How can eradicating detention lead to a decrease in challenging behaviour? Geraldine Rowe describes how her discovery of choice theory caused her to rethink her approach to discipline

Two years ago, I was talking with an Australian teacher about the psychology behind school detention. Punishing children in this way, with the expectation that it will ‘teach them a lesson’, is a sanction commonly used by teachers in response to incidents ranging from forgotten homework to violent and abusive behaviour. The teacher described how her school in Queensland had eradicated detention as a result of training in something called choice theory. The more she talked about the impact of this theory on her school, the more interested I became.

Questioning what we do
At the time, I was a senior educational psychologist for a large London borough. Intrigued, I started studying choice theory, particularly the writings of American psychiatrist William Glasser. As I did so, I began to question many of the things I was doing. Already practised in solution-focused approaches, and well-versed in personal construct theory among other person-centred philosophies, I was immediately attracted to Glasser’s radical and logical ideas.

I began to rethink both my approaches to case work and the way I managed my team. The following summer, I left my job to work as a freelancer trainer and consultant introducing choice theory to schools.

Handling students well
A recent large-scale study discovered that there are three major characteristics that differentiate those teachers who handle pupils well from those who do not. The effective teachers:

  • have an idea about where the behaviour comes from or what caused it
  • understand that no individual can control another (even though we often try to!)
  • are in control of themselves when dealing with that behaviour.

Internal control psychology helps us to understand why people make the behavioural choices they make. Armed with a good knowledge of this straightforward theory, teachers can begin to redesign their classroom practices to respect the inevitable pattern of human behaviour. School managers can adapt their management styles to do the same.

What is choice theory?

Like other internal control psychologies, choice theory argues that all our behaviour has a purpose, and that this purpose involves the satisfaction of our biological and psychological needs. Choice theory is so called because all behaviour is our best attempt, at that moment, to control ourselves. The only behaviour that a person has any control over is their own. One person cannot ‘make’ another person do anything that he or she chooses not to do. This explains why authoritarian management does not, and will not, result in long-term behaviour change. Those who study internal control psychology come to recognise that all behaviour is internally motivated. Rewards and sanctions may result in short-term compliance, but will never be an effective way of helping a person to change their behaviour in the long term.

Five needs

Choice theory explains that everyone is born with a genetically inherited combination of basic needs:

  • Survival – we need to feel safe and healthy.
  • Love and belonging – we need to care and be cared for, and to feel as though we belong.
  • Fun and enjoyment – we need to feel good about what we do.
  • Power and self-worth – we need to feel worthwhile and in control of our lives.
  • Freedom – we need to feel free to make choices and not to feel forced or threatened.

Once we are conscious of these needs, and become personally aware of how we generally go about trying to satisfy them, we realise that we have more control over our lives than we previously thought. This means we can stop blaming others for the choices we have made. From the first time we step foot in a classroom, we start to gather memories of the ways in which we perceive that our five needs can be met. One teacher will mentally record that getting to know all the pupils’ names meets his need for love and belonging, and also strengthens his influence over the class that satisfies his need for power and self-worth. Another teacher perceives that her need for freedom and self-worth can be met by regular antagonistic debate in the staffroom. It does not matter whether these behaviours are successful in meeting an individual’s needs: it is each person’s perception of their likely effectiveness that keeps the behaviours going even in the face of contradictory evidence. Reflecting on children’s behaviour for a moment, it is not too difficult to imagine how the child who comes to school ‘looking for a fight’ has developed the perception that fighting is the best way he can satisfy his need for power and self-worth at school. The only sustainable way of helping such a child to change this behaviour is to help him or her to understand that they are seeking to satisfy a purely natural need (the need for power and self-worth), and then to help them to find more responsible ways of meeting this need. Many teachers are already responding to children in a similar way with great success, even though they are unaware of the theory that explains their success.

Application to schools
This explanation of human behaviour has been applied by people with an interest in preventing school failure, and in defining the psychology that explains why some people are happy to work hard in school, and others are not.

When teachers adopt choice theory as their frame of reference, they start to recognise how their attempts at controlling others by the use of such behaviours as nagging, criticising, constant checking up, punishing and rewarding destroy the very relationships that could result in harmony and trust. Schools using internal control psychology find that they can replace many of the coercive techniques traditionally associated with school discipline with new methods that encourage respect and responsibility. A growing number of headteachers and school principals across the world base their school culture on internal control psychology.

These schools can be recognised by the way they have begun to:

  • replace punishment with approaches that educate and support pupils
  • empower pupils rather than control them
  • encourage pupils to evaluate their own behaviours and reflect on their own learning strategies
  • stimulate discussion about ‘quality’
  • enable students and teachers to see each other as allies in a learning community, who need to get along.

Teachers and heads who invest the time to plan and manage their classrooms and schools so as to ensure that they are needs-satisfying environments for staff and students alike have many fewer incidents of violence, disruption and absence. Also, the children are more likely to produce work of a high quality.

Books by William Glasser

  • Every Student Can Succeed (2001) – describes what to do and say to challenging students.
  • Theory in the Classroom (1998) – proposes the use of learning teams to capture the excitement students experience in sport.
  • The Quality School Teacher (1998) – outlines he specifics that teachers need to create a quality classroom.
  • The Quality School (1998) – discusses the need to replace coercive management with systems that bring staff and students closer together.
  • Schools without Failure (1969) – proposes a programme based on involvement, relevance and thinking.

William Glasser Institute