Success Counseling

By Randall Grayson, Ph.D.
Inspiration from Dr. Barnes Boffey and Dr. William Glasser

This resource is the sequel to the “5 approaches to discipline” article.


The other four methods of discipline (punishment/rewards, guilt, buddy, and monitor) focus on changingbehavior and hoping that a change in mind will ensue. The aim of a success counselor is just the opposite: to change children’s minds, which will change their behavior. For example, when a child takes a ball from another child on the playground, an adult could threaten or make the other child play nicely (or sit out for example), or the adult could try and help the child think of another way to have fun and play that meets both his needs and the needs of others.

So, why is changing their minds really all that important? Why should you care? Because decades of research have shown that children raised in such a manner are more:

  • Independent
  • Self-confident
  • Cooperative
  • Friendly with peers
  • Energetic
  • Achievement oriented
  • Self controlled
  • Emotionally self aware (understand link between behavior and feelings)
  • Empathetic
  • Stress tolerant
  • Successful at problem solving
  • Responsible
  • Physically healthy
  • Happy
  • Successful with later careers
  • Likely as adults to report having satisfying marriages

This article begins with an explanation of the key shift that needs to happen so that children can learn to interact with the world in a healthier manner. Following that is a brief description of the five basic needs all people have. The mental shift and needs are then tied together with a few examples. Finally, I provide details about the way to put this counseling tool into practice.

I’m afraid that this is far from easy to both teach and practice. Taking responsibility for ourselves is something most of us struggle with, but despite the difficulty, the reward is worth striving for. The reward is our freedom and autonomy. It is healthy parent-child relationships. It is healthy communication between husband and wife or co-workers. When we understand that we have choices regardless of the behavior of others, we can have relationships based on our own responsibility, self-discipline, and love; we can create those good relationships instead of waiting for them from others.

The Shift: From external to internal control

External control

“I felt angry and that’s why I yelled at him!”
“I’m depressed, so that’s why I’m sitting here doing nothing.”
“My friends make me feel stupid.”
“My mother made me angry so I’m not talking to her.”
“When people call me names, I’m going to hit them. It’s their fault if they get hurt, not mine.”
“If you would just stop being so uptight, I could relax and then everything would be fine.”
“If Jane would just clean up her room, I wouldn’t get so angry.”
“I’m going to make that guy do what I said or else!”
“I’m bored. That’s not fun. I need more fun things to do.”

Core belief:  We feel the way we do because some person, place, or thing makes us feel that way. We blame. 
Core belief:  We either manipulate, or we are manipulated 
Core belief:  The outside world should give us things we need to be happy 
Core belief:  We do what we do because of how we feel

People who are externally motivated spend a great deal of time looking for exactly the right people, places, and things so that they will finally feel fulfilled. To wait for others to change so that we can love them will be a source of endless frustration and disappointing relationships. Our ultimate freedom comes in being able to find our balance regardless of another person’s action.

Internal control

“How do I want to feel in this situation?”
“That person called me names; I can choose to feel angry, sad, sorry for their lack of understanding, or grateful I am not them”
“Do you want to be homesick? Can you imagine being happy even though you are not with your mom?, Do you want to be enjoying camp rather than feeling sad all the time?”
“I really respect myself for the way I handled that situation.”
“I like who I am when I act like this.”
“Would you like to spend your time feeling good about what you did well or bad about what you didn’t do so well?”

Core belief:  What’s going on outside of me is just information. I have to the power to choose how I want to feel.  Feelings come from the inside out, and not outside in. 
Core belief:  Our pain in the world comes not from the circumstances of our lives, but from the way we deal with those circumstances. Our pain is the result of the difficulty of being loving when others are not. 
Core belief:  People want to do and be good, but sometimes they need help learning how. 
Core belief:  People have the power to be terrific people, even in non-terrific situations

Being loving is easy in situations where those around you are doing what you want and giving you the attention and love you desire. But being loving is more difficult if someone is mad at you, or lets you down, or treats you poorly, or does not do what you want them to do. When we are caring and compassionate in the face of bad situations, we find peace, balance, and love.

Our core needs

From this perspective, people have five core needs. It is believed that all behavior can be traced back to one of these core five needs. All behavior is code, and all behavior happens for a reason. These needs instruct us on how to be in the world.

The instruction to “Be Loved and Be Loving” is an urge to connect, to belong, to feel compassion for others, and to forgive. Even though it is difficult to see this need expressed in people sometimes, the assumption is that we are all born with the desire to be this way in the world. For example, people my express this need through anger, showing off, bitterness, or even by being shy. Also under the need to be loved is the need for self-worth, or self-esteem. People want to feel good about themselves.

Being Powerful” means standing in your own circle of strength, having a voice, staying strong in difficult situations, being worthy, having self respect and having impact on the world. Being powerful means telling the truth when you are worried others may criticize, it means taking a step off the zip wire platform even though you are scared, and it means sticking with a difficult project until you are really proud of your work.

Being Playful” is the ability to have fun regardless of the things or activities that surround you. When children complain that they are bored, mothers are often quoted as saying, “Only boring people are bored.” Too often as we get older, we wait for external circumstances to create pleasure. The internally motivated playfulness comes from viewing each situation with curiosity, whimsy, and an openness to new perceptions.

Being Free” is our ability to maintain a sense of autonomy and choice. People following their internal instruction to be free are able to see choices, to “see the glass half full,” and to think about “freedom to” and “free-dom in.” People who are trapped in the external are always worried about “freedom from” and ask themselves, “How is this making me feel?” People who are being free are more likely to ask, “How do I feel about this situation?” and even more importantly, “How do I want to feel about this situation?”

Safety and survival are also core human needs. We need food and shelter, and when they aren’t provided, they take up the majority of our thought and behavior. People also act quickly when there is an immediate threat to safety or survival.

If we don’t follow our psychological/spiritual instructions, we feel internal signals — loneliness, powerlessness, bore-dom, or feeling trapped — that inform us of that fact. When people who understand their internal instructions feel lonely, for example, they do not wait for others to love them. They look for others to love. They call a friend, they pat the dog, or they give a gift. As they take these actions, they begin again to be loving, and the loneliness disappears. When they feel bored, they don’t wait for something to entertain them, they create their fun by beginning to be playful in the situation at hand.


A happy prisoner of war?

In 1967, Senator John McCain was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner-of-war in Hanoi for five and a half years (1967-1973), much of it in solitary confinement. Despite this incredible oppressive force in his life, he managed to remain in relatively good spirits and even happy. Afterwards, he was able to recover from the experience quickly. When asked how he managed it, he said that he realized that he had no control over his situation, but that he did have control over his attitude. Faced with the choice of being happy or unhappy, he chose to be happy. He found ways to amuse himself and be happy. Now that’s powerful internal psychology!


The job of almost all advertising is to convince us that we need things to be happy. Things are external. The message is reaching our kids, because children under 12 already spend a whopping $28 billion a year. Teen-agers spend $100 billion. Children also influence another $249 billion spent by their parents. Children spend more time shopping than reading. The average U.S. child is exposed to 20,000 TV commercials a year.

The want of things is often the want of love, power, and play. Children want to belong, and lots of kids do place value on clothing (Abercrombie is hot right now) and toys (video games, snazzy skates, cool stereo, flashy car). Besides for love, some kids choose things as a way to gain and keep access to special groups like a clique, club, or even school. Bored children seek things to keep them entertained, but like drugs, the need for more and more stuff can never be satisfied.

Children who strongly value wealth and related aspects tend to have higher levels of distress, lower levels of well-being, worse relationships, and less connection to their communities.

CAP (Camp Augusta Pride)

This point is an example of how we make the shift from external to internal psychology at Camp Augusta. Lots of camps have the children participate in service projects around camp. Camp Augusta does this as well during a time we call “CAP.” At most camps, the children have to participate in these service projects. If they don’t, they can’t go on to their activities, or some privilege is withdrawn. 

While such tactics are “effective” in a sense, they are again an external means of controlling campers and people. From this, children often learn that adults are more powerful than they are and that adults can control their rewards. Kids get that message a lot, and it often promotes resentment rather than cooperation.

We want something different for children at Camp Augusta We want them to choose to make camp a better place. We want them to choose in what way they are going to improve camp, and how they are going to do it. When we tell them the reasons for this service time, we speak to their internal instructions of love, power, and playfulness. Almost always, cabins choose to participate of their free will, and with more creative and exhaustive effort than we could have hoped for. When cabins choose not to participate, we don’t force them. Instead, we take it as opportunity to speak with them about community and responsibility. In either case, we are fostering autonomy and helping to create fine people.

Putting it into practice

Here I will briefly reiterate and expand upon some of the key principles of the success counselor. Then, I will introduce and explain the two-part, six-step model.

In essence, the counselor tries to help the child understand the need behind his or her behavior and figure out a more prosocial way to meet that need. Children are walked through the problem-solving process so that they understand how their emotions, needs, and behavior are all linked to the present outcome, as well as a more desirable one. The goal of counselors should not be to solve children’s problems, but rather to give them information and support to create themselves as their own solutions. In other words, we want to teach children to fish instead of just giving them a fish.

When campers understand that the goal of discipline is to teach more acceptable means to get what they want, they will no longer be afraid to face their mistakes. They will begin to view a problem as an opportunity for learning a better way to meet their needs. When campers take responsibility, they become the ones deciding when freedom is withdrawn and when privileges will be restored. Responsibility = choices = power. I don’t claim that this is easy, but the counselor’s patience and time spent pay off in the long run.

  • People are using behaviors to help them get what they want. Effective discipline consists of a) stopping one behavior and b) starting another that conforms to the rules and will help the person get what they want.
  • There is no discipline system that will work if it is geared toward getting people to do what you want without also getting them what they need. The success counselor approach teaches children in a way they can understand and use. Other approaches involve telling children what to do or imposing solutions upon them.
  • Effective discipline attempts to deal with people using the least amount of power necessary to resolve the dilemma.
  • Effective discipline offers a person a chance to take responsibility; if they won’t take it, then we will. We can do this OUR way or MY way. My way refers to resorting to the monitor approach – a last resort. When children are offered this choice, they usually decide to work on the problem together. The choice for the child is either “I win and you win, or I win and you lose; what do you want to do?”
  • The whole point of discipline is for people to take responsibility for their actions. When they do that, they become the ones deciding when freedom is withdrawn and when privileges will be restored. Responsibility = choices = power.
  • The goal as counselors is not to solve children’s problems, but rather to give the child the information and support to create themselves as their own solutions. Discipline literally means “To teach.” The goal is to teach children to fish instead of just giving them a fish.
The Steps / Model What to do or say

1. Isolate the child  
2. Become aware of the child’s emotion  
3. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for  intimacy and teaching  
4. Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings
5. Help the child find words to label the emotion s/he is having 
6. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve  the problem at hand



a) Find out the goal(s) of the behavior


b) Help child verbalize/discuss actions taken toward goal(s)


c) Assess effectiveness (from all angles) of behaviors


d) Examine full range of possible behavioral/attitude options


e) Choose the most effective option


f) Check back to see how the plan worked


These statements are examples, and are not intended to be “the way.”  For example, instead of “What do you want?”, you could say “Tell me what your were thinking.”, or “What were you hoping for?  How is that important to you?” and keep drilling down until you get to the core need/reason for the behavior.  

The (a-f) questions are usually referred to as “Success Counselor” for ease of discussion and reference. Both (a-f) and (1-6) together are success counseling, with (1-6) focused primarily on connection and understanding. Basically and generally, (1-6) is NVC, and (a-f) is a problem-solving process.  Together, they are “Success Counseling.” 


In essence, the counselor tries to help the child understand the need behind his or her behavior and figure out a more pro-social way to meet that need.  Children are walked through the problem-solving process so they understand how their emotions, needs, and behavior are all linked to the present outcome, as well as a more desirable one.  Read that last sentence 5 times every day for the next week. 🙂

What do you want?

First, we must find the underlying motive or need the behavior was attempting to meet.  Try and bring the child to a more root understanding of the reason for the behavior – s/he didn’t just want the ball, s/he wanted fun.  A frequent response is “I don’t know” or not recognizing multiple needs (fun was a need, but the need for power might have been ignored).  Use a questioning process, because it is more effective for the child to think than just listen.  Success counseling isn’t a lecture; it’s a guided discussion.  Try asking the camper what they hoped to gain, getting deeper each time.  Stick to open ended, rather than yes/no questions.  If necessary, offer some suggestions of what you think it is they wanted and let them tell you if you are right or not to narrow it down (these guesses may be yes/no questions).  When children offer explanations, try and help bring them to an understanding of the root need(s).  Explanations get into stories and defenses, neither of which are helpful.

What were you doing to get it?

Have them state their current/past behavior.  What did the child do to get what he or she wanted?  If the answer to this is obvious and well understood, consider skipping this step, as it can foster a guilt or punishment perspective.
Key spot to listen for self-Jackaling, in which case go back to steps 3-5. 

Is that working?

Explore how their behavior worked in getting them what they needed. Was it effective? Clearly it didn’t work for others or themselves, or you wouldn’t be talking to them, but you want to walk them down the proverbial garden path so that they see that, instead of you telling them. It is important that they create the reasoning and internalize it or the behavior may not change.  The child needs to think about this and not be told.  The idea is to be helpful and empowering.  In a nutshell, you want to help them rewrite the story in their head of what is an effective way to get what they want (see “Your Storied Life”).  This step is as critical as it is difficult to carry out.  Ask for help if you need it.

What are your choices?

If the camper can’t think of another way to get what they want offer some suggestions yourself.  If the camper is having a really difficult time thinking of something on their own, try a couple leading questions so they feel the choices are their own. Have them choose one from the available options.  It is extremely important that the child weigh different options in terms of outcomes (behaviors and feelings) for him or herself and others.  Restitution (making things right as soon as possible) is an important part of the process but it must come from an internal desire to make the situation right.  If the child engages in the restitution willingly, then the counseling worked.  If the restitution is done because of force or personal undesirable consequences then the child is just conforming; their heart and mind were not swayed. 

Make a plan to implement a choice.

Ask if the solution is fair, if it will work, and how the child and other people will likely feel.

Appointment to check back.

Make a time to check back with the person and see how they are doing.


  • Boffey, B. (2001). Internal Psychology. Aloha Foundation: Fairlee, VT.
  • Boffey, B., & Boffey D. (May-June 1994). Success Counseling: How to Handle Discipline Problems. Camping Magazine.
  • Boffey, B., & Boffey D. (November-December 1993). Success Counseling. Camping Magazine.
  • Glasser, W. (2002). Unhappy Teenagers: A Way for Parents and Teachers to Reach Them. HarperCollins
  • Glasser, W. (2001). Counseling with Choice Theory: Quill.
  • Glasser, W. (1999). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. Harper Perennial.
  • Glasser, W. (1989). Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry. HarperCollins.
  • Gossen, D. (1996). Restitution: Restructuring School Discipline. New View Publications.
  • Kohn, A. (1999). Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Read a few pages of more advanced material and further reflections on Success Counselor from the Augustan staff manual here.