Applying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs In Our Classrooms

By Tony Kline, Ph.D.

simple truth:

Before expecting students to reach their potential, teachers need to meet students at their current levels.

research tells us:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a popular motivation theory that is widely referred to in educational circles.  In this theory, Abraham Maslow suggested that before individuals meet their full potential, they need to satisfy a series of needs.  It's important to note that Maslow based his theory more on philosophy than on scientific evidence.  If interested, you can find limitations of this theory here.  However, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can provide teachers a reminder and framework that our students are less likely to perform at their full potential if their basic needs are unmet.

At times it can be confusing to apply theory into the practical realities of a classroom.  So let's talk specifics.  We may have a limited influence on the home lives of our students.  Though once they enter our school, we have the opportunity to assess student needs and then work to adapt our instruction to meet their needs.  Below are the general stages in order and descriptions of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

Are any students entering our classroom without their Physiological needs met?  Is this student getting all of their basic physical needs met?  These basic needs include food, water, sleep, oxygen, and warmth.  If all students have these needs met, the next stage is Safety.  How safe and secure does this student feel in their home?  What about in our school, and specifically in our classroom?

Do all students have a feeling of Love & Belonging in our classroom? Does each student feel that they belong to a group?  Do they have strong relationships with their peers?  The next stage is Esteem.  Do all students feel good about themselves?  Are we giving powerful verbal feedback to support their self-esteem?  Do they believe that their peers think positively about them?

Maslow's final stage is Self-Actualization.  In theory, if students have all of the previous stages met, they can achieve and create at their full potential.  Do we automatically assume that all students should be achieving at their full potential once they enter the classroom?  We know that this is not a reality, we just need to look at ourselves when we're impacted by any of the characteristics noted above.

try this:

  • To support our students' physiological needs, we can ensure that all students have access to water in their rooms.  Water bottles are a simple solution and research shows the many benefits of hydrated students.

  • To support our students physiological needs, we can ensure that we have nutritious snacks available.  Foods with slow-burning complex carbohydrates (such as granola bars) can help students sustain energy levels throughout the morning or afternoon.

  • To support our students physiological needs, we can ensure that if a student is in desperate need of sleep, they are allowed to take a short nap at school.  If not, research indicates that sleep-deprived students learn less and may even disrupt the learning of others.

  • To support our students' safety needs, we can continuously equip students and monitor the climate of our classroom to decrease bullying.

  • To support our students' love and belonging needs, would all students feel like our classroom has a family or close-knit feel?  Are we actively making sitting arrangements and putting students in groups where they feel supported?

  • To support our students' esteem needs, we need to provide affirmative, concrete, and transparent feedback so that students know their specific strengths and can articulate when they've used them to succeed in our classrooms.  Do we create opportunity for peers to share specific positive feedback with each other?

  • In theory, when we support students in all of those stages noted, students can perform at their fullest potential, which is the self-actualization stage.  Do we always expect students to perform at their best, even if they are in need of support in lower stages?

review & share this:

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What strategies do you use to meet these needs?  Share a thought in the Comments section below.

For additional reading and referenced research, click here.