How to Distinguish Autonomy Support from Control:
Management behaviors that will meet or thwart basic human psychological needs

The issue of autonomy support is crucial to educational reform efforts because of the prevalence of underachievement in schools. Underachievement is a symptom of the thwarting of the primary human need for autonomy. Autonomy is undermined by policies that reinforce management practices that are controlling. This is a missing piece that will boost achievement. There are two other primary human needs that also need to be addressed, as well. 

Supporting the autonomy of the people you manage is a critical component of any strategic plan to boost the effectiveness of your management behaviors. Control is the opposite and control consists of behaviors that thwart the psychological needs of the people you manage. This information on distinguishing autonomy support from control below is based on studies of teaching, but is easily translated into other fields of behavioral management such as parenting and business.

It is natural to wonder why teachers are controlling when they should know that it is harmful to their students. Fortunately, that has also been addressed in the research. Once again, many of these observations are probably more widely applicable than just education.

Autonomy Support vs. Controlling Behaviors

Autonomy Supportive


Interpersonal sentiment and behavior teachers provide during instruction to identify, nurture, and develop students' inner motivational resources.

Enabling Conditions

Adopt the students' perspective.

Welcome students' thoughts, feelings and actions.

Support students' motivational development and capacity for autonomous self-regulation.

Instructional Behaviors

Nurture inner motivational resources.

Provide explanatory rationales.

Rely on non-controlling and informational language.

Display patience to allow time for self-paced learning.

Acknowledge and accept expressions of negative affect.



Interpersonal sentiment and behavior teachers provide during instruction to pressure students to think, feel, or behave in a specific way.

Enabling Conditions

Adopt the teacher’s perspective.

Intrude into the students’ thoughts,feelings,or actions.

Pressure students to think, feel, or behave in a specific way.

Instructional Behaviors

Rely on outer sources of motivation.

Neglect explanatory rationales.

Rely on pressure-inducing language.

Display impatience for students to produce the right answer.

Assert power to overcome students’ complaints and expressions of negative affect.

7 Reasons Why U.S. Teachers Fall Into The Control Habit

Pressure From Above (Outside the classroom)

Teachers occupy an inherently powerful social role.
Teacher-student interactions take place within a context of an interpersonal power differential.

Teachers harbor the dual burdens of responsibility and accountability.
Teachers routinely face job conditions steeped in accountability and responsibility for student behaviors and outcomes.

Teachers are aware that controlling is culturally valued.
The U.S. culture generally evaluates teachers who use controlling instructional strategies as more competent than teachers who use autonomy-supportive strategies.

Sometimes control is mistakenly equated with structure.
Controlling strategies are often inappropriately associated with a structured learning environment, whereas autonomy supportive strategies are often inappropriately associated with chaotic or laissez-faire one.

Pressure From Below (Inside the classroom)

Teachers react to student passivity during learning activities.
Episodically unmotivated or episodically unengaged students tend to pull a controlling style out of teachers.

Pressure From Within (Inside themselves)

Teachers mistaken belief in the maximal-operant principle.
Teachers may believe that large rewards can “turn on” students motivation. This belief suggests little awareness that
(a) rewards might also “turn off” students’ motivation and
(b) students already harbor inner motivational resources that are fully capable of self-generating the energy needed to engage in learning activities.

Teachers may harbor control-oriented personality dispositions.
Some teachers are motivationally or dispositionally oriented toward a controlling style.

Source: “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive” by Johnmarshall Reeve, Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159-175, 2009