Treat Needs, Not Behavior: Maslow for the Millennium

by Patricia S. Lemer, M. Ed., NCC

Mental health professionals and schools often depend on a behavioral model to address emotional and learning issues. Programs such as 1-2-3 Magic, discrete trial training, time out and even tutoring reward positive behaviors and attempt to extinguish less desirable ones. An alternative way to approach problematic behaviors is to look for the underlying needs that drive them. Let’s visit a third grade class, where I recently observed Emily, a mainstreamed nine year old with PDD.

Emily wiggled and squirmed, walked to the water fountain, took a long drink, sharpened her pencil and sat down. She tucked her foot under her leg, which dangled above the floor, chewed on her pencil, tapped it on the desk, and twirled it in her hair. She stared hard at the visitor. "Teacher, teacher!" she called. No answer. Emily glared again, and then tried to make an arithmetic sentence using 8, 3 and 5.

"Ooo…ww," she wailed suddenly. Her classmates rolled their eyes. The teacher stared. "Ooo…ww," Emily cried louder. Finally, she jumped from her seat. "OOO…WWW," she screamed.

I couldn’t help thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Obviously, Emily’s basic needs for water and recognition were competing with her teacher’s need for her to learn mathematics. Are there any solutions, I wondered, that meet both Emily’s and her teacher’s needs?

Coincidentally, the same day I discovered the new book, The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and FlourishThe Irreducible Needs of Children, by Drs. T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley I. Greenspan. Each of the needs they describe applies to Emily and others whom DDR supports. Four needs are analogous to Maslow’s.

Maslow Brazelton & Greenspan
Biological Experiences tailored to individual differences
Safety Physical protection, safety and regulation
Security Ongoing nurturing relationships
Knowledge Developmentally appropriate experiences


Maslow believed that only after children’s most primitive biological needs are met should adults address the higher level needs for safety, security and knowledge. Unfortunately, in today’s schools many teachers put acquisition of knowledge first. Emily and others have basic biological, safety and security needs that must take precedence. Her behavior shows us what these needs are.

Biological needs: Water nourishes the brain; the mouth organizes it. Emily’s brain, like everyone’s, needs water to function. According to Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your HeadSmart Moves: Why Learning is not all in Your Head, optimal hydration enhances the brain’s ability to process information efficiently. The mouth is also key to a well-organized brain. Both sipping water and chewing on a pencil are calming. Emily unconsciously did both to get focused.

Safety needs: Children struggle to look/listen when underlying senses are inefficient. Feeling "safe" means more than being out of range of gunfire. Emily has sensory processing and regulatory problems that cause her much anxiety. When children fear unexpected movement, touch and sounds, they become hyper-vigilant, as Emily’s staring suggests. Emily simply cannot pay attention to staying seated and do her math problem simultaneously.

Security needs: Ignored needs don’t go away; they become stronger and undermine nurturing relationships. Being posturally/gravitationally secure helps a child to feel emotionally secure. Emily’s desk and chair are ill-fitting, and her dangling feet, disconcerting. Emily tucks her leg to feel more secure, but the total sensory experience of two ungrounded legs puts her "over the edge." Her Teacher ignores her, hoping to extinguish her outbursts, but Emily’s need to be heard overtakes her need to learn.

Knowledge needs: Children learn and remember lessons when they are developmentally ready. Emily’s math lesson makes no sense to her. She cannot make number families because she still doesn’t know that eight is more than five.

A combination of behavioral therapies and sensory-based, developmentally appropriate activities are best for young children.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 2 - Fall, 2000]

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