Basic Human Needs, the Brain and Behavior

Two difficulties often mentioned by those who teach in after-school settings are (1) finding something to engage the students, especially those who are there because someone perceives it either as a baby-sitting service or thinks students just need more time doing what they do all day and (2) behavior issues. The two are actually linked because students who are interested and engaged seldom have behavior issues. Whether the program is configured as a tutoring service, an enrichment time or even a test preparation venue, its activities take place in a social context that can produce both positive and negative interactions. The challenge is how to create a social environment that is positive and contributes to high levels of engagement.

Researchers Connell and Wellborn conclude that “student engagement is optimized when the social context fulfills children’s basic psychological needs.” The basic human psychological needs include a sense of competence; being related to other people, feeling part of a group; and having some autonomy. These needs apply to students in school or out of school and actually span all ages. The lack of attention drives children to act out, join gangs or find inappropriate ways to prove they are competent at something.

In recent years we have learned that people’s perceptions of themselves in relation to these areas are affected by brain chemistry but there are things we can do in classrooms to boost the potential for the right chemistry to happen and to foster competence.

  • Sprenger notes that strong emotions, especially fear or threat, take precedence over reasoning, logic and all other memory. It is incumbent to establish a safe environment for those in our programs.
  • Knowledge, memory and positive feelings of self are strengthened by the presence of serotonin, a chemical produced by the brain. Serotonin levels can be increased by simple acts such as movement or dance. Smiles and pats on the back can release other helpful chemicals.
  • Affirming gestures help students feel related and part of the group. So does teaming.
  • A sense of autonomy can be fostered by intentionally seeking out student interests, allowing multiple ways to approach work, and giving students some choice in what they might do, even it is from a menu of preplanned activities.