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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Explains Why Some Children Fail

Monday, September 15, 2008 by: Barbara L. Minton
Tags: children, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Dr. Abraham Maslow synthesized a large body of research resulting in his master creation, the Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy, beautiful in its simplicity, describes the stages of human development through which each of us passes on the way to becoming fully functioning, responsible adults ultimately moving toward the pinnacle of achievement attained by humans.

There are seven stages in the hierarchy, which Maslow conceptualized as a pyramid. He saw everyone beginning life at the bottom level, with only a few reaching the top. Each step up the scale represents a major triumph over the challenges of development, and advancement to the next step is entirely dependent on mastery of the step before it. Here are the steps on Maslow's scale:

* Transcendence

* Self-Actualization

* Aesthetic Needs

* Need to Know and Understand

* Esteem Needs

* Love and Belonging Needs

* Safety Needs

* Physiological Needs

At the physiological level is the need for air, water, nourishment, good health, activity, rest, and avoidance of pain. The developing child requires a belly of nourishing food and a clean diaper before he is in any condition to move on to a higher stage of development such as playing patty-cake with his parents. Some of these needs may be specific to the child. For example, a child deficient in a particular nutrient will develop a specific hunger for foods containing that nutrient.

At the safety and security level the physiological needs have largely been taken care of and the child is confident that they still continue to be taken care of. He becomes increasingly interested in finding safe circumstances, stability and protection. As an example, he may run to his parent when he sees a dog he doesn't know. It is at this level where he develops a need for structure, order, and limits. It is also here that he develops fears and anxiety. He may worry about someone breaking into his home, a monster in his closet, or a drive by shooting in his neighborhood.

At the love and belonging level the child needs others to love and to provide him with a sense of belonging. At this level, some sort of family stability is needed in order for the child to invest love in someone else. If his care giving parent dies or is incarcerated and he is placed in a series of foster homes, he may not attain the feeling of stability required for emotional investment. If it appears that no one wants to make a lasting commitment to him, he may be unable to love himself. This sense of belonging is threatened when parents divorce. And at this level, loneliness and social anxiety may become manifest.

At the esteem level the child searches for feelings of self-worth. Maslow noted two versions of the esteem need, one he saw as of a lower order and the other as of a higher order. The lower need is for the respect of others. This involves the need for status, fame, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, respect and dominance. The higher form involves the need to respect one's self. This includes feelings of confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence and freedom. Clearly Maslow saw the achievement of self-respect as being more important than achieving the respect of others. It is at this level that low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority may manifest. Maslow, like many other psychologists, believed that low self-esteem was at the root of most psychological problems.

These four levels were considered by Maslow to be deficiency or instinctual needs. If the child is deficient at any of the four levels, he becomes highly compelled to fulfill that need. But if he has all his needs fulfilled at each level, he feels nothing and is not at all compelled by them.

The remaining four needs are growth needs able to be acted upon only if the deficiency needs are fully met. Once the growth needs are engaged, they continue to be felt and may become stronger as they are fed.

At the need to know and understand level the child develops his cognitive potential. This is the level on which schools would like to operate, and it is actually the level on which many schools in comfortable neighborhoods function because the deficiency needs of their students have been met. Here the child is able listen, speak and explore in his quest to understand and make meaning from the world around him.

At the aesthetic level the child approaches and appreciates symmetry, order and beauty. He becomes able to invest emotion into his learning.

At the self actualization level the child is a child no longer and has become a self-fulfilled, fully functioning individual able to accept responsibility for his own life. At this level, the individual has come near to achieving his full potential, to be the person he was born to be. This is the stated goal of the educational system. Only a small percentage of the world's population is truly, predominantly, self-actualizing.

At the transcendence level the individual Maslow describes achieves a motivation that surpasses ego driven behavior. The few who achieve this level see life as a journey in which the means are often more important than the ends. They are comfortable around all people but enjoy solitude. People at this level are capable of deep personal relationships yet enjoy autonomy. They resist enculturation and are not susceptible to social pressure. They are acceptant of themselves and others, and enjoy spontaneity and simplicity. They are appreciative, creative and ethical.

We who live in abundance and relative safety may not fully realize that these are not the conditions under which many children in our country live. We have been told by our politicians and media that the reason children fail is because their teachers are not held accountable, or their schools are not up to standard. It is this sort of thinking that has allowed for the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Implicit in this act is the assumption that if instruction is standardized and confined to a few core subjects, students will learn the curriculum and achieve at prescribed levels. Standardized instruction with results measured by standardized tests is the prescription for schools with failing children.

The concept that schools in which a number of children fail are failures themselves has made it into legislatures. Recent state takeovers of school districts in Little Rock, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis have shown how easy it is to assign blame without any attempt to grasp the real reasons for failure of their children.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs offers a simple, clear and resonant explanation for why children fail. His four deficiency needs must be fully met before the child is in any condition to benefit from his school experience. He must have nourishing food, a consistent home with heat in the winter, and the feeling of being safe before his mind is free to learn at school. Can you imagine what it is like to be awakened during the night by gunshots in your neighborhood, get up in an apartment where the heat has been cut off, or walk to school through a neighborhood of abandoned buildings where someone might pull you in? How can you achieve the self-esteem needed for learning when you know that your family is on the bottom of the economic pile, or your parent has just been arrested?

Many of the children who have been unable to fulfill the needs necessary for school achievement live in the inner cities that are so well represented on lists of failing school districts. Sadly, there is no acknowledgement of the conditions under which they live, and the impact of these conditions on their lack of school achievement. When underperforming schools lose funding it is the social workers, counselors and psychologists whose jobs are the first to be cut. Yet these are the people who act as the front line for helping children who are unable to meet their deficiency needs.

Perhaps we can excuse our legislative bodies for NCLB and for state takeovers. Many legislative members have no idea of the realities facing many of America's school children. And for those who are too busy dealing with other important issues, it becomes too tempting to assume a direct cause / effect relationship and assume that if a child is failing at school, it must be the teacher's fault.


W. Huitt Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Educational Psychology Interactive Valdosta, Ga.

Dr. C. George Boreree "Abraham Maslow, Personality Theories

About the author

Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.

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