A Comparative Application of ‘Reality Therapy’ and ‘Rewards and Punishments’

by Glen Stewart

Dr. William Glasser presents a fresh, practical alternative to modern psychiatry in his book entitled Reality Therapy. In this work, we find that Reality Therapy differs drastically from
most forms of psychotherapy currently influencing classroom teacher-student interaction today. Glasser stresses the basic human need for relatedness and respect. He states that
these needs can be met by doing what is realistic, responsible, and right. The application of
Reality Therapy in the classroom requires the instructor to interact, to relate, with students in
such a way as to become an intimate, involved example of a person who is motivated and is
motivating them to be realistic, responsible, and right. Students, knowing that the teacher is a
caring, committed individual, will then branch out with confidence to continue meeting their
need for relatedness and respect on their own.

Rewards and Punishments, as defined by Carl Rinne in ATTENTION: The Fundamentals of
Classroom Control consist of a series of seven steps, increasing in severity, which are used in
the process of molding student behavior so that they will exhibit the signs of attentiveness
which are desired during the instructional period. The seven steps are:

1. The instructor stresses instruction that provides intrinsic, positive reinforcement

2. Desired, or approximate behavior is rewarded, while improper behavior is ignored

3. On-task behavior is rewarded with a token

4. Severe off-task behavior is ignored, while closer-to-task behavior is rewarded

5. Various “classroom punishments”, non-physical in nature, are used

6. Problem students (those with continued improper behavior) are isolated/excluded

7. Physical punishment is used

Glasser and Rinne share one obvious goal when Reality Therapy and Rewards and Punishments
are compared – proper classroom behavior. Rinne states, “The teacher who does not believe in
behavior modification might as well not believe in the law of gravity”, while Glasser notes,
“teachers have no trouble understanding that they must become involved with a child, reject
his irresponsible behavior, and then teach him better ways to behave.” The similarities between
Reality Therapy and Rewards & Punishments, however, stop there. Rinne indicates that
behavior modification techniques are manipulative and that the desired behavior in every
circumstance is student attention on lesson content.

Investigating the seven levels of student behavioral modification, mentioned earlier, we find
that each step has its own subset of tools. In level 1, intrinsically interesting lessons typically should contain the elements of novelty, surprise, completion (a task that just begs to be
completed), suspense, competition, and identification (relating to heroes/heroines). Level 2 utilizes a technique called contingent reinforcement. In various degrees of application,
correct student behavior is rewarded with praise or attention, while student exhibiting
undesired behavior are ignored. Shaping, also used at this level, consists of a reward for
approximately correct behavior, followed by a directive for achieving the most-correct behavior.
Levels 3, 4, 6 and 7 are self-explanatory and need not be discussed further here.

The overall “attitude” of the Rewards and Punishments system is of a stand-offish one-way
communication path, where the instructor is ‘monitoring’ student behavior and manipulating
it to suit the best interests of the classroom environment. In contrast, Glasser stresses the
importance of student-teacher relating/interaction, and the idea of the teacher striving to meet
the basic human needs of the pupil. Glasser also places an emphasis on the development of
student characteristics such as morality, right-and-wrong, responsibility, self-respect, and
self-meeting of personal needs. Glasser also states the importance of an instructor who is an
example of what the student should be – the whole idea here, being that the student learns by
example how to begin meeting his own basic human needs by observing the teacher. Student characteristics gained through Reality Therapy, unlike the Rewards and Punishments approach
are: realism, responsibility, and ‘rightness’ – invaluable qualities both inside and outside of

An excellent comparative analysis of the Rewards & Punishments and Reality Therapy
techniques can be made by posing hypothetical classroom situations and seeing how the
student(s) and teacher benefit as each system is applied…

The “little people” decide to have a paint-splattering contest, while you’re in the side room trying to coordinate a teacher’s aid who you just discovered is assigned to you.

Obviously, to the instructor (whether he is a R.T. [Reality Therapist] or a R&P [Rewards &
Punishments] advocate), this is undesired behavior. The R&P would immediately use a level 5
technique as a starting-point to get classroom attention back on lesson content. This level 5
reaction may be expressed as a). negative comments, b). extra assignments, or c). withholding
privileges. The R.T. would also recognize improper behavior, but going one step further, would see
this as irresponsibility on the student’s part, due to some unmet need. It is unlikely that the
unmet need is a deficiency of the knowledge of right-and-wrong, or of reality, but more
likely the student(s) have not properly learned the aspect of responsibility while the teacher
is out of the room. What is responsibility? Glasser states. “Responsibility, a concept basic to
Reality Therapy, is defined as the ability to fulfill one’s needs, and to do so in a way that doesnot deprive others of the ability to fulfill their needs …. A responsible person also does
that which gives him a feeling of self-worth and a feeling that he is worthwhile to others.” In
essence, the student is deemed ‘irresponsible’ because he has deprived me instructor of the
pleasure of teaching – he has been disrespectful.

The student then, must be instructed by his teacher in such a way as to encourage actions
which will result in an improved feeling of self-worth. He must be shown that his action was
irresponsible and that the consequences outweigh the satisfaction that the action may have provided at the time. As stated by O. Hobart Mowrer (from the Foreword of Reality Therapy), “the
therapeutic problem, basically, is that of getting another person to abandon what may be called
the primitive pleasure principle and to adopt that long-term, enlightened, wise pursuit of
pleasure, satisfaction, joy, happiness which the reality principle implies.” But how can the
student be shown that their paint-spattering contest impacted their self-worth ? Simply,
honestly relate this to them … “you haven’t conducted yourselves in a way that you should be
proud of. (Then point out right-and-wrong) How should you have acted while I was out of the
room ?” Then proceed to administer a penalty, if required, to ensure that the students
understand that the consequences of their actions did outweigh the short-term pleasure.

As seen in this example, Reality Therapy does much more than simply manipulate behavior – it
gives the student a firm sense or right-and-wrong, encourages realistic thinking (recognition of
consequences) and makes him aware of his irresponsible behavior, which his growing sense of
self-worth will want to correct.

In the next example, Reality Therapy stresses the need for exemplary behavior on the part of the

You were almost killed coming in on the local “Autobon”, and now you’re supposed to teach interaction skills to the same kids who’ll be on that same road, eight years from now!

Interestingly, the R&P advocate may not even warrant any mention of the incident, since it has
no effect on the classroom environment. What a shame ! This instructor, bound within the
context of classroom behavior alone, fails to recognize that the student’s actions are expressions,
again, of an unmet need. While perhaps unable to exercise discipline for such an action, a
Reality Therapist, having developed some level of involvement with the student individually,
has every right to work with the student in the area of needed improvement, showing that he
really does care. What an asset to the student’s education experience! What a beautiful way to
develop a responsible young person, both in and out of class!

The Rewards & Punishments method must not be overlooked completely due to its insensitivity
(recognizing unmet needs) and the lack of student-teacher involvement which will result. In
certain cases where sensitivity isn’t crucial, the R&P proves to be speedily effective…

One of your kids definitely stepped in something on the way to school.

This type of classroom situation clearly warrants quick action by the instructor ! A student
walking into class with “stinky” shoes provides a major distraction to desired classroom
behavior. While the pupil could be viewed as irresponsible by a die-hard Reality Therapist (and
the whole thing blown out of proportion), it is much more efficient to simply react with a
low-level directive of having the student leave the classroom temporarily, to clean his shoes.

It’s your first time substitute-teaching at this particular school. You find your classroom door locked, then spend 10 minutes of class time trying to find the janitor while the children
mill around outside.

What can an educator do with desirable behavior ? In this case, ‘milling around’ is about the
best thing many teachers could possibly hope for (in other situations, students go home, skip
class entirely, or become destructive). Reality Therapy is unnecessary at this point, since the
behavior exhibited is responsible. Rewards & Punishments also has no application, since
behavior was acceptable to the instructor (no one misbehaved, and yet there was no lesson
activity occurring, which rules out a level 1 or 2 modification technique). With this example, we
find that in certain cases, neither R.T. or R&P satisfy the conditions to compliment students for
their proper behavior.

Throughout this investigation of Rewards & Punishments and Reality Therapy, the strengths
and weaknesses of each behavioral-modification technique have been clearly noted. Reality
Therapy stresses personal involvement and example-setting to develop the student’s sense of reality, right-and-wrong, and responsibility. When long-term, or far-reaching corrective behavior is desired, this technique would be most helpful. In addition to obtaining desired
behavior, Reality Therapy also brings a sense of self-worth to both instructor and student. A
positive relationship is pleasing to each of them ! Rewards & Punishments find excellent use
when quick, low-sensitivity modification is required. The dog-doo tracked in on someone’s
shoes and other short-term, unintentional distractions are well responded to with the simple
seven-level steps described. One of the most important lesson to be learned, however, is that the
instructor must never become bound by the modification tool/technique he uses. Sensitivity,
perception, and experience are necessary for the educator to use the proper technique at the
proper time.

A Selected Bibliography

1. Glasser, William. Reality Therapy. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers., 1965.

2. Rinne, Carl H. ATTENTION: The Fundamentals of Classroom Control, Columbus, OH:
Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1984.

In Memory of Carl Rinne, who passed away at 77, on the morning of December 11, 2013, after a long struggle with Lewy Body Dementia. Carl was one of the most memorable, skilled instructors I had in college. It was for his course, that I wrote this paper around 1986.

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