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Back to Maslow’s basics

5 min read


Once again, it’s time to go back to the basics — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While we do so, we must keep in mind that these are needs, not wants. If left unaddressed or unfulfilled, natural frustrations and anxieties will occur. As we continue to search for the solutions to all of the issues facing education and society today, we need to look back to find our path to a better future. To have an impact, we must look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs through a new lens, through the rose-colored glasses of a better future — the future we are so desperately trying to create.


Everyone needs to achieve his or her individual potential. Teachers must know each student’s strengths, talents, passions and challenges. They must give each student the chance to be responsible for creating their best future and for finding their place in society. Teachers must have this as their ultimate goal. Guiding others on the road to self-actualization goes well beyond basic curriculum and test scores. As students and teachers work together to move to this level, they find purpose, develop morality, think creatively and critically through a strong sense of purpose, and take responsibility for their lives.

Self esteem

Self esteem is not just feeling good about yourself. It’s also knowing yourself and taking pride in your hard work and accomplishments. It’s about knowing that you are responsible for yourself and for being respectful of others It is about fulfilling your need to be unique and valuing uniqueness in others. It is knowing how others value you. Teachers must focus more on personalizing teaching, learning and evaluation.

Safety and security

Our students need to feel emotionally, physically and socially safe at school. With the spate of school shootings in America, it may seem impossible to create this safe environment. Adding locks and metal scanners isn’t enough. Such visible and intrusive procedures can make students feel less secure as they can be seen as constant reminders of the threats around them.

Schools must create safe and caring school cultures where all students feel understood, cared for and valued. All students must be fully engaged in learning and  the process of becoming positive, contributing members of the school and society. They must be given strategies to be responsible, show self-discipline, take appropriate risks and truly know themselves. This is how we can limit bullying and increase a sense of safety. Bullying doesn’t stop just because policies forbid and punish it.


After family, school is where our children most need to feel a sense of belonging. They come to school to learn, not just core curriculum, but who they are becoming and how they can take control of their future. Our teachers know this and do whatever they can to support them in spite of the political and bureaucratic structures of the educational system that focus almost exclusively on test scores.

Schools need to have flexible structures that allow students to find their place in groups, large and small. They need to understand where they can contribute and feel the inner gratification that comes with this sense of belonging. They need a significant connection to at least one adult in the school. Ideally, this connection will be organic and not necessarily a defined connection. It is, however, necessary to ensure that each student has a documented connection so that no one is left without.


We all know that our students need to come to school fed, clothed, well rested and mentally fit. We also know that this isn’t the norm. Even though this forms the base of Maslow’s pyramid, it is often ignored. Breakfast and lunch programs are wonderful. Snack programs that send students home with food for the weekend are great but are often left to parent groups or other community support mechanisms.

In reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can begin to look at root causes and provide supports early in our children’s lives. Why do so many young children need anti-anxiety drugs or drugs for hyperactivity and attention deficit? What are the side effects of these medications? Are they short or long-term solutions? Why is bullying almost an epidemic in our schools and lives? What more can we do? How can we ensure that our children are physically and mentally healthy? These are big questions forming the base of our students’ physiological needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been with us since 1943 when Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. While the hierarchical nature of the pyramid has come in question, as have the needs of different age groups and the evolving social context in which we live, the five needs continue to be unquestionably important.

Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change”. She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education. Learn more at