Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory consists of five interdependent levels that one strives to meet in a life cycle. Some cultures may place more or less emphasis on the importance of each level, but each has great applicability to achieving a meaningful life for all people. The hierarchy is depicted as a pyramid in which each level builds upon the previous. In the realm of intellectual and developmental services, the hierarchy is an excellent resource in determining unmet needs and motivation of some problematic behaviors.

Basic Needs

The first level or base of the pyramid is basic human needs. Requirements in this level consist of food water shelter, clothing and sexual gratification. If one is unable to meet the need in this level behaviors will be geared toward meeting those needs. For example, if one has suffered of starvation one may attempt to steal food. Hence, the behavior is communicating an unmet need whether real or perceived.

Safety Needs

Safety and security come from consistency and predictability. Service providers often believe they provide this for people they support. It is important to understand that safety and security come from within and is a feeling. An environment can be set up to be safe and secure by service providers, but the feeling of safety and security only comes when trust is earned. Because of past traumatic experiences and high turnover rates in the human service field, trust becomes even more difficult to attain.


Relationships with various people in one’s community is a common goal in serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Much effort is exhausted to help integrate people in their community and form healthy relationships. This is also a task that is a struggle to achieve in most cases. According to the hierarchy of needs, one will have difficulty achieving a higher level need without first achieving the previous. One element that must be present to build these relationships is trust. Without feeling, safe and secure a person will not be able to build positive, healthy relationships.


Achievement can be many different things for a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities as with all people. Achievement could be as simple as learning to sign one’s name, or it could be completing an educational milestone. If one has not built positive, healthy relationships, it is much less likely that a person will not complete their goals. Like all people, when task becomes hard and seem impossible, people tend to give up and stop working toward their goals. With positive relationships, people receive inspiration and encouragement from those closest to them to carry on a stay the course.


Self-actualization is the top of the pyramid is most often achieved later in life. Simply put, self-actualization means that all lower level needs have been realized. Usually, accomplishment leaves a personal with the feeling of a legacy, or that they will be remembered for the contributions and relationships forged during their life.

The benefit of applying the hierarchy of needs in service provision is that it allows providers of service identify areas to direct focus on. If one is having difficulty in building positive health relationships, the focus should be directed at safety and security needs first. Once a person feels safe relationships will come more naturally and with less effort on the part of the service provider.

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