Transactional Analysis

Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.–Johann W. von Goethe.

I’m okay, you’re okay, and we both have the right and the ability to achieve our potentials in life. These are the underlying principles of Transactional Analysis (T.A.), a humanistic approach to understanding and solving peoples’ emotional problems.

Eric Berne, the founder of T.A. proposed that our personalities are made up of three separate ego-states:

Child–the irrational, selfish, yet fun-loving and creative part of us. Our Child has two sides to it: an Adapted part which is regulated by what our parents tell us, and a Natural part which is free from parental influences, and does whatever it wants.

Adult–the rational, planning part that figures out problems.

Parent–the moral, “I-should” part which comes from what our parents taught us.

Mixed in with these ego states are the Victim and Rescuer roles we adopt, plus games we play like Kick Me, Blemish, and See What You Made Me Do. Transactional Analysis explains what we think and what we do in terms of these communication systems.

You’re right, if you think T.A., as it stands, is beyond the thinking of most elementary school-aged children. Many of these concepts, however, can be explained to children in friendlier terms. In fact, Alvin Freed (1971) did just that with his series of T.A. books for teens, kids, and tots. He describes transactions as “warm fuzzies” (positive strokes), and “cold pricklies” (negative reactions). You can introduce your class to these terms through group discussion and role-playing. Once children understand the basic ideas, you can use T.A. to help them understand their feelings and communicate better.

For example, T.A. can help children take responsibility for their behavior. If Debbie doesn’t understand how to round off numbers in arithmetic, you can encourage her to ask for help by using her responsible Adult, “I can’t get this, would you please help me?” not her angry/timid Child, “Why do you have to give such hard questions?” or her complaining/critical Parent, “Why can’t I get this?; I must be stupid.” If she picks her Child, point this out to her and ask her what response she is likely to get from you—another Child or a Parent. This technique works well with children who slide easily into the “I-give-up routine,” or those who are always on the look-out for scapegoats to dump responsibility for their misfortunes on.

You can also use T.A. in managing children’s misbehaviour. Let’s go back to April and June, the two girls whispering and passing notes. Your first reaction to them might be to get mad and order them to be quiet, your Parent. However, you’ll get more mileage from an Adult saying, “You two must be excited about the Valentine’s party tomorrow afternoon. Have you written out all your Valentine cards?” Your Adult hooks their Adult into a rational discussion which neutralizes their misbehaviour.

A further premise from T.A., which you can blend into your classroom, is the attitude that everyone is okay. You unconditionally respect and accept all your students. For children who run into trouble a lot or have problems learning this makes a difference, because most of what they’ve been told in the past is they’re not okay. You have a chance to give them the positive strokes they need to feel better about themselves.