfilling place:

Students don’t work because there is not enough immediate payoff either in or out of school…Unable to do what they would like because they lack education and unsatisfied with what they can do with the little education they have, too many of these young people turn to drugs, delinquency and procreation in an effort to satisfy whatever it is they want. 3

Glasser’s solution to this problem centers around developing learning teams in the classroom, which he compares to athletic teams. He offers an eight-fold argument for changing classroom configurations to this model, describing in detail how it provides children with a sense of belonging, empowers them, and frees them from dependence on the teacher.4

I have read Control Theory in the Classroom twice; once a few years ago for a “Characteristics of Learning Disabilities” class, and then again this semester. Both times, I have been struck by what seems to be an incongruity between two halves of the text. Control Theory makes sense, but having accepted the theory, I am always surprised that the reader is given only one model of how to implement it. Teachers, by and large, or at least the good ones (in my estimation), do not adhere to only one theory of teaching. They pick and choose from a smorgasbord of techniques gleaned from dozens of different sources; the existing structure in their own schools, what they have read about or heard about through continuing education programs or workshops, ways they were taught when they were children, methods they learned while working on certification, even methods adapted by trial and error in their own classrooms.

A style of educational holism appeals to me; it grates on my nerves to read suggestions on how to improve the quality of education in classrooms which provide only one solution, as though there were only one way to do so. It seems to me that there are times and situations for the use of behavior mod as well as Control Theory; one does not have to be used at the exclusion of the other. Both Control Theory and behavior mod are concerned with successfully encouraging students to learn, to take an active part in their education, and to value learning. Both try to accomplish this goal by manipulating the environment in such a way that it is more pleasurable for the student. Glasser writes about providing positive images of learning, of encouraging the placement of pictures in students’ “albums” of learning as fun, as a way of belonging, as a means to freedom and power and control over their lives. He has chosen the implementation of learning teams as the means to this end, but he is still trying to manipulate student behaviors. Unless students accept his image of learning teams, he will have no more success than a behaviorist who chooses a reward which turns out not to work as a reinforcer.

Teaching is a very complicated process; it contains elements of both art and science. Each teacher makes his/her own way, creating his or her own methods; I intend to continue to combine elements of different theories to come up with a workable mix. It may be that they work very well together, despite the fact that their authors might disagree.

1 Glasser, 1986, pp. 44-45 2 Glasser, 1984, p. 50 3 Glasser, 1986, pp. 3 and 11 4 Glasser, 1986, pp.60-79


Glasser, W. (1984) Control Theory New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (1986)Control Theory in the Classroom New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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