How Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be applied in teaching

Dhwani Shah
July 11, 2023
4 min read

As humans, we are driven by an innate desire to achieve more, to surpass not just others, but our own limits and boundaries. 

In the 1950s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a popular psychological theory to explain what drives human motivation. According to his theory, our actions are motivated by the pursuit of certain needs, from basic to complex, depicted as hierarchical levels in a pyramid. Certain basic needs have to be met before a person will try for complex needs. 

Over the years, Abraham Maslow’s theory has been used in different spheres and is being increasingly used in the field of education to motivate learners. We must remember that as educators and teachers, it is not practically possible to cater to every need of the students. We may not, for instance, be able to influence the home lives of our students. However, in the classroom we have the opportunity and the means to gauge their needs and cater to them. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be used in the area of teaching to find the optimal way of motivating students to perform their best. 

1. Physiological Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy: Physiological Needs

Physiological needs are the primary level of needs in Maslow's hierarchy and include those biological needs which are essential for survival such as food, water, sleep, clothing and shelter. They are the first priority; all other needs will be considered secondary until these are met. 

It is of utmost importance to ensure that the physiological needs of our students are being met. In the case that they are not, students will not be able to prioritize education. For a student, these needs would include food, water, shelter, sleep, ventilation, lighting, toilet breaks among others. It's only obvious that a sleep deprived or a hungry student will be unable to concentrate in class and may even disrupt learning for others. In this way, the learning environment and learning conditions can affect student engagement in the classroom.

Ways to support students’ physiological needs- 

  • Allow students to take regular water and toilet breaks, if in-person.
  • Provide breaks for food - and offer nutritious snacking options.
  • Ensure adequate lighting and ventilation.
  • Monitor temperature so that students do not feel too hot or cold.

2. Security and Safety Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy: Safety Needs

Security and safety needs come next on the hierarchy. People desire order, certainty and predictability in their lives so that they can feel in control and consequently, feel safe and secure. These needs include security - financial and physical - in the ways of employment, resources, health, and prosperity. 

Students need to feel safe - physically, emotionally and mentally - to be able to learn and to flourish without other concerns weighing on their minds. They must feel at ease to ask questions or raise concerns, without the fear of being reprimanded by the teacher or judged by their peers. A sense of order and routine empowers a learner to feel assured and certain as they are able to anticipate what is likely to come their way. Thus, creating a safe learning space is vital to employ this step of the hierarchy.

Ways to support students’ safety needs- 

  • Enact well-defined routines in your classes. 
  • Set forth well-defined rules and procedures and communicate them to the students. 
  • Follow rules and routines consistently.
  • Cultivate an environment that allows for healthy discussion and non-judgmental conversation.  
  • Monitor the environment of your class to identify and prevent bullying.
Teacher hugging student

Together, the safety and physiological levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs are often referred to as "basic needs".

3. Love and Belonging Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy: Love & Belonging Needs

On the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are love and belongingness. Humans are inherently social creatures that crave love, affection and acceptance from others. We are endowed with an emotional need to be a part of a group, to belong, to avoid loneliness and depression. These needs include friendship, family, intimacy, trust and connectedness. 

“Students who are loved at home come to school to learn, and students who aren't, come to school to be loved.” ~ Nicholas A. Ferroni

To support the love and belonging needs of learners, it is fundamental to make them feel like they are a part of a close-knit group, like they fit in, like they belong. It is essential that they feel loved, nurtured, supported and accepted as a part of the class. Strong and healthy relationships have to be developed and fostered with both, their peers and teachers. 

Ways to support students’ love and belonging needs-

  • Establish ground rules about being respectful towards one another. 
  • Create a sense of team by engaging students in team-building and bonding activities.
  • Encourage group work and other inclusive learning techniques.
  • Make conscious seating arrangements and groups. Place students whether they can be best supported and aided.
Post-its with love cut outs

4. Esteem Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy: Esteem Needs

Esteem needs constitute the fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy and include self-worth, recognition, accomplishment and respect. These needs have been classified into two categories: 

(i) the desire for respect from oneself, encompassing dignity, achievement, freedom, independence, confidence, and 

(ii) the need for respect from others, which includes fame, prestige, status and recognition. 

To meet self-esteem needs, students need to feel important and worthwhile and gain respect, approval, and appreciation by engaging in activities and tasks that bring them achievement, success, and recognition. Students may seek gratification from not only teachers but from peers as well. As teachers and leaders, it is important to regard each student as a unique individual, appreciating them for the originality that they bring to the class. 

Ways to support students’ self esteem needs-

  • Show your students that their efforts and hard work are noticed and appreciated. Provide powerful affirmative feedback. A simple “Good job!” or a “Well done!” can go a long way in boosting kids’ self esteem and self worth.
  • Create opportunities for students to share positive feedback with their peers. 
  • Encourage students to participate in competitions and extra- curricular activities and events.
People applauding

Together, the esteem and love and belonging levels of the hierarchy constitute what is known as the "psychological needs" of the hierarchy.


5. Self Actualization Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy: Self Actualization Needs

At the very peak of Maslow’s hierarchy are the self-actualization needs. Self-actualization can refer to the pursuit of a person’s full potential and personal growth. Self-actualization could mean different things to different individuals - for some it could be making millions of dollars, while for others it could be dedicating their lives to the welfare of others. In essence, it is personal transformation - the desire to be the most one can be. 

At this level, students proactively look to reach their full potential. They seek higher levels of knowledge and aim to achieve higher learning goals. At this point, it all comes down to finding fulfillment out of what they are learning. 

Ways to support students’ self-actualization needs-

  • Encourage and support students to explore topics in-depth to satisfy their hunger for knowledge. Courses like the Theory of Knowledge offer students a chance to do this.
  • Give opportunities to students who are very good in a subject to help their classmates with their work. Sports institutes could also allow for peer coaching.

Researchers have pointed out that these needs need not necessarily be viewed in the shape of a pyramid; they are better laid viewed as a circle in which the needs are constantly interconnected. Fulfilling one level of needs without taking heed of the others would not attain the goal of enabling every child to improve their abilities and motivation to learn. As educators and teachers, we have the power to effect change, and for us, that process begins in our classes. These simple yet effective suggestions allow us to allow our kids to progress through the hierarchy and thus, boost learner motivation.

Mental Health
Dhwani Shah

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