Adlerian Theory for School Counseling


This research paper investigated the primary constructs of Adlerian theory. The work includes several parts, namely, the introduction, the main part, and the conclusion. The introduction describes what will be discussed in the frames of this paper, the structure of the work, as well as its key ideas and thoughts. The central part consists of five subsections, which include, first of all, the subsection with the historical information about Alfred Adler and key constructs of his theory.

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The second subsection analyses the Adlerian approach, while the following part discusses the usefulness of the theory for counselors, educators, and policymakers. The remaining two subsections describe the limitations of the Adlerian approach and the ways how it can be improved. In addition, the central part of this paper analyzes if the theory is adequate and predictive, and explains how it is used in practice. The conclusion summarizes the main ideas and results of the research. Thus, the study shows that Adlerian theory brings positive effects to those who use it in practice and that it is adequate and predictive.

It was revealed that using the Adlerian approach is especially beneficial for school counselors, as it helps them to establish effective communication with students. However, there is still room for improvement through the addition of neuroscience concepts to the Adlerian approach. It was also suggested to conduct more research on the theory and find a decision on how to deal with people who cannot recall the time of their childhood.


Nowadays, due to the high level of stress and various problems that are experienced by people in a high-paced environment, psychiatry remains to be an essential part of medicine. There are numerous theories in psychiatry that explain mental problems and help people deal with psychological issues, and Adlerian theory is one of them. The theory is based on thoughts of Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Adler argued that the feelings of inferiority could result in either neurotic behavior or motivation to achievements, depending on the living conditions of people. In this paper, detailed information about the history, founder, and key constructs of the theory will be provided.

Also, the analysis of the theory, which implies revealing whether it is adequate and predictive, will be conducted. Evidence that supports Adlerian approach and the explanation of how counselors and educators use it in sessions with students and clients will be presented. At the end of the paper, the limitations of the theory will be discussed, and possible ways to improve it will be suggested. Therefore, there will be six subsections in the paper, which will be followed by a conclusion.

Alfred Adler and Key Constructs of His Theory

Psychiatry remains one of the most exciting areas of medicine that allows people to comprehend the complex nature of humans’ minds. Unfortunately, in some situations, individuals cannot explain the reasons for their negative behavior, mental issues, and unhappiness. In these cases, psychiatry suggests various therapies, which are based on research and experiments conducted by therapists.

One of these therapies is based on the Adlerian theory, which was created in the first half of the 20th century. The theory contains many exciting ideas about social equality, people’s behavior, and factors that motivate them. In addition, the theory serves as an excellent tool for defining the causes of individuals’ mental issues. Therefore, due to the reasons mentioned above, the Adlerian theory was chosen for analysis that will be conducted in this paper.

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Adlerian theory, or individual theory, is a psychological method that was founded by Alfred Adler, a therapist from Vienna. Adler was born in 1870 in a Jewish family of merchants. After he graduated from high school, Adler entered the University of Vienna, where he was studying ophthalmology. However, he did not work for a long time as an eye doctor and soon started working as a general practitioner.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Adler was invited to become a member of a group of healthcare professionals, which was established by Sigmund Freud. Later, he built a school of psychotherapy and was trying to build a psychological movement that would proclaim the idea of the importance of social equality for mental well-being. Adler suggested that psychiatrists’ treatment of patients should be based on equality between doctors and patients (Watts, 2015b). In addition, he emphasized that it is crucial not only to treat diseases but to prevent them as well. Thus, a child should be raised in an appropriate social atmosphere, which promotes and encourages his or her social interests.

Adlerian theory is a holistic idea that concentrates on the purposes of people’s behavior. Holism, in this case, implies that an individual tries to achieve a particular purpose at all levels of his or her life, which ensures the unity of people’s behavior. According to the Adlerian theory, the goal is a crucial part of motivation, which defines people’s lifestyles in the future (Watts, 2015b). Therefore, the behavior of human beings and their lifestyles demonstrate their purposes and the ability to control their lives.

Another significant idea of Adlerian theory is a feeling of inferiority. Adler asserted that this feeling facilitated people’s desire to acquire new skills and talents (Watts, 2015b). However, while this feeling motivates people to develop their abilities, it also has some drawbacks. Sometimes, some people find it challenging to enhance some skills, which results in neuroses and mental problems. Adler pointed out that in this case, people have to be courageous enough to admit that they have a problem which they should face in order to resolve it.

The unique concept of Adlerian theory is the concept of community feeling or social interest. According to this concept, people cannot be understood in the right way without a social context. In other words, there are many facts about people’s lives that can be derived from information about their romantic relationships, friendships, professional collaborations with colleagues, and even relations with self. In order to do a better analysis of the social behavior of a person, it is suggested to trace his or her social activity form the time of childhood. According to Adler, childhood plays a significant role in the formation of personality and impacts its future development. Also, Adler emphasized that community feeling results in social interest, which is defined by the ability of a person to build social relationships.

The Adlerian theory initiated the emergence of groups of people who proclaim themselves to be Adlerians. An Adlerian is a person who follows the principles of Adlerian theory in their work. It is possible to use these principles in any areas of expertise, including the healthcare system, education, politics, or any other fields. While Adler used his ideas in work as a therapist, there are many examples of people who proved that the ideas of the theory could be applied in any field.

For instance, Timothy Hartshorne (2017), a father of a boy with CHARGE syndrome, asserts that Adlerian perspective that he has been actively using helps him to manage his son’s behavior. Similarly, Ohrtman and Heltner (2019) conducted a case study in two elementary schools. They revealed that school counselors who used Adlerian theory managed to understand the student’s behavior better and choose appropriate ways to help learners so they could achieve success (Ohrtman & Heltner, 2019). In both described cases, specialists used the Adlerian approach based on the ideas of his theory.

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Adler’s approach to his patients served as the best example of how to use the ideas of his theory. Thus, psychiatrist used to attend numerous clinics in Vienna and talk to patients and healthcare professionals in order to solve their problems together. He wrote several hundred books and presented speeches to the public to pay attention of the world community to his treatment approach explaining psychological concepts. While Adler proclaimed that the best tool for dealing with issues is working in groups and joining efforts, there is also another significant idea of this approach. Adlerians should be flexible and are allowed to do anything they want if it is in the interests of their clients (Watts, 2015a). Moreover, Adlerians encourage those who need support to continue their work and achieve success.

The Analysis of the Adlerian Theory

Adlerian theory includes several most crucial components of people’s lives. First of all, it takes into account the social interests of people, as well as all the information about the social activity of individuals beginning from the time of their childhood. Second, the theory highlights the significance of people’s goals and provides a detailed explanation of why it matters. Third, it examines the reasons of people’s behavior in some situations, for example, when people have a feeling of inferiority. In addition, Adlerian theory proclaims the significance of collaboration and joint efforts in achieving positive results. Therefore, it can be concluded that this theory is descriptive enough, as it contains detailed information, which is enough to understand the meaning and value of the theory.

The widespread use of Adlerian approach by professionals of different areas of expertise and positive results that they achieve prove that the theory includes enough constructs for its successful utilization. It is also worth to notice that Adler was gradually developing his ideas suggesting not only the main concepts of his theory but also providing therapy based on it. Nowadays, various specialists who use this theory do not have to think about how to use it in practice, as it is described in four stages of Adlerian therapy.

The Adlerian therapy emphasizes the idea that individuals can overcome their problems and bring positive changes in their lives on their own. The treatment consists of four stages, namely, engagement, assessment, insight, and reorientation (Hopper, 2019). The first stage implies establishing relationships between therapists and clients. At this stage, a therapist has to show his or her encouragement in order to achieve successful collaboration.

Then the therapist learns about the client’s background and tries to understand the undesirable style of the client’s thinking. It is followed by the next stage when the therapist interprets the client’s situation and suggests a few theories that may cause an unfavorable situation for the patient. The last step implies that the therapist helps the client to adopt new strategies that should be used daily to get rid of the existing problems. All these stages are described in a detailed way in the numerous works written by Adler during his life. His hard work allows people using all the benefits of his theory even nowadays, more than a hundred years after its creation.

Even though the use of Adlerian theory has proved its advantages, some researchers claim that it is necessary to expand perspectives of the theory by adding new concepts related to neuroscience. Thus, they claim that the theory could benefit from the addition of neuroscience theories, such as development theory and conceptualization of functionality (Miller & Taylor, 2016). Development theory has a close connection with one of the concepts of Adlerian approach about the impact of early experience.

It implies brain evolvement, which means that first experiences impact the building of brain structure, ensure social engagement, behavior, intellect, and so on. In terms of conceptualization of functionality, the Adlerian theory is often criticized because of its too simple approach to functionality. Discouragement and social interest only are insufficient to explain all the aspects of individuals’ functioning.

Indeed, even though the theory has already helped many professionals to achieve success in their work, there is still room to improve. Nevertheless, it is still possible to say that the Adlerian theory is adequate as it has several key constructs and their explanation. Moreover, based on the concepts of the theory, Adler created a therapy and provided an explanation of each stage that should be performed by a therapist to change the life of a client.

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There is enough evidence that support and prove the main concepts of the theory. As it was mentioned above, in some cases, the Adlerian perspective helps with managing the behavior of people with CHARGE syndrome. It also may be helpful for school counselors in the process of working with students. Some specialists, who work in kindergartens or other institutions that imply collaboration with children, use Adlerian techniques and concepts in the practice of play therapy. Adlerian play therapy helps professionals in their work with children who have emotional or behavioral problems (Kottman & Meany-Walen, 2016). Thus, the Adlerian approach is actively utilized and brings positive effects.

Also, the theory can be considered predictive because its proper use predicts some mental disorders and psychological issues. For example, a group of scientists conducted an experiment among 183 entry-level counseling students using Adlerian theory.

The concepts of the theory helped the researchers to reveal four predictors of anxiety among students (Foster, Steen, O’Ryan & Nelson, 2016). Similarly, the Adlerian approach allows revealing predictions of bullying behavior among school-aged children. Thus, Henderson, Dowda, and Robles-Pina (2018) revealed a combination of six predictions of bullying using Adlerian concepts. It is extremely useful as the awareness of these factors would enable people to prevent the emergence of some mental disorders in the future.

The Usefulness of the Adlerian Theory for Counselors, Educators, and Policymakers

As was aforementioned, the main concepts of Adlerian theory are actively used by representatives of numerous areas of expertise even nowadays, more than a hundred years after its creation. Thus, Adlerian therapy can be successfully applied by counselors at schools. First of all, Adlerian treatment implies the gradual approaching of a counselor to a student. It means that there is enough time for both parties to know each other and better understand the personal traits of each other. Also, equality, which is implied by Adlerian concepts, promotes mutual trust and establishment of friendly relations between students and school workers.

The second stage of Adlerian therapy can also be performed by a counselor at school. Usually, counselors have access to all data about students and can build strong knowledge about their backgrounds. It flows into the next phase when a counselor can investigate if a student has any problems and needs assistance.

In the end, a counselor helps students to adapt to a new environment and implement new strategies if there is a need to eliminate all the issues that may occur. Educators and policymakers can use the same approach at various educational and political institutions. However, there is always a need to adjust this strategy to the age, circumstances, and character traits of clients in order to achieve success in treatment.

This strategy brings a number of advantages to students and clients. First of all, the process of adaptation goes faster and smoother as counselors demonstrate their encouragement and favor. Also, sometimes, counselors, working with students, do not have to ask every detail of students’ backgrounds as they may find some information in the personal files of students. These files are usually kept at educational institutions in special databases. In addition, building equality facilitates the building of trust among students and counselors, which promotes better understanding and, as a result, improves collaboration. Eventually, Adlerian approach helps students and clients deal with their problems in a smooth and less traumatic way.

The Limitations of the Adlerian Theory

Even though the Adlerian theory introduces a fascinating approach in psychology, it also has some limitations. First of all, the theory is based on memories of clients from their childhood. However, if people are reluctant to recall certain events from their childhood, it limits the ability of a therapist to use the therapy at its highest value. Another limitation of Adlerian therapy is that it does not take into account that some clients have a unique experience and, therefore, the generic stages of therapy might be inappropriate. Similarly, the theory does not consider the cultural peculiarities of people from different countries.

Therefore, the theory became especially popular in the USA and Europe. Also, Adlerian therapy is based on verbal erudition, which may limit the ability of those individuals who are not intellectually developed to enjoy the positive results of the treatment.

Possible Ways to Improve the Theory

Judging by the weaknesses and limitations of the theory mentioned above, it is logical to suggest possible ways to strengthen it in order to enhance its positive impact. First of all, I would suggest conducting more research and experiments on the Adlerian theory to get information that would correlate with modern tendencies. In addition, I would recommend thinking about possible ways on how to deal with those people who do not want to recall the moments from the time of their childhood. It is crucial because some people not only refuse but even cannot remember anything due to certain diseases related to brain activity.

Moreover, I think it might be beneficial for society to think about the integration of neuroscience theories, such as development theory and conceptualization of functionality. Nevertheless, the theory has already brought some benefits to a range of people from different backgrounds and ages. There is no doubt that the implementation of suggested strategies and the development of research activities will allow individuals getting more usefulness from the therapy.


Therefore, it can be concluded that the Adlerian theory is a unique approach in psychiatry, which helps people with mental disorders to eliminate their issues and change their lives. Adlerian therapy is actively used even nowadays, more than a hundred years after its creation as utilization of this theory brings some advantages. These advantages include the establishment of trusting relationships between clients and therapists, which are based on equality. Also, they promote a better understanding of clients’ issues and allow the clients to get positive results in a smoother and less traumatic way. The theory is especially useful for counselors, educators, and policymakers.

However, despite the fact that the theory was recognized as adequate and predictive, it also has some limitations. These limitations are a lack of research on this subject and the inability of those who do not wish to recall their childhood use this approach. In addition, it lacks neuroscience theories and is difficult to imply for people of various cultures and beliefs. Nevertheless, the theory is actively used by a wide range of therapists and still can be considered as a phenomenal approach in psychiatry.


Foster, T., Steen, L., O’Ryan, L., & Nelson, J. (2016). Examining how the Adlerian life tasks predict anxiety in first-year counseling students. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 72(2), 104–120.

Hartshorne, T. S. (2017). An Adlerian looks at challenging behavior in severe disability. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 73(3), 225–233.

Henderson S., E., Dowda, R., & Robles-Piña, A. (2018). Predictors of bullying behavior: An Adlerian approach. In J. U. Gordon (Ed.), Bullying prevention and intervention at school: Integrating theory and research into best practices (pp. 17–36). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Hopper, E. (2019). The stages of Adlerian therapy. Web.

Kottman, T., & Meany-Walen, K. (2016). Partners in play: An Adlerian approach to play therapy (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Miller, R., & Taylor, D. (2016). Does Adlerian theory stand the test of time: Examining individual psychology from a neuroscience perspective. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 55(2), 111–128.

Ohrtman, M., & Heltner, E. (Eds.). (2019). Contemporary case studies in school counseling. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Watts, R. E. (2015a). Adlerian therapy. In E. S. Neukrug (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of theory in counseling and psychotherapy (pp.30–35). New York, NY: Sage.

Watts, R. E. (2015b). Adler’s individual psychology: The original positive psychology. Revista de Psicoterapia, 26(102), 123–131.

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