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We Have a Choice--Improving Student Teacher Relations

            Today’s students enter the educational system beginning with Kindergarten. Kindergarten is meant as a transition between beginning and regular school. Young students are taught that if they complete their work, then they can have play time, snack time or other rewards offered to them by their teachers. This practice is good as a transitional to real school, however, more and more often, the rewards system is being carried into our children’s regular schooling. Children are being taught to perform for rewards, rather than the knowledge that they have completed their tasks. It’s time for us to put a stop the rewards system and teach our children how to be motivated from within, or intrinsically. But how do we bring about that change? The answer is Choice Theory, an innovative new theory, invented by Psychologist William Glassner that teaches us that while we sometimes cannot control our circumstances, we can always control how we feel and react to them. By implementing Choice Theory into our educational system we can help our children receive a better education by improving student teacher relations and through teaching children how to be motivated from the inside out. Choice Theory seeks to make teachers and school a part of every child’s ‘quality world’, thus removing a child’s need to act out replacing it with a love of school that may have been lacking previously. School is the place where children discover who they are and how to interact with others. If they are only motivated through a reward system, then how will they function later in life, when the need for intrinsic motivation becomes needed? Choice Theory is a positive alternative to the rewards system.

            The front door slammed shut with a resounding echo. Karen Nelson looked up from the checkbook she was balancing as her three young children came walking through the door. Kade, the oldest of the three, hung his backpack neatly in the closet and then immediately headed for the pantry. Meanwhile Abby, the youngest, dropped her backpack in the middle of the floor and came racing into the kitchen, throwing her arms around her mother. Last to unload his burden was Sam. Sam came stomping into the kitchen dumping his backpack in the middle of the floor, kicking Abby’s bag out of the way and throwing his tiny form into a chair in a defeated attitude.
            “How was school?” Karen asked Abby.
            “It was so fun!” Abby said releasing her mother and running to the middle of the kitchen where she proceeded to tell her mother everything about her day in great, confusing detail. Karen smiled and made the appropriate comments of praise throughout her daughter’s story. Once Abby had finished and was happily seated with some graham crackers and milk, Karen turned to her oldest son and asked him about his day.
            “It was alright.” Kade said around mouthfuls of potato chips. “Me and Michael got in trouble for talking in Ms. Mecham’s class again, but she let us off easy this time.”
            Kade finished his snack and headed down to the basement while Karen turned to her middle son, Sam.
            “How was your day Sam?”
            “Terrible.” He responded, his face holding its familiar after-school scowl. “I hate school,” he said his face a picture of frustration. Karen held out an arm and Sam walked around the counter and accepted the hug.
            “Why don’t you like school?” Karen asked.
            “It’s stupid, boring and nobody likes me. We never do anything fun.”
            Karen sighed and hugged her son tighter.
            “Did anything fun happen today?”
            “No.” Sam said angrily. “My teacher yelled at me for talking to Carly and I had to stay inside during recess because I forgot my homework.”
            Karen frowned as she began fixing Sam a small snack to bring him out of his bad mood. It wasn’t that she was surprised by his response; it was that she wasn’t sure what made the dramatic difference between her youngest child and her older two. Abby’s enthusiasm for school was infectious, while Sam begged her to be homeschooled. What was it that made the difference?
            The previous story illustrates a growing problem in our young children’s lives today. Too many kids take the attitudes of Kade and Sam, regarding school. Kids come to school upset and already tired of school. The question is why? Why do kids not enjoy the learning process? Why is there stress between students and teachers? How do we help improve behavior in the classroom?
            When looking at these questions, our education system has been looking for new and more effective ways of teaching children proper behaviors. One way that many schools have started to apply to their curriculum is Choice Theory.  This theory, developed by William Glassner, provides an explanation for our motivations (Glassner, 1998, p24). In this theory it takes away the idea that people are misbehaving, what we are really trying to do is best that we can to get what we need. This process, though, might include breaking rules or even laws, but these are just side effects of doing the best we can to get our needs met (Classroom, 2009). “We are all doing our best; some of us simply have better tools, resources and behaviors at our disposal than others” (Glassner, 1998). The point of implementing this theory into schools is to give teachers and their students the tools and resources to meet their needs using appropriate behaviors and at the same time improve the relationships between students and teachers.
One of the many problems facing teachers is getting their students to be motivated and enjoy learning, without the disruptive behaviors that many teachers end up dealing with. Over time, kids have stopped seeing the value and joy of going to school and learning, their frustration with the situation they are expressed through inappropriate behaviors. This leaves the teachers to fall to external methods to get the students to behave and be active in their work. Using this strategy tends to stress the relationship between students and teacher. Teachers resent that they have to find ways to motivate kids to do things that they should be willing to do on their own and end up disciplining more than teaching. While the students feel manipulated and end up resenting and rebelling against anything that is asked of them. Choice Theory addresses this issue when it teaches that we are internally, not externally motivated (Glassner, 1998, p240).
While other theories suggest that outside events "cause" us to behave in certain predictable ways, Choice Theory teaches that outside events never "make" us do anything (Glassner, 1998, p240). When students decide not to listen to the teacher or do their homework they get in trouble for it and tend to take the role of the victim which makes conflict a problem in the classroom, between teachers and the students. To help students and teachers overcome this we need to look at some key aspects of Choice theory.
First, choice theory states that “what drive’s our behaviors are internally developed notions of what is most important and satisfying to us” (Glassner, 1998, p247).We all have what is called our "Quality World Pictures". These are our internally created ideas of how we would like things to be (Glassner, 1998, p248). We make these pictures as we engage in activities throughout life. We take in our surroundings by collecting information with our ears, eyes, nose and skin (Sliwinski).We then use this information to help decide if what is happening around us meets our needs. Our pictures show us being secure, having relationships, enjoying ourselves, and having freedom. These perceptions are called the good life (Classroom, 2009).We all want the good life but when the good life pictures don’t match up with what is happening in reality, there is distress. “And when this distress is severe enough, the discomfort drives people to choose a different way to behave to produce a more satisfying result” (Glassner, 1998, p250).
All students come to school with the good life pictures in their heads. They have that need to belong and be accepted by others or they want to gain some kind of power and most of all they want to have fun and be happy. For many kids they find themselves in this position of stress and as a result they change or lower their standards of their pictures of the good life (Glassner, 1998). This phenomenon leaves children feeling trapped, with no control and without the ability to respond to reality. Which creates the class clown, the rule-breaker or even the enforcer, they are all out to keep everyone off balance by using their unpredictable behavior. This behavior is usually directed mostly to the teacher (Glassner, 1998, p230). A school that uses Choice Theory explains that when a student misbehaves, the teacher who has been trained in Choice Theory is able to recognize that the child’s misbehavior is a way to meet his good life pictures. To fix the problem the teacher “will combat this conflict by creating natural consequences with the help of their class that fits the disruptive behavior. This eliminates punishment and coercion in the classroom” (Sliwinski).
The second major concept that we must understand to help students is the notion that we always have some choice about how to behave (Glassner, 1998, p250). However this does not mean that we have unlimited choice or that outside information is irrelevant as we choose how to behave (Glassner, 1998, p252). It means that we have more control than some people might believe and that we are responsible for the choices we make. To understand this, we must realize that to satisfy the five basic needs which provide the foundation for all motivation: to be loved and connected to others; to achieve a sense of competence and personal power; to act with a degree of freedom and autonomy; to experience joy and fun; and to survive, people must be able to sense what is going on both around them and within them, and then be able to act on that information (Cook, 2009).  When we sense a discrepancy between what we have and what we want, we behave by acting upon the world and upon ourselves as a part of the world. When these behaviors have been examined, it has been seem to compose of four different behaviors, but Choice Theory explains that these behaviors are actually four components of what is always a total behavior (Glassner, 1998, p234). These four components, which always occur synchronously, are as follows:
1. Doing (e.g., walking, talking)
2. Thinking (e.g., reasoning, fantasizing)
3. Feeling (e.g., angering, depressing)
4. Physiology (e.g., sweating, headaching) (Glassner, 1998, p234)
Students as mentioned before have a tendency to feel that they are the victim, that other classmates made them talk or made them become angry or even their teacher is out to get them, and as a result they got into trouble. But by helping students understand that each of us has control over ourselves, they can start to take responsibility for their actions. A staff member from the Southwest Baltimore Charter School explains that “Just as a car’s wheels are all in motion together, these four components also work simultaneously. You hold the keys to your car and your actions pave the way toward the right or wrong choice” (Sliwinski).Out of the four components the one that we have most control over is our actions and then our thinking. So if we encourage students to become aware of their doing and thinking, which are the front wheels of our car, then they will be able to change their feeling and physiology, their back wheels of the car. (Sliwinski) One argument that students might have is that they do not have a choice when it comes to school; they have to do what the teacher says. But even though we cannot change our situation, we can change how we think about the situation, which in turn will change our feelings and our physiology. Going back to that undeniable fact that no matter what we do, we have a choice.
            Choice Theory while being an insightful new addition to education does have some valid counter arguments that are often brought into an ugly light when it is brought up in unsupported circles. One such argument is that not all children can be counted on to recognize the consequences, nor can they be counted on to change their behavior even with a consequence. The argument expands to include the idea that Choice Theory doesn’t affect students any differently than a school run by authoritative principles. Sliwinski interviewed his own students to find out if and why they liked being in South Baltimore Charter School (SCBS) rather than a normal school:
 Every morning, I enjoy coming to school and seeing excited young minds waiting to learn. In most cases, these same faces are smiling as they walk out the door at 2:55 pm. Many of them enjoy coming to school every day and some even say they prefer to be in school than at home. While most of the reasons the kids had for this preference were positive (seeing their friends, working on cool projects, etc.), some of them were negative. I asked some of those children what made their school life better than their home life.  They told me it was because their teachers don’t yell and scream at them. They liked that teachers listened and talked to them when they did something unacceptable. While I am unfamiliar with the home situations of these children, I do see unhappy students at other city schools because their teachers scream at them for little things like tying their shoe! (Sliwinski)
Sliwinski’s students make a valuable point about the validity of Choice Theory and how it affects students. From the kid’s point of view, their teachers at SBCS do not yell at them, but rather treat them like valuable adults, in contrast to their public school teachers who yelled and screamed and acted as dictators rather than facilitators of learning. This demonstrates the quality world portion of Glassner’s Choice Theory. Quality world is how we or our students view the world. If their teacher doesn’t fit the student’s version of the quality world, then the student will attempt to remove them from their quality world, or they will change their own view of their world to fit the teacher into the picture. Students will often do this by misbehaving, becoming quiet and introverted or by avoiding school altogether (2008). This behavior can be seen in classrooms around the nation and combined with students own observations about what makes school fun. This idea completely refutes the idea that Choice Theory has no effect in the classroom. As well as these examples, education itself has gone over many reforms, each having a different effect on the students and their learning process.
            Another argument in refutation of Choice Theory is the argument that to date, there is no research that can sufficiently prove that the five basic needs are genetically programmed into our DNA.  This point is a very good one, that there can never be a solid argument for Choice Theory because it cannot be proved scientifically. We can’t prove something like the need to survive exists genetically. However, we can see that survival is programmed into our system anytime that an individual gets stuck in a situation that calls for it. Most people are not taught from day one how to survive in an emergency, but the need to react when an emergency occurs is a very real need. Ron Mottern, an educational instructor for the Literacy Council of Williamson County, Texas, reflects this in his paper Choice Theory as a Model of Adult Development: “The lack of evidence for the needs . . . does not negate their existence.” Mottern then brings up the example of personality heritability and how it has long since been an accepted idea. Mottern’s idea is that the five Basic Needs are there in us, they just wait to be activated until we need them.
            The final argument against it comes from a phone interview with Karen Nelson on July 15. Karen is a mother of seven, who has put all her kids through public schooling. We asked Karen what she thought about Choice Theory being implemented in public schools.
“I like it. I think it sounds exceptional and I really agree with the idea that some kids need unique discipline techniques as opposed to traditional methods. Some of my kids would never have responded to anything other than the ideas posed in Choice Theory and ninety percent of the time, yelling and screaming does nothing to help the kids with their school work.”

We also asked Karen if she could foresee any problems with Choice Theory in the education system.
“With all theories there are some kids that it will not work with. For example, some kids just cannot concentrate on their schoolwork, as a consequence of not getting their work done, they would miss recess. If that’s the case, some of my kids would never get to see recess. So I feel that it will work with 80% of the kids, but there will always be that 20% that it will never work with. Also, many kids know how to work a system, and they might turn in half finished work, just so they could get the reward, when in reality they aren’t learning anything.”

            Altogether, we can see that while there are some limitations to Choice Theory and its ideology, it’s still a much better theory than previous theories and should be implemented into the classroom.
Helping students to see that they always have a choice opens up the opportunity for them to have a more meaningful school experience. Using Choice Theory in schools not only will change the experience that the students have but also the experience that the teachers have. But even more then that is Choice Theory can go beyond our school system, it gives everyone a new way to look at life. In a book called Mans Search for Meaning written by Viktor Frankl, a German psychologist who survived Auschwitz. He tells his story and at the same time explores the reason why some of his companions survived and others did not. He explains his answer to this question by sharing a story about how he was digging graves one frosty winter morning and there a rose a beautiful sunrise. Frankl stopped digging and allowed himself to take in the glory of the sunrise (2006, p32) This is the answer, even though everything he had was ripped away from him, his family, home, friends and even his name the one thing that no one could ever take from him was his choice. Though he had no control over the people around him or his situation he could still choose how he felt towards them, and that is what made the difference between life and death. When Choice Theory is implemented in schools it becomes more than just a way to learn but a way to live. Teachers and parents alike all want the same thing for their kids, to grow up and be good, successful people. And by giving them the tools and resources that Choice Theory offers, we are setting them up to truly succeed in all aspects of their lives.

(2008) Introduction to choice theory: Teaching students responsible behavior. Quality educational programs, Inc.
(2009). Classroom management: Dealing with discipline. A Distance learning graduate course Based on the Work of Dr. William Glassner. Quality Educational Programs Inc, San Pedro, CA.
Cook, K. (2009). Movie nanny mcphee and the magic of reality therapy, The. International journal of reality therapy. Vol 29, 1, pp60.
Glassner, W. (1998). Choice theory: a new psychology of personal freedom. New York: Harper Collins.
Frankl V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, Massachusetts. Beacon Press Books.

Mottern, Ron. (2008). Choice theory: A Model of adult development. The International journal of psychology. Vol 28, 3, pp 75
Sliwinski, D. Choice theory: A New look at how we behave. Retrieved from:

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