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SOS: A New Twist on Human Needs Theory

by Christine Peace, Behavior Coach

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a sailboat in the ocean. The water is calm and the wind conditions are perfect for smooth sailing. However, there are several holes in the ships hull. Water begins pouring in. Do you think the ship’s captain is worried about sailing forward, as the leaks drag the ship under? Of course not. So, how can we expect our students to worry about grades, sitting still, or following classroom expectations if they are trying to keep their heads above water?

Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist and author of Transcend, reimagines Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a sailboat. It turns out, not only did Maslow never explicitly depict his theory as a pyramid, he later went on to reevaluate his ideas. Kaufman is a fan of Maslow’s life and work. This is, duly in part, because of Maslow’s integrity and willingness to critique his own work, important characteristics for any individuals working with the human condition.

Why a boat instead of a pyramid? First off, meeting needs isn’t always like climbing up the levels of a pyramid, with each need being met permanently as you move up to the next level. Instead, Kaufman describes the sailboat as our vehicle, our mode of transportation through our journey of life. Imagine trying to traverse the seas with nothing but a bulky and awkward pyramid.


“Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through—

a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and

discovery but also danger and uncertainty. In this choppy surf,

a clunky pyramid is of little use. Instead, what is needed is

something a bit more functional. We’ll need a sailboat.

Scott Barry Kaufman


Furthermore, in Kaufman’s theory, our needs are divided by our growth needs (the sail), which provide intrinsic fulfillment, and security needs (the hull), which dominate our motivation. So, what do the leaks in the hull represent in our students’ lives? These are the deficits in their safety, connection, and self-esteem.

Safety is the lowest part of the hull. This combines our physiological and psychological needs. This means being physically safe in actuality, but having the feelings and thoughts of safety as well. In this way, the sense of safety can heavily depend upon perception.

Connection, the next component of security needs, is an innate and ancient human need. This connective need also can be described as the need to belong. In fact, when safety is lacking, the need for connection can grow even stronger. Because of this, the risk of seeking connection with peers who are struggling with their own unhealthy behaviors can be enhanced when one feels unsafe. As Kaufman observes, “Our tribal impulses run deep and spring early.” Thus, aiding our students in developing skills to foster and maintain healthy connections is of utmost importance.

Self-esteem, the final portion of our sailboat’s hull, cannot be fulfilled without the previously described connection. According to Kaufman, our self-image may be the most important attitude we have. To have healthy self-esteems, we and our students require a sense of accomplishment and true connections to others. Combined, these factors aid us in feeling a sense of growth toward being a whole person. Thus, even in the hull of the boat, each of our needs are intertwined, it isn’t just an upward climb.

None of this is to insinuate that we, as teachers, behavior coaches, or therapists, can fulfill all the security needs for our students. But, we can consider what can we do with this information. In particular, we can become more open-minded and curious. Open-minded to the idea that our students may have more going on than what we can see on the surface. Perhaps all the leaks in their hull are below the water line, out of sight. Alternatively, we can be curious to what needs they may have that are not being filled sufficiently. What can we do to help them fill the need that is lacking?

For example, being prepared with some snacks for the day a student didn’t have time for breakfast, or providing information to the entire class on local resources for food banks and free meals. Making it a habit to include all students in group activities, maintaining awareness of those who seem to struggle, and finding new ways to involve them. Being sure to consistently acknowledge the accomplishments and strengths of the students. These are all ways to identify and fill the leaks in students’ hulls.

Most importantly, in all of this we must remind ourselves that we too are human. We have the same needs and, at times, the same challenges in meeting those needs. Where in our hulls may we have sprung a leak? We can analyze our students all we want, but without acknowledgement and attention to our own self-care, how much can we really help them?