Before we even get to know a child, we know certain things about them: their innate needs. All humans have a predictable group of needs, rather like our own personal “factory setting”.

It is most obvious that we all have physical or Survival needs such as the need for sleep, food, water, comfort and warmth. It comes as no surprise to learn that there are regulatory biological mechanisms in our bodies that help us to keep these needs in balance. For example, we control the amount of liquid in our bodies through the process of osmoregulation and the urge to sleep is controlled by the release of a chemical adenosine.

What is less well appreciated is that in addition to this group of physical needs, we are born with a set of psychological needs for which we also have inbuilt processes of internal regulation. Choice Theory, the explanation of behaviour and motivation described by William Glasser, describes how these psychological needs fall into 4 main categories:

Love and Belonging

We all need to feel cared for and be able to care for others. We need to be wanted and feel at ease with those around us. An example of this is the need to be accepted by those around us and the good feeling we get when others show they care for us, or we are able to help others.

Power / Self-Worth

We are hard-wired to learn, appreciate feelings of competence, value and power.  We feel good when we see the fruits of our effort, and a continual failure to succeed in turn leads to dis-empowerment.

Fun and Enjoyment

All humans have a basic need to have fun, and seek enjoyment in what they do. Enjoyment can also be the reward of learning new things. We seek enjoyment through hobbies and leisure activities, but we are also driven by a need to enjoy our work.


This need can be viewed in 2 ways: freedom from pain, embarrassment, bullying, control of others; and freedom to make one’s own choices in life.

From a psychologist’s point of view, “behaviour” means “everything that we do”.  All our behaviour is caused by our drive to satisfy these five basic needs. Understanding how behaviour relates to these needs is fundamental to being able to set up school environments where people feel good about themselves, can make a contribution, feel important and cared for and free to make choices.

The ability to recognise these needs in a child’s behaviours is a fundamental skill needed by any professional working with children, especially those with the greatest needs. I would love all teachers to be taught Choice Theory as part of their initial training.Reference: Glasser, W. (1998) Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. NY. Harper Collins

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