Maslows Hierarchy of Needs And Why Some Students And Schools Are Failing

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is based on Dr. Abraham Mallow’s research and hypothesis. It describes the stages we all need in order to become fully functioning and responsible adults moving towards reaching the highest possible achievements humans can accomplish.


The hierarchy is broken down into five needs:

  • Self-Actualization           
  • Esteem
  • Love/Belonging
  • Safety
  • Physiological

The physiological needs is all the basic needs someone needs to survive such as food, water, air, homeostasis, excretion, and health.

The safety and security needs include security of:  body, resources, morality, family, health, stability and protection. At this level, all of the child’s physiological needs have been taking care of and they are interested in finding safety, such as from strangers. At this stage, a child develops a need for limits, order and structure. This is also the stage were fears and worries develop. The child may start fearing the dark, strange noises in their bedroom, or being kidnapped.

At the love and belonging level, the child needs others to love and support them, including family and friends. They need a sense of family stability in order to invest emotionally in others. If at this stage, it appears that no one loves or is stable enough to show a lasting commitment to the child, they may find it difficult to build future relationships or to even love themselves. This is also the stage where loneliness and social anxieties can develop.

At the esteem level, the child is searching for feelings of self-worth, confidence, achievement, mastery,  respect of others and respect by others. One one level, they may want status, a reputation and appreciation, and on a higher level they will need respect for their self, which is believed to be more important than respect for others. This is where some sense of independence and freedom start setting in, as well as potential issues with self-esteem and inferiority.

The four levels thus far mentioned were considered by Maslow to be deficiency or instinctual needs, meaning that if a child was deficits in any of these four needs they will be highly compelled to fulfill those needs. If however, all of a child’s needs are fulfilled at this level, they are free to move on to what are considered growth needs.

The growth needs are grouped under the level of self-actualization. They include needing to know and understand. This is what develops a child’s cognitive potential and is the level schools want each child to operate on. At this level, the child is able to listen, participate actively in discussion, attune, explore their thoughts and make meaning of the world around them.

At this level, the child appreciates symmetry, order and beauty. As they continue to grow, they become a fully functioning individual able to accept responsibility for their own life. They are well on their way to achieving their full potential and becoming the person they were meant to be. In the educational system, this is the main goal, to help children develop this part of their selves and nurture further growth in these areas.

The problem is, while schools in good areas with students from good neighborhoods usually function at this level, this is not the reality for many inner-city and impoverished students and communities. At good schools, students usually have had all of their four basic needs have met, while at poor, under-performing schools, many students haven’t had their basic needs completely met.

Often times the failing of many inner-city schools and students is blamed on teachers, when this is not always the case. I’ve been working in inner-city schools long enough to know that the teachers that work there are usually some of the most dedicated, educated and caring professionals you could ever hope for, but students still fail in large numbers.

When you look at the students, especially when you get to know them, you can see why failing schools are not always about teachers or the administration, but about the four basic needs that are not being fully met. These four basic needs have to be fully met in order for a child to even begin to truly gain benefits from being in school and a standardized educational system.

Many of these kids come to school starving or hopped up on foods that are full of sugar, but lack nourishment. They live in inconsistent homes and frequently either move or are bounced between relatives, and many live in dangerous environments from the home itself to the surrounding neighborhood. How then can we expect them to free their minds and focus on school when their basic needs aren’t even met?

Imagine a student starving becasue they didn’t get enough to eat the night before and didn’t get breakfast, yet they are supposed to focus and concentrate on an exam. When they do poorly, they are considered either a bad test taker, or the teacher is accused of being an inadequate educator.

Many of the kids in the inner-city high school I work at are simply surviving. They are trying not to get shot, attacked by people in their neighborhoods, kicked out of their home or help their parent pay the rent anyway they can.

One girl I spoke to came to school everyday with a knife because many girls in her neighborhood had been attacked by men and she was terrified she would get kidnapped, raped and killed walking home from school. It’s easy to think that this should motivate her to do well in school so she can get herself out of this type of neighborhood, but because her basic needs aren’t being met, she’s hyper-vigilante and anxious throughout the day with her mind pretty much on any and everything else except education.

I feel the frustration myself many times when I am trying to give a client the information and skills needed to overcome obstacles put in their way either by themselves or someone else, and they can’t truly grasp, let alone use the tools I am giving them because their basic needs haven’t been met and they are still stuck and starving for esteem, love and belonging, safety or physiological needs. I have to realize that much of what I am saying may be lost until they are able to attune and function on the higher levels of self-actualization.

Students and schools in these inner-city neighborhoods are compared to and expected to perform as well as students from schools and communities where their every basic needs are already met and they are free to focus on to the higher levels of self-actualization.

This is not to say that students can’t achieve some level of self-actualization although their basic needs aren’t fully met. I see that everyday, levels of extreme resilience where a homeless student who’s parents are in and out of jail is excelling in school, yet this is rare and one could only imagine how much more that student would be able to achieve if their basic needs were met and they were free to focus more energy on self-actualization, morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, etc.

These inner-city schools are usually the ones that need funding the most, but because they are often under-performing,  they usually lose funding. This is something I never understood. “Failing” schools lose funding and “A” schools get more money. When funding is cut, social workers, counselors and psychologist are usually the first to be let go, even though they are the ones in the trenches helping these children work through their deficiency needs.

This goes to show that many people, especially those higher up who make the big decisions on education and legislation,  are clueless about the realities facing many school children in our country.  It becomes far too easy  to blame failing students and schools on teachers and administrations, who are often working harder and under difficult situations compared to teachers from better performing schools with better funding and support.

To effectively make changes, it’s not about moving under-performing students to better performing schools, or putting different, “better” teachers and administration in under-performing schools, but investing more in rebuilding poorer neighborhoods and families with psychological, social, emotional and educational supports. This of course takes more work and takes longer, but I truly believe the benefits are far more reaching and lasting.

6 thoughts on “Maslows Hierarchy of Needs And Why Some Students And Schools Are Failing

  1. You are absolutely correct in your analysis of needs regarding success at school. This unbalanced situation where the poorer performing schools receive less money than high performing schools only serves to encourage students to fail at school, which further helps to marginalize those individuals throughout the rest of their life,and to create a wider gap between poor/working class peoples and middle/upper class groups. It helps create a situation wherein only those who (already have met their deficiency needs) having social capital are the only ones to succeed educationally and therefore also become self actualized. This NCLB put into effect by Bush has got to be one of the most devastating laws against the success of those from lower SES groups. It also puts the teachers in the positions of needing to provide much more than teaching…it forces them to become counselors, advisors, parents, nurturers Before being teachers. If you are in a low SES group in this country, it is extremely difficult to overcome the lack of social capital, the lack of meeting the deficiency needs, in order to succeed at school and move upward in SES. If only this would become a matter of public policy at the national level, perhaps this marginalization could be lessened.

  2. I have often wondered about the monetary incentivizing of schools – it seems counterintuitive, as you pointed out, to pull funding from schools where there seems to be the greatest need.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve worked at many “D” and “F” schools as well as some “A” and “B” schools and can tell you that the difference isn’t better teachers but the population and needs of the students. The underperforming schools are often working hard just to keep the peace and safety on campus while the better performing schools are already peaceful and safe so students and teachers are much more free to truly learn and educate. Before I started working in the inner-city schools I was at high performing schools and the difference is day and night when it comes to basic needs that have or haven’t been met.

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