The Individual Therapy Psychology Approach, Techniques, Theory into Practice and Practical Application

The Individual Psychology Approach

Individual psychology was developed by Alfred Adler. However, one cannot discuss Adler’s work without reference to the influence of Sigmund Freud. Adler, initially one of Freud’s disciples, eventually became one of his strongest dissidents. Freud invited Adler to participate in discussion circles until such time that Adler rejected Freud’s emphasis on sex, the unconscious, and the influence of the past. 

Although Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis suggested new ways of understanding love, hate, emotions, family relations, fantasy, and sexuality, Adler purported that personality difficulties are rooted in feelings of inferiority and are derived from an individual’s need for self-assertion. Adler termed his theory individual psychology to distinguish his work from Freud. Central to Adler’s theory is the concept that social interest drives behavior. Terms such as inferiority complex, social interest, and lifestyle were coined by Adler and quickly adopted by other theorists and scholars (Gladding, 2012).

Human beings desire success; thus, all behavior is purposeful and goal-oriented. The Adlerian approach encourages the client to be well aware of her or his surroundings and environment, and the theory supports healthy development to overcome any feelings of inferiority. This theoretical orientation stresses the influence of subjective feelings as a primary motivator. The client learns to grapple with her or his conscious levels of thought and assumes responsibility for taking charge of changing behaviors.

Behavior and misbehavior are the externals and are symptomatic of the feelings that the student has internalized. Especially with misbehavior, school counselors can pay particular attention to the reasons for the behavior whether looking for attention, seeking power, revenge, or compensating for feelings of inadequacy (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). Schools present myriad opportunities for students to experiment with different types of behaviors and gain a sense of belonging and connectedness (Sciarra, 2004).


Counselors “Adlerian” demonstrate empathy, support, and genuine warmth toward the client. However, the counselor uses a variety of techniques to assist and encourage change in behavior such as confrontation. Confrontation challenges the client to examine her or his logic and behavior and to look at the situation she or he is in. Asking questions and attending are used to explore possibilities. 

For example, when a student is asked “What would be different if you ?” she or he can respond with an answer based on what she or he wants ideally. The counselor listens and encourages the client to embrace good, positive, and realistic behaviors. Encouragement motivates the client to believe that change is possible. “Catching oneself” is a technique to teach the client to become aware of self-destructive behaviors and thoughts.

Other specialized strategies such as “pushing buttons” help the client to develop an awareness of what prompts her or his reaction and when she or he is acting in an inappropriate manner. Clients are also encouraged to set tasks and establish short-term goals to ultimately establish and attain a long-term but realistic change in behavior.

Theory into Practice

Adrian's approach behavior is goal-directed and the focus for children is on immediate behavior targets rather than long-term objectives. Play therapy helps young children learn how to better express themselves, socialize, and interact with others. It also provides a vehicle for differentiating between good and bad behaviors. Drawings are also helpful to discern a child’s pattern of behavior.

The Adlerian method helps the student identify more successful ways of resolving problems than what the student is currently doing in school, play, and social interactions. The counselor works with the assumption that the student can assume responsibility and acquire better ways to meet personal goals. The counselor uses questioning to frame the structured interview and explore the perspective that the student has of her or his life.

Students explore their orientation in their families, confront negative behavior, establish goals, and examine social interactions. Encouragement is a critical part of the counseling process and the Adlerian method subscribes to the belief that students misbehave when they are frustrated and discouraged and have no other means to succeed. School counselors use these techniques to facilitate, change, and encourage appropriate behaviors while disregarding unwanted and unhealthy ways of responding.

Practical Application

Kara feels she is unable to do anything well. She is only comfortable in class when the teacher expects nothing from her. You ask Kara, “What do you want your teacher and classmates to know about you? Are there some things in class that you are really good at and would like everyone to know? How can we make that happen?”


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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