Monday, February 16, 2009



We are probably all familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs; Psychological Needs, Safety Needs, Belongingness and Love Needs, Esteem Needs, Need to Know and Understand, Aesthetic Needs, and Self-Actualization Needs. And we probably all remember that according to Maslow’s theory, needs that are in the lower hierarchy must be at least partially met before a person will try to satisfy higher-level needs. Although ultimately our goal is to aid students in self-actualizing or becoming “all that one can be,” they must first achieve the level of Need to Know and Understand.

But what does this mean for teachers and how does it impact student performance and learning in the classroom?

Schools and government agencies have long realized that if students’ basic needs are not met student performance will suffer. The advent of free breakfast and lunch programs were a direct result of such considerations. Unfortunately, these measures address only part of the first tier of Maslow’s theory; physiological needs. Addressing basic physiological needs is still a key concern in today’s classroom. Lack of proper nutrition, personal hygiene and even sleep affect many of today’s students. In lower socioeconomic areas these concerns are further accentuated. These basic needs must be met before the student can reach the next level.

Student safety needs play a critical role in achieving student success. The need for a structured and safe classroom is essential for student growth and progression. A structured classroom provides psychological safety for the student. By having knowledge of clearly defined and established processes, procedures, rules and practices you eliminate students’ fear of the unknown. By gaining knowledge of the expected dynamics of the classroom the student gains more control of their environment simply by being aware of what is going to happen before it happens.

A safe environment is not limited to physical parameters. Students must not only feel safe in the classroom physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. An environment must be provided and maintained where students feel free to take risks – such as answering a question or sharing thoughts without concern for ridicule or teasing by other students. Additionally, students must trust that the teacher will not ridicule, use sarcasm, or otherwise berate the student when answering questions or addressing issues. The student must feel a degree of safety in all aspects of the classroom and school environment before progressing to the next step in Maslow’s theory – belongingness and love needs.

Robert Slavin, in his book, Educational Psychological notes, “The most important…needs, however, may be those for love and self-esteem.” The student must feel that he/she is important as an individual – that he/she is lovable and is deserving of being loved and cared about. Oftentimes the only time that these attributes are reinforced may be by the teacher at school. Students must be made aware that teachers value them as individuals as well as the work they perform. We as teachers must take advantage of each and every opportunity to reinforce each student’s self esteem in the manner in which we treat them in the classroom. This reinforcement of positive attributes of the student in turn aids in developing respect or a favorable impression of oneself.

Once these needs are met, the student may then move to the next level; need to know and understand. It is at this level that the student is most receptive to learning. Our challenge is to aid the student in achieving this level.

What we can do as teachers to aid students in moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy:

1) Understand that each student brings his/her own unique background to the classroom. A student’s readiness to learn is not solely dependent upon existing knowledge and skills. We must develop a relationship with the student in order to determine their current readiness level. Once determined, we must develop a strategy to address current needs as well as the needs in the next level. In many instances this may involve additional community and governmental resources, especially at the lower levels.

2) Create a safe classroom environment. Develop rules and procedures which provide a structured environment rich in routine and shared expectations. Develop and enforce rules prohibiting sarcastic, degrading, and berating remarks and comments by students directed at other students. In my classroom I implemented a “No Hunting” rule. No student may physically or verbally hurt another. Additionally, learn to use positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement to correct student behaviors. Lastly, provide copious amounts of praise and reinforcement for student risk taking. Become an advocate for each of your students. Take time out to let each student know how well they are doing. This could take the form of a short handwritten note on their papers, or verbal comment. The key is to focus on the students’ positive attributes and aid the student in developing an increased level of self-esteem.

3) Let students know that you care about them. Although many of us assume our students know this it’s not necessarily the case. Let the students know that you want them to succeed, whether it be to pass your latest test, or class, or graduate from college and get a good job. Let them know that you appreciate the work they do on classwork, or a test, or homework. Take the time out to explain issues and concerns with them. When feasible, provide student participation in the class decision making process. Opportunities include scheduling tests, methods for teaching material, and scheduling blocks of instruction.

Although many issues pertaining to student progress in Maslow’s Hierarchy emanate from outside the school environment, as teachers we are in a position to strongly influence student outcomes. However, to change outcomes we must first understand that we must assess the whole child to include not only student knowledge of material but more importantly, student readiness levels based on Maslow’s theory and obstacles to learning. Only when we address both of the issues will student learning be enhanced and maximized.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Deprivation Needs

The first four levels are considered deficiency or deprivation needs (”D-needs”) in that their lack of satisfaction causes a deficiency that motivates people to meet these needs. Physiological needs, the lowest level on the hierarchy, include necessities such as air, food, and water. These tend to be satisfied for most people, but they become predominant when unmet. During emergencies, safety needs such as health and security rise to the forefront. Once these two levels are met, belongingness needs, such as obtaining love and intimate relationships or close friendships, become important. The next level, esteem needs, include the need for recognition from others, confidence, achievement, and self-esteem.

Growth Needs

The highest level is self-actualization, or the self-fulfillment. Behavior in this case is not driven or motivated by deficiencies but rather one’s desire for personal growth and the need to become all the things that a person is capable of becoming (Maslow, 1970).


While a useful guide for generally understanding why students behave the way that they do and in determining how learning may be affected by physiological or safety deficiencies, Maslow’s theory has its share of criticisms. Some have noted vagueness in what is a “deficiency”; what is a deficiency for one is not necessarily a deficiency for another. Secondly, there seem to be various exceptions that frequently occur. For example, some people often risk their own safety to rescue others from danger.

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