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The Egyptians built some pretty important pyramids in human history. For the child life specialist, there is one pyramid that stands strong for the sake of child development.

It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramide

Abraham Maslow was an American Psychologist who believed that people who were deficient in specific needs could not possess the motivation to achieve advanced levels of the pyramid and progress with development (McLeod, 2007). As you can see on the image above, the pyramid starts with physiological based needs and goes up to self-actualization, where one can fill their highest potential.

So, how does Maslow help the Child Life Specialist?

Think of it this way: If a child was going to try to build a pyramid out of blocks and one wasn’t placed on a certain level, some of the blocks, if not the whole pyramid, would fall down right?

Same thing with the hierarchy. If there is something farther down the pyramid that isn’t there, the rest of the pyramid will not be stable or won’t help the child continue to progress in their development.

This is where the term “hangry” came from. If you haven’t eaten something all day long, are you going to have a polite conversation with your friend?

So, how could you use Maslow in your Child Life work?

First, Assessment. One of the first things you do as a child life specialist is assess, assess, assess. Use the pyramid as a check off list. Does your child and family have their basic needs met? Do they feel safe in their environment? Is there enough family support? How confident does the child feel about themselves after a surgery? Is the family looking for spiritual guidance for progress in their child’s health? These are just some questions that can come up, but allow you to keep checking in on the child and family. It also helps you prioritize what needs should be met first before others.

Second, if a need is not met, how can you meet it? How does the child’s diagnosis impact different needs? Do you need multidisciplinary support? Use the pyramid as a way to establish goals so you can meet needs and continue to provide holistic care.

Maslow is not your typical theorist like Piaget or Erikson (Don’t worry, they just might pop up another time for discussion!) because he doesn’t focus on stages of development, or even play. It is still necessary for the child life specialist to utilize this theory so that children and families do have needs met so that they can have positive experiences in the healthcare setting.


I should make a disclaimer of how to view this pyramid. I came across Maslow in the novel, “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. The main character, Hazel, makes an incredulous point about how NOT to view the pyramid. She describes how she technically cannot achieve higher levels of the pyramid because the security of her own health (safety needs) is lacking. She claims:

“Maslow’s pyramid seemed to imply that I was less human than other people, and most people seemed to agree with him (Green, 2012).”

As a child life specialist, we have to remember that while aspects of the child’s life or development may be missing (temporarily), it does not mean that they can’t achieve these goals. It is important that if for example, food was not present, it doesn’t mean that the child can’t think for themselves or still love their family. This should be viewed more as meeting priorities in a certain order, rather than assuming that if they haven’t been fed or feel secure, that they aren’t fully human, even more so because they are in the healthcare setting.

Always meet needs according to their importance. Follow the pyramid bottom to top. It is important to make sure you use the restroom before you decide to look in the mirror and give yourself a pep talk for a big day.

Stay tuned for the Developmental Theorist for February!

Source credits:

Green, J. (2012). The fault in our stars. New York: Penguin Books.

McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from: