Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Schools

Abraham Maslow, a prominent psychologist, introduced his Hierarchy of Needs in the 1940s. His work, along with others, signaled a shift from focusing on human weaknesses to focusing on human potential. Maslow’s Hierarchy has been used in teacher education for decades and can continue to have a positive impact on students for years to come.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed that human nature is inherently good or neutral, and that people are most likely to reach their full potential when basic needs are met. He developed a hierarchy of needs with the most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid.

There are many ways that schools can help students reach their full potential.

When Maslow first introduced his hierarchy, he believed that a person could not advance to the next level until they had their needs fully met in the level below. Maslow adjusted his thinking over the years and pointed out that the levels are not fixed. We can be struggling to fulfill our safety needs while also attempting to fill our need for love and support, for example.

Maslow believed that the four lower needs are “deficiency needs.” He believed that a deficiency in physiological, safety, love, or esteem needs may severely impact a person’s psychological health. This could cause them to focus on satisfying these deficiencies rather than on self-actualization. People who reach self-actualization can strive toward reaching their full potential.

Meeting Students’ Needs

Most teachers will tell you that they want their students to be working at that self-actualization level, striving to become the people they want to be. What can teachers, schools, and communities do to help students reach that level?

  • Physiological Needs: According to No Kid Hungry, as many as 1 in 6 children in the United States experience food insecurity. Most schools offer free or reduced-fee lunches, and many offer breakfast as well. But what about evenings and weekends? Community organizations like the Northern Illinois Food Bank offer a backpack program that provides weekend meals for students to take home. Schools can help connect families with the community resources they need to provide for children’s physiological needs.
  • Safety Needs: Keeping students physically safe at school is of the utmost importance. In today’s climate, organizations like the I Love U Guys Foundation help schools prepare for a variety of crisis situations. In research conducted by Hanover Research, school leaders stressed the importance of having simple plans that are practiced regularly. Teachers and administrators can build a bullying-free environment within school walls.
  • Love and Belonging Needs: Schools can help students feel loved and like they belong by building a sense of community. Many elementary schools have a buddy bench, where a child can sit when they’re looking for someone to play with during recess. Natalie Hampton, founder and CEO of Sit With Us, Inc., developed an app for middle and high school students to find new friends so they don’t have to eat alone. School-sponsored sports, clubs, and fine arts programs help students find ways to connect with others. 
  • Esteem Needs: Schools can help students build confidence and self-esteem and help them gain the respect of others. Teachers should recognize students for a job well done and give them opportunities to develop skills in a variety of ways. Schools that have effective social-emotional learning (SEL) programs are better able to meet students’ esteem and love and belonging needs than those that don’t. 
  • Self-Actualization Needs: At this stage, an individual can strive for their full potential. Their physiological and safety needs are met. They feel loved and respected by others and feel good about themselves. They are able to turn their focus to being the best person they can be.