Needs and rights

The concept of needs is no longer part of the early childhood discourse. The EYLF (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009) focuses on a strengths-based perspective, positioning children as active participants who are entitled to respect and agency. In the latest Every Child Julie Rutups (2015) argued that in building on children’s strengths we collaborate with children and parents to identify appropriate learning opportunities. In contrast, in the same issue Pam Linke (2015) argues that we must address children’s needs in order to lay the appropriate foundation for learning.

Maslow’s Hierarchy reframed into a Hierarchy of Rights

Maslow’s Hierarchy reframed into a Hierarchy of Rights

There is absolutely no doubt that we have a responsibility to ensure that children are warm, fed, safe and comfortable. No-one would argue to the contrary. However, the way we frame this in our thoughts and in our practice is very important. Once we position children as needy, as lacking in certain requirements / skills / knowledge we are no longer respecting children for who they are. We are positioning children as inferior. This is in direct contrast to the positioning of children in the National Quality Framework (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, 2011), the EYLF (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009), and ECA’s own Code of Ethics (Early Childhood Australia, 2011), all of which position children as active agents in their learning and as possessors of rights and entitlements.

It is possible to flip our thinking and rather than plan for children’s needs, we can plan to meet children’s rights. I have discussed this approach in depth in Sims (2011). The idea here is to reframe Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1970) into a framework of rights (see Figure 1, copied from Sims, 2011). Let’s work through a couple of examples. Children have a right to adequate nutrition. As early childhood professionals it is our responsibility to find out how children’s rights are being met, and to determine if we have a role in meeting these rights. Our role may be to support a child’s ability to self feed, or it may be to provide parents with the location and contact details of the local food kitchen. Children have the right to loving caring relationships. Our role may be to provide opportunities for a child to bond with a new educator, or it may be our role to support the child to maintain positive interactions with peers. The focus of planning becomes what WE ought to do to ensure children’s rights at each level of the hierarchy are met. The hierarchy helps us prioritise where we place our efforts. Where rights for food and shelter are not met, our role is to act immediately to put in place whatever is necessary to ensure those rights are met. We would ensure children’s safety rights are met (perhaps providing support / scaffolding / gross motor learning opportunities with the aim of enabling the child to safely get over the plank surrounding the sandpit) before we address rights for self actualisation (the right to hold a pencil in a pincer grip and make marks on paper perhaps).

Using a strengths and rights-based approach to planning does not mean that we are ignoring children’s needs nor simply assuming they will be met as Linke (2015) claimed. Rather, this approach makes it clear that we have responsibilities to children to ensure their rights are met at all levels of the hierarchy. This is an approach that demonstrates respect for children, supports their developing agency and identifies clearly what WE must do to provide the most appropriate learning opportunities. Throwing out needs is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater; rather it is taking a holistic perspective to ensure that the baby and the bathwater are safe, well supported and flourishing.


Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. (2011). Guide to the National Quality Framework. Canberra: Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority.

Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, being and becoming. The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

Early Childhood Australia. (2011). Code of Ethics Retrieved 13 September, 2012, from

Linke, P. (2015). Babies and bathwater. Every Child, 21(2), 18 – 19.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Rutups, J. (2015). Needs to know. Every Child, 21(2), 16 – 17.

Sims, M. (2011). Social Inclusion and The Early Years Learning Framework: a way of working. Castle Hill, NSW: Pademelon Press.

Professor Margaret Sims

Margaret Sims is Professor of Early Childhood at the University of New England. Margaret’s research interests focus around quality community-based services for young children and their families and she has published extensively in this area.

One thought on “Needs and rights”

    Maree Aldwinckle says:

    The wording of the national regulations is problematic and contradictory to the philosophy of the NQS, the EYLF and the ECA. The current National Regulations (2011)require child education and care providers to document:
    “(a) for a child preschool age or under—
    (i) assessments of the child’s developmental needs, interests, experiences and participation in the educational program;”
    Unfortunately the concepts of needs is still part of early childhood discourse as it is enshrined in the regulations!
    Maree Aldwinckle
    BECEC Academic staff
    WSI NSW TAFE Nirimba

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