top of page

Behavioral Correction, Learning, Trauma, and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Behavioral Correction, Learning, Trauma, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Clinical Director, KPS

If you have not yet heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the idea is simple: people have needs that they must fill to reach their highest potential.  

Maslow was an American psychologist who believed that people are always striving to meet their full potential.  Reacting against Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Skinner’s behavioral theory (both of which he felt focused too much on pathology or problems), Maslow was one of the forces behind humanistic theory.  He focused on positive aspects of mental health, achieving one’s potential, and working towards personal growth.  The hierarchy of needs that Maslow developed illustrated a pathway towards self-actualization.  Though none of Maslow’s original published works have a diagram of a pyramid, these needs have traditionally been illustrated in a pyramid format:

~Physiological Needs: food, water, sleep, air, etc.  

~Safety Needs: security, stability.

~Love and Belonging Needs: friendship, family

~Esteem Needs: needs for confidence, achievement, self-esteem, respect of others

~Self-actualization: this is when people strive to their fullest potential, characterized by a list of qualities that Maslow identified, such as truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, justice, simplicity, and playfulness (among many others)

Though the pyramid may indicate that one must achieve a level before moving to the next (and indeed many people read it that way), Maslow himself from his initial publications wrote that a person may have multiple needs at one time: “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order, but actually it is not nearly so rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions” (see p. 51 of Maslow’s book Motivation and Personality).

The needs Maslow identified seem to be universal.  A study of over 60,000 people across 123 countries demonstrated that basic needs (food, water, safety), psychosocial needs (friendship, family), and the need for self-respect and autonomy are existent across all cultures and countries.  In addition, this same study found that people across countries do tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs, as Maslow suggested.  However, people can achieve a level of subjective well-being through filling the need for Love and Belonging even if physiological needs and safety needs are not fully met (Tay & Diener, 2011).  

This hierarchy of needs becomes practical in the realm of behavior change, learning, and helping children who have experienced trauma.  Some approaches to helping children who have experienced trauma use Maslow’s hierarchy.  For example, in Trust Based Relational Interventions (TBRI), there are three basic principles: empowerment (attention to physical needs), connection (attention to attachment needs), and correction (attention to behavioral needs) (Purvis, Cross, Dansereau & Parris, 2013).  This modality finds basis in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as Maslow’s physiological and safety needs could be considered the empowerment principle, while Maslow’s love and belonging needs reflect the connection principle.  Both of these must be filled before moving towards correction (attending to behavioral needs, which requires the ability to learn and the motivation to change and achieve.)  

Not only must the needs be filled, but the child who has experienced trauma must have a sense of “felt safety”, the inner reassurance and trust that the needs will be filled.  For example, a child that has experienced deprivation of food may now live with a caregiver who knows that the child will always have access to food at their new home, but the child may still need more tangible evidence and reassurance; otherwise, they may hoard food in their rooms or cram down food too quickly during meals.  Parents may need to allow the child to shop for food with them, always carry food in a snack bag when going for a car trip, or keep healthy foods visibly available at home to work towards helping the child have a sense of reassurance about the ongoing, continual access to food.  

For all children and adults, whether or not they have experienced trauma, it is important to make sure that basic needs are cared for first before any learning (whether academically in a school setting or merely correction of behavior) takes place.  We must check that children are fed, hydrated, well-rested, and safe, AND make sure that the person communicating information is also communicating care and connection.  Consider whether you are more likely to make a behavioral change when instructed kindly about the benefits of that change by someone who cares deeply about you or when ordered abruptly to make a behavioral change by someone whom you dislike.  We all- both children and adults- learn better from those we love and respect, so learning and behavioral change are most likely within the context of having basic needs met and receiving connection and relationship!


For More Information:

See Khan Academy’s video on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., Dansereau, D. F., & Parris, S. R. (2013). Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI): A systemic approach to complex developmental trauma. Child & youth services, 34(4), 360–386.

Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011).  Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354-365. 


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page