Thursday, June 3, 2021


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Exploring the “Why” Behind Behavior

In Montessori Education, we do not advise using Reward and Punishment systems to mold behavior. While these may work short term to bring about the desired behavior, they do nothing to address the reasons behind that behavior. This is why, whenever I encounter challenging behavior with young children, especially if it is recurring, I like to examine if their basic needs are being met as outlined in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

(Please note: This article does not address extreme situations of physical/emotional abuse or neglect;  parents/caregivers who are addicts or suffer from severe mental illness;  families that suffer severe or sudden financial hardship or homelessness.  It is meant to address common issues that could affect almost any family.)

Physiological Needs

  • Sleep: Is this child sleepy? Is sleep a chronic issue? It is very hard to act one’s best if suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. So many adults and children are not getting enough sleep. And effects spill over into home and school life making children cranky, moody, overly sensitive, unable to focus etc.
  • Rest/Down Time: When children are habitually rushed from one activity to the next without enough unstructured down time, they don’t get to fully access the areas of the brain for reflection and creativity. This may also affect mood, contributing to tantrums and outbursts.
  • Exercise: Children need to move their bodies on a regular basis. They need opportunities to play and be boisterous. They may become overly active or agitated if they are not given enough outlets for their energy. They may act out or have trouble concentrating at school.
  • Nutrition: Is this child hungry? Are basic nutritional needs being met? Eating too much junk food affects mood and energy. Children who skip breakfast may have trouble concentrating.

Safety Needs:

  • Predictable Routines and Schedules: Children have a hard time relaxing and “going with the flow” if there is too much chaos. Children thrive on routine and schedules. They may become anxious if there isn’t enough structure in their lives.  And conversely, they may suffer if there are too many rigid routines.
  • Age-Appropriate Boundaries on Behavior: If boundaries on behavior are too loose or too tight regarding expectations, rules and consequences then children may rebel, becoming demanding or withdrawn.  If there are too many freedoms, children may try to fill the role of the adult themselves. Ironically, some parents offer too many freedoms in an attempt to bolster a child’s self-esteem, but this often backfires into creating anxiety and poor behavior.

Love and Belonging:

  • Affection: When children don’t get enough basic attention and affection, they may act out in many ways to get that. This can include when a new baby arrives, one parent must be away for work, or a divorce.
  • Positive Interactions: Children need to know that their fears and emotions will be taken seriously by the adult and responded to in compassionate and empathic ways. They also need coaching and encouragement, especially when they try something new or scary to them.
  • Belonging: Children need to know they can turn to adults when they have problems they can’t solve on their own. They need to know they have a safe “home base” in their lives.

The 4th tier of self-esteem often blossoms naturally when the first three tiers have been sufficiently met. This easily leads to a balanced curiosity and desire to learn and explore the world around them, part of the 5th tier of self-actualization.  Learning progresses so much more easily when the first 4 tiers have been met. Children want to grow and learn. If they are not sufficiently challenged, they can also become destructive or mischievous when bored.

Sometimes it may take a bit of exploring to see if there are underlying unmet needs. Young children want to please the adult and rarely act out or misbehave just to cause trouble.  So, the next time you find yourself faced with a recurring issue, take some time to reflect if there might be an unmet need that is driving it. It may take time but will reward you with a happier and healthier child!


Marla Nargundkar, AMI
Tree of Life Montessori School of Atlanta