Applying Maslow to Schools: A New Approach to School Equity

by Denisha Jones

 Abraham Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs is well known to many educators who study educational psychology.  Maslow posited a theory of motivation centered on an individual’s desire to have certain needs met. The famous pyramid depicts how the needs build upon one another and eventually lead to self-actualization. (See chart below.) As a teacher educator, I introduce my students to Maslow’s theory as we discuss how students learn and factors that support and impede development.  For example, we discuss how a child who is hungry or tired or does not feel safe and secure, will have a hard time learning. As they prepare to become teachers, I implore them to examine how their attitudes and actions can assist a child in having their needs met and ultimately experience success in school and life. 

As I was preparing for a class in my Foundations of Education course, I came across a new way to apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In chapter of 1 of Linda Darling-Hammond’s book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, she describes an under-resourced school in California from a 2002 lawsuit over school funding and notes
If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were applied to schools this kind of institution would be at the basic survival level, lacking the rudiments needed to begin to focus on the quality of learning and teaching or the development of higher-order thinking and performance skills. (2010, p. 8).

​I was immediately intrigued by the idea of applying Maslow’s theory to a school, especially if this new application would provide an additional way to measure school equity.  So I created a new pyramid of hierarchy needs but identified how each need applied to schools. The needs remain the same, but instead of focusing on the individual, we now examine the school to determine if it is providing the environment and experiences that will allow children to successfully have their needs met. In many ways, this new view of a hierarchy of needs shifts from what could be a deficit view of children (i.e., the child lacks self-esteem and cannot learn). And moves to an emphasis on how the school culture can impact a child’s ability to thrive (i.e., the school values and respects all students). 

There are a plethora of resources that discuss how to apply Maslow’s theory to the classroom. Most provide examples of how teachers can support children, such as providing snacks and water, discouraging social isolation, and teaching children friendship skills so they can experience belonging. But what if we focused on improving the climate and the culture of the school, to create an environment where all children could have their needs met? What if we measure schools on how well they met the needs of students as a whole, instead of focusing on individual teachers? As we continue to push for school equity perhaps revisiting some of our most fundamental theories will provide new ways of thinking and new approaches to dealing with old problems.  

Source: Text material adapted from D. Martin and K. Joomis, Building Teachers: A Constructivist Approach to Introducing Education, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2007), pp. 72–75.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to Schools
I created this picture as part of my lecture on how we can apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to schools. And the table below to demonstrate how he individual needs are applied to schools. 

Comments 0

  1. I teach Maslow to the students at the beginning of each year. Middle school students respond in a positive well especially since justice is an important issue for them. Great article.

    1. I graduated a course under Marketing management and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the basic, but the most important lesson we have discussed. As a marketer, I have to know what are the basic needs of an individual in order to satisfy their needs and wants. On the other hand, I also saw the educational system here in our country and I guess that students just go to school for the sake of degree and diploma, they do not learn anymore. They are forced to study in order to get grades, but not to learn. I guess studying the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and a change of the education system would be a big impact and change in economical problems as well in the near future. It does not apply only in schools, but also in our working environment. Sometimes, it is not the pay day you are into, but a healthy working environment.

  2. I work in a rural, failing, generationally poor county with three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Several opportunities were taken advantage of to provide free food in daily breakfast, lunch and snacks for ALL students in the county. Qualifying students (families that sign a paper stating need) send home free meals for the weekends. Students have access to free health care services at the school including dental, health, hygiene, counseling and vision (including glasses). All school supplies are provided for students (mostly through teacher expenditures). This is my fifth year in this district and 22nd teaching. I have met the students needs including providing furniture, beds, sheets, clothes and finding resources for families going through tough times. Yet, I still do not have inspired, motivated, engaged, or progressing students academically. Most of my fifth grade students barely read at a second grade level. Last year, my whole fifth grade class worked on basic letters, sounds and sight words. I maybe reach one or two students each year, show no gains in our state testing for my VAM score, but have produced students who come to school each day and leave the attendance early warning indicators. I would ask what more I can do to help students learn but I believe in this case it is not the school but the community dynamics. How can we bring the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs to community government?

    1. Wow, what a great comment. It sounds like your school is doing a lot to incorporate Maslow but not getting the results you hoped for. You mentioned how the school provided some of the basic needs such as food, resources, and medical services but what about the other needs? What is the school culture like? Do the students get along with each other and the staff? Do they have positive interactions? Do the students feel valued and respected? Also, I would ask about the curriculum. Is it based on inquiry or more test-prep? Is it child-centered or teacher-directed? Is it culturally relevant or scripted? I can see how you might think the larger issue is with the community but I would continue examining the school practices and culture. I think community support and buy-in are important so you might want to think about how the school and district can develop community partnerships. Community mentors and reading tutors could help. Or joint literacy events for students and adults might be needed too.

  3. Denisha, I really appreciate your reframing of Maslow in this way. Even if states insist on judging our schools by the useless metric of standardized tests, teachers and parents can apply this framework to reach their own conclusions – and to inform the struggle to better fight for our students.
    Thank you!

  4. Thanks for sharing this! ASCD has a similar approach in our whole child approach, which is based on Maslow’s hierarchy. We’ve turned it into our five whole child tenets that students deserve to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Glad to see a similar concept is resonating with you!

  5. As I am reading this, I still struggle with the reality that schools are intentionally not funded in an equitable way. The framework you laid out here does not address the fact that our education system is designed to further create inequities. In a comment above, the educator is working to meet the basic needs of the students and still not seeing results. It is my opinion that we will not see higher outcomes of all students until we begin to drastically shift supports and funding provided to schools. Children in high need areas are often given the least amount of resources to interact with. Their access to health care and basic needs from birth place them at a disadvantage before even entering the walls of our schools. As long as we have a dominant group in our society that is unable to or refuses to address the intentional deprivation of basic needs of our children, we will not have equitable schools.

    1. Hi Zipporah. I agree with your comments completely. Many schools are not funded to be equitable and are unable to meet the needs of most students. I suggested applying Maslow to schools so we can evaluate schools based on their ability to be equitable. I think part of the solution stems in naming the issue. Many schools still believe in equality (giving all children the same regardless of need) when what we need is a focus on equity (giving students what they need regardless of whether it is equal to what other students receive). Once we demonstrate how schools are not being equitable we can find ways to move to a more equity-oriented framework. Part of the lack of equity is the choice schools make to spend the money they do have. If they are spending money with equality as the goal then they are missing opportunities be focus on equity. I also believe that once we are able to identify how schools are unable to be more equitable do to a lack of resources we can then look to ways the community can support schools. Equity is not something a school can do on its own. As evidenced in the comment about the teacher who works in a school trying to meet children’s most basic needs but are not seeing any results. I believe schools and communities must work together to ensure that all of a child’s basic needs are met. And if the community and school is unable to meet basic needs then we must demand that the federal government step in and provide the resources needed. I do not propose any quick fixes because I do not believe there are any but I do think we need to rethink how we name and address problems. But overall I agree, the biggest impediment to making schools more equitable is a lack of will from those who have the money and power to use their resources on other people’s children.

  6. Has there been any research conducted for homeless children? I am looking for research on pre-service teachers and if there has been education for them on Maslow’s theory working with homeless children.

  7. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  8. Thank you for sharing this perspective. I am current graduate student in the Educating For Change program at Trinity. Hope to meet you sometime.

  9. Denisha,
    This is the exact topic of my dissertation – focus area in Pensacola, FL – and the application of WCS pillars in our “pockets of poverty” in the Florida panhandle. The intention is sustainable change, resiliency training for constituents, and education means employment (any type) and empowerment. Maslow is the theoretical construct and application – so thank you for this.
    Best,
    Laura Johnson

  10. has there any research conducted homeless children ? i am looking for a research on the effects of motivation on education arts and culture