Success in School: Are Your Child’s Five Basic Needs Being Met?

Every child has five basic needs that are inextricably connected to his or academic success. A school whose culture meets these needs in their students yields not only improved test scores, but also a 75% drop in student discipline and behavior problems. As a parent, you can amplify this effect by making sure these needs are met at home.

By Dr. Cletus R. Bulach

Control. Life. Happiness. Purpose. Being cared for: These are the five needs essential to any student’s—and any child’s—success.

If parents meet their children’s five basic needs, they will be on the path to succeed in school and life. The five basic needs are life, caring, control, purpose, and happiness. Why is it important that these five basic needs are met? If one or more of these needs are not being met, a child will spend a lot of energy and activity to get these needs met. That is energy and activity that should be used to succeed in school, to learn, and to get good grades and test scores. For example, what might happen if a child’s control needs were not being met?

A child whose control needs are not being met has a number of options. Some children complain of a stomachache or a headache and ask to stay home. Some will join a gang or get involved with a peer group who will help with control needs. Still others resort to drugs or alcohol because the high they get gives them the feeling of control, even though it actually does the exact opposite. Kids are very creative in how they get their control needs met: they can create imaginary friends, have temper tantrums, go to their room and refuse to come out, lock themselves in the bathroom or run away or threaten to run away. As a parent, I suggest you look for ways your children are getting their control needs met. If they are getting them met with negative behavior, they will not be successful in school.


As a parent, it is very important to be in control of what happens to your children. If control is such an important need for parents and children, how do you give control to your children without giving it up? The goal is to get children to control their own behavior. When that does not happen, parents have to intervene and take back control. Too much control, however, is a mistake! The secret to successful parenting is to give control without giving it up. We want our children to make good decisions and be responsible. We don’t want them to remain dependent on their parents. At some point we want them to be independent and capable of making their own decisions.

Too much control is a mistake. An even bigger mistake for parents is to let their children control them. We have all seen instances where the child is unruly and undisciplined and the parent does not exercise control. The big question then is how do you give control without giving it up? A controlling parent tells their children what to do. Parents who give control without giving it up provide choices and allow their kids to decide what they are going to do.

If your child does not make an acceptable choice, you, as the parent, take control back and tell the child what to do. For example, “When are you planning to do your homework?” “When are you going to take out the trash?” “When are you going to get a haircut, clean up your room, turn off the TV, etc?” By asking these types of questions, you alert your child to the behavior you want and give him or her the choice of telling you when it will get done. You have given your child control, but did not give up control. If your child’s answer is unacceptable, you take control back and tell him or her when to do it.


Having some control over your life is a basic need, but being alive and having moments of happiness are also basic needs. It seems obvious that everyone wants to be alive and happy, but these needs are often overlooked for this very reason. Basic to being alive and happy are a person’s health, and that is what parents should focus on. Clothing, nutrition, exercise, fitness/weight, medication, sleep, etc.


When it comes to happiness, parents should focus, in particular, on who their friends are? Friends have a terrific impact on your child’s behavior and happiness. Being alive and happy is like a hand and glove. They go together and balance each other. Happy children are very much alive and will be successful in school. Unhappy kids will not succeed and must do something to restore the imbalance. What they tend to do is often negative.


Kids need to have a purpose in their lives. Having some control in your life means nothing if your life does not have a purpose. Approximately 50% of children go to school without a purpose. This results in a lack of motivation and low test scores. Try to get your children to pick out what they want to do with their life. It does not matter that their goals may change in a year or two. If they can’t focus on a goal, ask them to identify a person or role model they like. An alternative is setting a goal just to get good grades.


The last of the five basic needs is for your children to know that you care about them. The easiest way to show your kids that you care is to “listen” to them. When you give your child undivided attention and listen to them you are showing them that you care. There are many other ways as well: go jogging with them, attend their games and functions, tuck them into bed, etc. There is a difference between loving them and caring about them. Love is more of a feeling. It may be there, but it cannot always be seen. Caring behaviors can be seen, and they are also felt.

There will be times when you have to discipline or control your child. The manner in which this is done may cause your child to believe that you don’t care about him or her. It is important to focus on the behavior that needs to change rather than the child. You do not want your child to feel that you are angry with him or her. It is the behavior, not the child, that is the problem. A typical discipline situation could go like this: “I care about you and love you, but (identify the behavior that needs correcting) has to change.” End the discipline by asking, “What can you do about that?” Remember to give control without giving it up.

Being a parent is one of the most challenging experiences for anyone because of the problems children can create. On the other hand, being a parent is also one of life’s greatest accomplishments. I know all of you want to be good parents and want your children to be successful. Do your best to meet their five basic needs, and “give control without giving it up!” This is very important, because the four other needs are difficult to meet if a person does not have some form of control.

Dr. Cletus R. Bulach is a retired Ohio school superintendent and associate professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia.  He is the author of numerous articles in educational journals and is co-author of the book  Creating a Culture for A High Performing School: A Comprehensive Approach to School Reform, Dropout Prevention, and Bullying Behavior. His website is