By Allison Kirch, Staffing Specialist for MHED

“If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.” – Barbara Colorose.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who in 1943 developed what he called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory stresses the importance that learning, and growth cannot take place if basic human needs are not being met. You may have seen the diagram before. Let’s dive in!

Maslow’s Hierarchy includes five interdependent levels of needs that we have as humans.  The bottom four levels are deficiency needs, meaning, the first four levels of needs must be met in order for a person to reach the fifth level, which is the growth level where learning and development can occur.

Each deficiency we have as humans is motivating for us.  For example, if you stay up all night taking care of a family member who is ill and perhaps you only received one or two hours of sleep, and then you go to work or school the next morning, that physiological need is motivating. You will continue to become more tired as the day goes on if you do not get sleep.

Until that basic need for sleep is met, it will become increasingly difficult to stay awake at work and function properly during your workday, or at school for our students. If you continue with this sleep deficit, not only will you struggle to maintain your health, but you may have difficulties with family and friendships as you grow more fatigued and irritable as time goes on. As you continue in this spiral of sleep deprivation and are struggling to maintain friendships because of your short fuse, you may begin lacking confidence and maintaining positive self-esteem.

It is important as educators to understand Maslow’s theory and how it can impact the students in our classrooms. Although we may not necessarily know everything that happens when a student is outside of the classroom especially as substitute teachers, having this knowledge will help us understand WHY students behave the way they do.  If we understand that if a child is not receiving an adequate amount of sleep each night, or is coming to school hungry because they didn’t have dinner the previous night and/or breakfast that morning,  we can understand that they will not be available to learn at school, because their basic physiological needs have not been met.

Now, let’s say the physiological needs have mostly been met for students. It’s time to focus on making sure students feel safe while they are in our care. Again, I want to reiterate that we do not know what is going on outside of school with any student. This classroom and teacher whom you are subbing for could be their only safe place or safe person… the one trusted adult in their life. When they walk into the classroom and see they have a substitute, that could catch them off guard.  If this is their safe place, students may act differently in this room with these peers, than they do outside of the classroom.  If the substitute introduces themselves to the students and has closed body language or an authoritarian teaching style, it could throw the student off, and could trigger a variety of behaviors.  Students want to continue to feel safe physically as well as mentally and emotionally even if it is your first time in their classroom/ building.

The next tier ties into the previous. If students feel safe, they will be able to establish friendships, and feel like they belong. Students not only want to feel valued by their peers and have established relationships with their peers, they also crave that connection with the adults in their lives. Everyone in this world wants to feel like they belong. Once students feel this connection of love and belonging, they feel safe in their environment, and their physiological needs have been met, this helps build positive self-esteem. Think about the best day you’ve had recently. Perhaps you got eight hours of restful sleep, woke up on time, ate a hearty breakfast, kissed your family members goodbye, the children were Angels while they got ready for school, then you arrived to work to see smiling coworkers. That would be quite a phenomenal morning. You may sit down at your desk, finally and think, “Wow. Today is a going to be a great day. I slept well, I’m feeling good, my family was starting their day on a good note without any arguments or tantrums. I feel like I could conquer the world.”  That would definitely boost your self-esteem and confidence for the day. You have just checked all 4 bottom tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. You are now able to grow in your career and have a successful day. This is the 5th level- self-actualization. By reaching this level, you can now focus on being the best version of you focusing on learning new things, achieving your full potential and continued growth as a human being.

Not everyone has days like this, and that’s okay. But, when we have this understanding, and can empathize with students in the classrooms that we teach in each day, we are able to make better connections with students, build relationships and understand that all behavior is a form of communication. Knowing and understanding Maslow’s theory will help us be better teachers for our students.

We will look at how to apply this theory with the students in our classrooms on our next blog. Stay tuned!



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