The Reality Therapy Approach, Techniques, Theory into Practice, Practical Application

The Reality Therapy Approach

Reality therapy helps clients understand the need to be psychologically strong and make healthy productive choices in their interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Attaining psychological strength and using productive decision-making lead to autonomy and taking responsibility for the behaviors that affect oneself and others. 

Reality therapy encourages the client to learn how to make more effective choices and develop the skills to cope with daily stresses and problems. Individuals take ownership of realistic goals, thus accepting responsibility for their present and future. Most importantly, the counselor helps clients realize that they cannot blame others for inappropriate decisions; reality therapy attempts to eliminate these excuses.

William Glasser (1986, 1998, 2000a), the father of reality therapy, believes that human beings operate on a conscious level and are not driven by unconscious forces of instinct. Human learning is a lifelong process based on choice. Glasser suggests that there are six criteria for healthy behavior that a person must seek. Behavior is easily completed, individually driven, has value, improves lifestyle, and is not self-critical or competitive. 

Choice theory is the foundation of reality therapy. Individuals self-determine the way in which they meet their needs for survival, power, fun, freedom, and belonging and choose their thoughts, actions, and emotions accordingly (Corey, 2001, 2009; Glasser, 1998, 2000a). This approach concentrates so much on the present that it tends to ignore the past and the unconscious, unlike psychoanalytic theory, which is heavily immersed in both. Reality therapy is difficult to apply to youth or adults who have problems expressing themselves or their feelings.


The school counselor uses active techniques such as humor, role-play, confrontation, feedback, goal setting, attending and teaching, designing plans, and composing contracts to help the student explore her or his options. The primary technique of reality therapy is teaching a student how to become responsible for personal actions. The counselor’s role is to reinforce positive planning and action steps. A student begins to see how her or his behavior is unrealistic and sometimes negative. Guided by the school counselor, the student begins to understand that she or he is in control of the desired change(s).

Confrontation and role-play help the student to accept responsibility for behavior and bring past events into the here and now. Reviewing past behaviors helps the student take charge in the present and plan for the future while establishing realistic goals to change her or his behaviors. Humor is one of the techniques used; however, it must be used respectfully. Students have fragile egos and cannot think they are being made fun of. Incorporating humor may help the student to look at the situation differently and see how unrealistic it was.

Reality therapy uses the Wants, Direction, Evaluate, Plan (WDEP) system (Wubbolding, 2000) to help the counselor and the student focus on the desired change and assess progress. The counselor identifies what the student wants early on in the session. The counselor shares what she or he wants for the student. The student takes direction over her or his life. 

Evaluation is the basis for reality therapy. Students learn to evaluate their behaviors and begin to recognize which behaviors are unproductive. Students take action to create a plan for changing behaviors. Reality therapy places the responsibility on the student to accomplish the goals set forth in the plan of action. The counselor never gives up on the student and the student assumes responsibility to break the cycle of failure.

Theory into Practice

Reality therapy requires a student to accept the responsibility to determine the course of action the student will follow. Reality therapy does not dwell on the past but rather projects the students forward toward a change in action and behavior. Students may view reality therapy as empowering, believing that they have choices and there are alternative ways to the methods used to approach a situation or problem in the past. It keeps a student focused on dealing with the “here and now” to gain self-confidence and assurance. Using role-play helps bring the future or past into the present. Reality therapy seems to work best with older children who are capable of understanding choice and demonstrating the desire to change their behavior.

Practical Application

At the eighth-grade team meeting last week, Mrs. Riemer, a social studies teacher, presented some concerns she has about Dan and discovered that in all of Dan’s classes he was seeking constant attention mainly in the form of joking and clowning. Academically he is inconsistent, performing well for some teachers and not for others. Dan is in danger of failing four out of his eight classes. You plan to meet with him and explore the reasons that he is successful in some classes and not in others.


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

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