Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Education
Students in classrooms or training courses may be distracted. They have other considerations running through their minds, such as their other classes, personal lives, friendships, hobbies, physical distractions like hunger or tiredness, and so much more. When students are sidetracked by these or any other issues, their own education and accomplishment may be prioritized below their more immediate needs. Why is this? One human psychologist suggests that this occurs because immediate needs determine the immediate action of the student. When they are worried about these things, they focus solely on those distractions. Those preoccupations will take priority over education and accomplishment. What’s the best way to capture our students’ attention and get them to prioritize education? Teachers can assist students in eliminating their distractions, allowing the student’s top priority to become course material, education, and accomplishment.
Human beings are motivated by goal accomplishment. Achieving goals allows humans to meet their individual wants and needs. Needs are mentally prioritized in order of importance (Maslow, 1943). Less immediate needs have to be met before more important needs can be satisfied. A person’s actions will be focused around satisfying the lower-priority needs and will then move on to reach higher-priority needs.
Starting at the bottom of the pyramid (Figure 1), physiological needs are the first priority and must be satisfied first. These needs include nourishment, sleep, clothing, and shelter. People must have these basic needs met in order to focus on anything else – otherwise, their actions will focus solely on meeting these physiological requirements. They are the top priority and are therefore the most important driving factor for human beings. If a person is hungry, they will ignore any other wants or wishes to focus on satisfying their hunger. If a student is hungry, they could exhibit distracting or rule-breaking behavior because education is not their priority – hunger is. A student might fall asleep in class instead of working on their assignments because they lost sleep the previous night. In this example, the student would naturally prioritize sleep over education.
Once physiological needs are satisfied, the next priority is safety. Safety needs are usually environmental, which includes a student’s home environment, school environment, and any other environment they’re regularly a part of. If the student is having personal issues at home (for example, arguing parents, parents struggling with addiction, lack of parental structure, etc.) or they live in a dangerous area, they will have difficulty learning because their basic safety needs have not been met. Similarly, if the student is being bullied or if they don’t feel accepted and liked by their educator, they will struggle to learn and complete their work. Their priority will be acquiring safety. Students thrive on predictability and structure, and they associate these factors with a feeling of safety. They do best with no disruptions in their routines. If they lack a routine, or if there are factors threatening their routines, they may feel unsafe and apprehensive. This can cause the student to perform poorly.
After physiological and safety requirements have been met, love and a sense of belonging become the priority. This applies to family and friend relationships. A student may develop their sense of belonging through joining clubs, volunteering, participating in church groups, or making other group-centered commitments. When a person does not feel loved or does not feel like they belong, they crave affection or acceptance in group settings. The need for love and belonging may be forgotten, but it can be just as critical to a student as their physiological requirements.
Self-esteem is the next need that must be met. Self-esteem involves individuality, respect for others, accomplishment, and confidence. Most people are extremely critical of themselves, which stems from their own evaluation of self-accomplishment and potential. Self-esteem can be two-fold. First, people will crave accomplishment, confidence, competence, and fortitude. Secondly, they will yearn for importance, appreciation, acknowledgment, and status. When all of these needs are met, people will feel adequate, capable, strong, and worthy. If these needs are not satisfied, people will feel incompetent, unprotected, and unimportant.
These first four needs can all be considered deprivation needs. If these needs are not satisfied, those shortcomings will motivate people to focus on meeting their highest-priority needs. One more need follows these deprivation needs, and that is self-actualization. This is an aspiration to fulfill one’s own potential. This need is not driven by inadequacy, but instead by a craving for self-improvement. Maslow suggests that very few people ever attain this level. Self-actualized people tend to be impulsive, independent, analytical, and realistic.
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy – Teaching and Learning
Now that we’ve covered the premise of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is also vital to comprehend how this information can be used in education. First, it is important to understand that regrettably, we cannot satisfy every physiological need of every student. It would be impossible for a teacher or leader to equip every student with sufficient sleep, shelter, clothing, and nourishment. Luckily, free and reduced lunch programs are a great way to solve some of the issues of hunger in schools. Providing clothing, sufficient hygiene practices, and sufficient amounts of sleep are still factors. Based on the model, it is clear that if these basic needs fail to be provided, students will be unable to prioritize education. These are needs that teachers cannot always meet. However, teachers can strive to offer students resources and referrals to school programs in order to satisfy as many needs as possible.
Many aspects should be considered by teachers and leaders in order to help students feel a sense of safety. As previously mentioned, a sense of safety can come from routines and predictability. Teachers and leaders should enact routines in their classrooms. Set forth clear-cut rules and processes for your students. Maintain a predictable daily schedule, allowing students to anticipate and expect order in the classroom. Students will feel a sense of control in their classroom environment because they are able to anticipate what will happen next. Additionally, students must have a sense of psychological and emotional safety in their classroom environment. Teachers should foster an environment that allows for healthy levels of risk-taking, question asking and answering, open thought sharing, and healthy discussion. They should not feel fearful of judgment from other students. Students crave a trust-based relationship with their teacher.
To meet belongingness, self-esteem, and love needs, students want to feel needed, loved, and nurtured. Students may seek gratification from teachers or school staff. As teachers and leaders, it is important to regard each student as a unique individual, appreciating them for their one-of-a-kind character traits. Emphasize healthy, positive behavior and self-esteem. Make an effort to show students that their hard work and dedication are genuinely appreciated. This prioritization will support the development of each student’s self-esteem and self-worth.
Teachers and leaders tend to primarily handle the four deprivation needs (self-esteem, sense of belonging, safety, and physiological). Every step an educator makes toward contributing to those fundamental needs will enhance their students’ capacity for learning and achievement in the classroom. Ensure that you make a true effort to know each student and comprehend the level of their knowledge and their level on Maslow’s Hierarchy. In doing so, you can best help students progress through the hierarchy. It may be necessary to explore outside or government resources for students with lower-level needs to help the students thrive in their learning environment. However, a greater comprehension of each student’s basic needs is likely to lead to the teacher’s ability to help the student overcome their personal educational obstacles, allowing each student to reach their educational potential.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.