The Te Whare Tapa Whā Framework for Understanding Wellbeing

In restorative practices, we talk a lot about needs. When harm is caused through a crime, wrongdoing, or conflict in a community, that harm generates needs. One of the central questions of restorative justice is “What is needed to repair the harms and make things right?”

We also see behavior as communicating unmet needs. So often, a harmful or illegal behavior is an attempt to get a need met. For example, while I was working in Longmont, we would occasionally receive a theft case of a homeless person who stole food, or someone stealing clothing for an upcoming job interview after realizing they didn’t have anything appropriate to wear or money to buy something. The needs were often more abstract. I remember a pregnant woman who stole lingerie because she was worried her husband wasn’t attracted to her while she was pregnant and they were struggling with money. Especially among teenagers, so often the drug use, vandalism, and fighting was rooted in a need for belonging and respect from their peers. More violent acts such as physical assaults were often rooted in a need for safety, respect, or even self-esteem. When you begin to view these behaviors through understanding the need the person was attempting to fulfill, you are better able to problem-solve. If you can help to identify a legal, pro-social way to fulfill that un-met need, then the behavior will not be repeated.

Having grown up in the United States and taken introductory level psychology throughout high school and university, I have often understood these common human needs through the framework of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most basic physiological needs are at the base of the pyramid and are the first things that motivate our behavior. Once those needs are met, the next level up is what motivates us. The framework has often helped me to understand and empathize with the lived experience and perspective of the offenders and victims that are referred to restorative justice.


Earlier this week, I took part in an introductory training day for a pilot project being launched in Wellington, New Zealand to use Restorative Circles as a response to Elder Harm issues. During the training, we talked about Te Whare Tapa Whā, a Maori framework for understanding health and wellbeing. This framework is widely used among Maori people and others in New Zealand.

Te Whare Tapa Whā portrays four dimensions of wellbeing as four walls or sides of a house. If one of the dimensions is missing or damaged, the entire structure (representing the person) will become unbalanced or unwell.

The four dimensions are:

  1. Taha wairua- Spiritual well-being
  2. Taha tinana- Physical well-being
  3. Taha whanau- Social well-being
  4. Taha hinengaro- Mental and emotional well-being

te whare tapa wha

This way of perceiving these dimensions of health and wellbeing, of understanding the basic human needs we all share, struck me as very true. These aspects of health are deeply interconnected. When my mental health is damaged or unbalanced, my physical, spiritual and social health also all suffer. When I am physically sick, the other areas of my life similarly feel like they aren’t thriving. The needs are essentially intertwined.

Rather than needs being a series of levels that are achieved one after another, needs often co-exist. I remember speaking with a homeless man who had accidentally caused a fire in an unused home he was squatting in and his need for food and shelter was equally matched by his need for community and for a greater sense of meaning and purpose. In our pre-conference discussion, we talked more about God than we did about his physiological needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs still helps me to understand the (sometimes reckless) motivation we all feel when our needs in different categories go unmet. However, Te Whare Tapa Whā has also helped me to see how those needs cannot really be broken into neat level and will always exist as an interconnected whole, deserving a holistic response.

For restorative justice practitioners, this framework serves as a reminder to strive to keep going, past the most obvious needs, to understand the whole picture of where a person is coming from and the impacts of an incident on physical, social, spiritual, and mental wellbeing.

For more information about Te Whare Tapa Whā, visit

One response to “The Te Whare Tapa Whā Framework for Understanding Wellbeing”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: