George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Addressing Our Needs: Maslow Comes to Life for Educators and Students

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. The bottom two levels reflect basic needs, the next two reflect psychological needs, and top reflects self-fulfillment needs.

In the mid-1950s, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow created a theory of basic, psychological and self-fulfillment needs that motivate individuals to move consciously or subconsciously through levels or tiers based on our inner and outer satisfaction of those met or unmet needs. As a parent and educator, I find this theory eternally relevant for students and adults, especially in our classrooms. After studying it over the past couple of years, my graduate and undergraduate students have decided that every classroom should display a wall-sized diagram of the pyramid, as students and teachers alike place pins and post-its on the varying tiers based on their own feelings, behaviors and needs. What do actual brain-compatible strategies look like on this pyramid?

Tier One

Meeting Physiological Needs in the Classroom

  1. Water bottles and water breaks.
  2. Focused attention practices: These practices, involving breathing, imagery and sound, last one and a half to two minutes as students close their eyes or focus on an object of attention, practicing quieting their minds from the free-flowing thoughts that bombard our thinking every day.
  3. Physical surroundings: These include room arrangement, color, temperature, plants, etc.
  4. Food: Provide a mixed snack bar and have the class designate times to grab some energy bites and continue working.
  5. Instrumental Music.

These elements contribute to brain-compatible learning by creating a physical environment that is inviting, warm and friendly!

Questions to Ask Myself

  1. What do I need?
  2. Am I tired?
  3. Am I hungry?
  4. How much water have I had over the past 24 hours? Is it enough?
  5. What resources (people, activities or experiences) could assist me in reaching my small and larger physiological and psychological goals?

Tier Two

Stability, Safety and Security, Freedom from Fear

  1. Attitude: Sometimes it is enough to have a personal affirmation that creates feelings of safety and security. For example: "Right now in this moment I am safe. I am breathing, I am aware, awake and I can think and feel!"
  2. Worry drop box: As you enter the room, drop a written concern in a box situated by the door. Research shows that writing out our concerns and worries frees up the working memory and relieves anxiety.
  3. Pin-ups: The class assigns various students to physically post a compliment or affirmation each day. We all need to feel validated and often lose sight of our strengths and talents because the brain is wired with a negative bias. These pin-ups help us focus on positive experiences and behaviors instead of faults and mistakes.
  4. Common experiences: Develop class guidelines together. Create a class blog. Invite outside speakers that promote service and safety: police officers, counselors, former students who have risen above difficult situations, etc.

Tier Three

Belonging and Love

  1. Classroom service project.
  2. Partnered work.
  3. Celebrations: Create special and celebratory days all year long: birthdays, VIP days, strength day, progress days, colorful days, etc.
  4. Working together: Assign these roles within the class: a) Listener, b) Recorder of feelings and thoughts, c) Small group of decision-makers, d) Student who "cares for" the teacher, office staff and other students, e) Poetry reader, f) Designer of classroom decorations, g) Gatekeeper who checks for disputes and conflicts
  5. Community circle: For 3-10 minutes at the beginning and ending of class, share a time where empathy is defined, discussed and brought to life. You might also share movie clips, personal narratives, or a story to jumpstart the day.
  6. Identity: A classroom theme, flag, song, flower and animal totem.

Questions to Ask Myself

  1. How do I handle negative situations? When these situations occur, what do I typically say to myself?
  2. What statement would encourage me?
  3. What are three negative emotions I feel most often?
  4. What are three positive emotions I feel often or sometimes?

Tier Four

Achievement, Recognition and Respect of Mastery, Self-Esteem

For students to feel capable and successful, we must create an environment that lends itself to this type of mastery.

  1. Expert Day: Students get to demonstrate personal expertise.
  2. Career Day: Bring in college students and community members to share the possibilities of academic and professional success following high school.
  3. Display skills as a class: Create and design quizzes, assignments and instruction for students in other classes and grades.

Small Goals I Am Mastering

  1. Work completion
  2. Dialogued about frustrations
  3. Stayed focused on assignments
  4. Showed respect and compassion for others
  5. Regrouped and continued to work after a frustrating time
  6. Helped another student or teacher
  7. Contributed ideas and suggestions to a conversation
  8. Used positive language in describing a need or desire
  9. Self-reflected about my daily work and interactions

Questions to Ask Myself

  1. What statement would encourage me?
  2. Who are my heroes? What character traits do I admire that make them my heroes?
  3. How will I know I am on the right track? What will tell me if I stray from pursuing my goals?
  4. What are my strengths?
  5. What are my challenges?
  6. How will I focus on these strengths knowing that my thoughts and feelings drive all my words and actions?

Tier Five

Self-Actualization and Self-Fulfillment Needs

This is level of self-evaluation related to service. We begin to explore and model, designing, evaluating and analyzing information outside of our own basic needs, serving others. To become creative thinkers, we have to begin discovering the problem, not just coming up with a solution. In this tier, students become self-assessors and self- reflectors. They are able to see and understand how their actions, thoughts and feelings affect all lives.

Questions to Ask Myself

  1. What is my purpose in life?
  2. What are the challenges in reaching my purpose and the lives of others?
  3. How can I serve the world?
  4. Why is there conflict and war? What can I do? What can we do?

Have you ever encouraged self-examination and self-reflection among your students? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

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Tiffany Nimtz's picture
Tiffany Nimtz
Preschool Teacher

Lori, this was a very interesting blog, linking how we grow based on our needs and desires to our success as learners. While reading your strategies for each tier, I was not only thinking about how this would be critical for older students, but how important it is for younger children and implementing them in a preschool/kindergarten setting. It can be easy to forget that perhaps a child might not be as successful as another because one (or many) of their needs on this hierarchy might not be met, and thus a teacher can work with the child to help meet their specific need. Over time, this could be used as a reflection tool for students, as they ask themselves what do I need or what am I missing that would make me more successful? What could I be doing to help my class be more successful? This was a great read! Thank you Lori!

Sam Cannon's picture

The real trick is flipping Maslow's "triangle" so that it is V.
A tree does not grow from the top. The Siksika (Blackfeet) where Maslow learned (Google "naamitapiikoan") gave it to him with the growth from the bottom up, like in UNIX. But he fell prey to "geometric tyranny" and published it with the triangle upside down. Work it with the point down and see if it doesn't make more sense. Nice article. Cheers.

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

I love your out of the box thinking! How interesting to think of flipping this... hmm... thinking on this! Thank you!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I really like the way you apply Maslow to the concrete reality of teaching and learning here. We've done the same thing from a school change perspective, applying the levels to an organization in the same way Maslow applied them to the individual.

I think it's a testament to a solid theory that it applies equally well in both situations.

I can't wait to share this with my graduate students. Thanks so much!

Elisheva Cohen's picture

I love this--thanks! I wonder how it could be adapted and used in areas of emergency and crisis (think: refugee camps, natural disasters, etc.).

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teacher Trainer

Students' perception creates the emotional learning environment of the classroom or the entire school. I am not talking about entertaining students but about a learning environment where students cooperate and are accountable for their own learning. In Finland one measurement for successful education is "kouluviihtyvyys", which approximately translates to school enjoyment, or school satisfaction, but actually has some deeper connotations - the very same we see in this article.
Self-actualization strongly relates to independent learning and viewing learning as a (lifelong) process.
Love/Belonging in school settings was discussed by Erik Allardt already back in 1988. And, of course this all relates to Successful learning experiences:


Syed Urfi's picture

There are a lot of out of the box approaches which can be implemented in the class room for better learning. I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to focus on the background of students that how to do they adapt themselves in a classroom. I believe much of the focus is on the settings of the class room and not on individual perception of the student. Some students who come in from foreign countries find them selves in a different environment. They have to adapt to their new surroundings/settings. A teacher should be able to cater to all of the students. Students should understand diversity and accept it as well.

Larry's picture
Owner of ThrivEdge - Academic, Success, Career training

Though I agree with the concepts in the tiers posed by Maslow, I no longer believe in the tier model - that you must have what is in the lower tier before you can function or pursue what is in the next tier or higher tiers. The human spirit is greater than this, though I'm not saying that some may need to travel the tiers as Maslow describes. I like what Daniel Pink says about motivation much more and Pink's is more flexible - he does not deny Maslow but goes beyond it for how more people live today.

Asma Rabbani's picture

i agree with the concepts but the model can be more flexible according to varying conditions

Asma Rabbani's picture

I agree with the approach but the model can be more flexible according to varying conditions.

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