Hey teacher! Maybe you’ve seen a coworker with “Maslow Before Bloom” on a tee shirt, or perhaps you’re in a college class answering a question on a message board. Either way, you’ll hear this refrain casually uttered in professional development pretty regularly.
The subtitle of the book “Maslow Before Bloom” is actually “basic human needs before academics,” and that sums up the expression perfectly. Still, you may want more examples of how this plays out in classrooms across America. I’m here to help!
What is the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs?
This article explaining Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is pretty thorough, but I’ll offer a quick run down here. After all, it’s pretty simple.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who developed a theory called the “hierarchy of needs” to explain human motivation. It’s best understood by the classic pyramid visual shown below.
The needs represented toward the bottom of the pyramid must be met before moving up the pyramid toward higher-level needs.
In other words, once a person has their physiological needs mostly met, they will then seek to meet their safety needs, look for a community or family, and so forth.
Here is more information on each level of the hierarchy of needs pyramid:
- Physiological: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing
- Safety: personal security, employment, resources, health, property
- Love and Belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, connection
- Esteem: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, freedom
- Self Actualization: the desire to be all you can be
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to all people, not just children. But this post is targeted at those who work in K-12 education.
Children who are safe, healthy, loved, and fed get to dedicate their emotional energy toward growth at the higher levels of the pyramid, while students living in poverty may be quietly tending to the basic human needs represented at the bottom.
This means that kids can’t reach for the stars academically when they’re struggling with meeting basic needs like shelter, food, and a safe home environment.
Here are my ideas for supporting student autonomy in the classroom.
Where does education fall on the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs?
Desiring and working toward an education, and learning for its own sake, is a matter of self-actualization.
That’s because people don’t begin to dream and set goals until all other basic needs are met, including food, shelter, security, love, community, and respect for themselves as individuals.
Students may comply and meet basic expectations in the classroom even if their basic needs are not being met at home or school. However, you won’t see kids digging deep, asking smart questions, and becoming truly curious about the world until they have the bottom four levels of the pyramid in place.
Once people reach the top of the pyramid and begin “working on themselves” (which might be a lay-person’s term for self actualization), the work never ends. After all, once you achieve one goal, you’re likely to continue looking for more growth.
Occasionally in life, we have to go back to lower levels of the pyramid and regain what’s been lost before we can pursue higher needs again. That’s why someone might be a great learner one year, and then struggle to find motivation at another time, depending on what else is happening in their life.
Moving up and down the pyramid is an expected part of life.
Looking for more best practices in public education?
What is Bloom’s Taxonomy? (Revised in 2001)
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework that teachers have been using for generations to help them categorize the level of rigor in their assignments and checks for understanding. Here is a great resource if you’d like a deep dive into Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Blooms Taxonomy includes 6 categories of thinking and doing, which are also popularly represented by a pyramid.
Here are the six categories. As teachers write objectives that students will master, they may choose verbs that are essentially synonyms of these, and that’s perfectly acceptable. For example, “craft” or “design” can easily replace “create” and retain meaning. This taxonomy allows teachers to quickly identify the level of rigor being expected of students.
Let’s imagine that a new teacher hasn’t quite wrapped her head around the standards she’s supposed to teach, so she simply knows that she needs to teach her kids about quotation marks.
That’s not enough; she needs to figure out what students need to be able to know and do when it comes to quotation marks.
- Is it enough to be able to recite a definition of quotation marks and point at a pair of them in a reading assignment? If so, that falls under the category of “remembering.”
- Will it suffice for a student to be reading a book, come across a set of quotation marks, and understand that these indicate dialogue? If so, you can stop teaching when students reach this basic level of “understanding.”
- To carry this example to the logical end, do you expect students to be able to write a paragraph of dialogue that correctly uses quotation marks? If so, you’ve now reached the highest level of rigor for this particular standard, which is to “create” something.
In teaching, we are almost always aiming to move students higher up the Bloom’s Taxonomy to deeper levels of meaning. Whether it’s writing a paragraph with quotation marks or being able to apply basic multiplication facts to a complex word problem, rigor is king! And that’s where Bloom’s Taxonomy comes into play.
What does it mean to Maslow before Bloom?
Teachers will often remind themselves (and each other) that as educators, we have to “Maslow before Bloom.” This expression is often in the context of taking care of at-risk students’ basic needs so they have the motivation to engage in the deep thinking found in the upper part of the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid.
It’s also a cute little expression, because we think of “Bloom” like flowers opening up. And isn’t that the perfect metaphor for kids and teenagers discovering the grit and curiosity necessary for deeper learning?
Got a negative school culture? Try an assets-based approach to growth and see a quick change.
Examples of “Maslow Before Bloom” in the Classroom
Here are five great examples of teachers, campuses, school districts, and even government programs making sure to “Maslow before Bloom.”
A while back, you might have seen on social media a viral story about a substitute teacher who put her students’ hair in braids before starting the school day.
This teacher recognized that students need confidence to feel brave enough to tackle challenging learning tasks.
That’s a perfect example of a teacher making sure to “Maslow before Bloom.”
Free and Reduced Price Meals
My school district is a 100% Title 1 program, meaning that every student, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, receives a free breakfast and lunch each day. Additionally, all our students are eligible for free sack lunches each day in the summer at numerous pick-up locations around the city.
This is an example of the federal government making policy decisions that reflect a core understanding: that children can’t learn when their physiological needs aren’t met.
District-Level Bullying Policies
I would wager that every district in the United States now has a written policy to address the issue of bullying in schools.
When schools take an interest in stopping bullying, they’re recognizing that students don’t learn well when their safety is at risk.
Our school nurse keeps a large supply of children’s clothes in every size for our students, including socks, underwear, shoes, and coats. I’m reminded that clothing is a basic need at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.
I had a third grader once who regularly walked to school on the coldest days of winter wearing shorts. Her parents were addicted to drugs, and while she did own winter clothes, she wouldn’t always dress herself appropriately when her parents slept in. She would arrive on campus about 15 minutes after she woke up in the morning, very tardy, underdressed and cold. That’s the perfect example of a child who needed a basic need met before she could be expected to learn.
One of my former students that I had in a reading small group was demonstrating high comprehension but unusually low decoding skills. His poor reading seemed odd given his otherwise high intelligence and cheerful demeanor. I suspected dyslexia, and referred him for testing.
Our counselor received the referral, and as a matter of routine, ordered a quick hearing and vision screener from the nurse before proceeding. Lo and behold, this fourth grader was almost completely blind in his left eye, and no one had noticed before. He was doing his best to compensate, but it was seriously affecting his ability to focus and read. He didn’t have a reading problem at all!
Within weeks of getting free glasses from our Communities in Schools partner, this child passed the state standardized test, when it seemed inconceivable only months before.
When you have a student in your classroom who is not succeeding, it can be really hard to slow down and pay attention to the whole child. After all, whether you’ve got 20 students or 150, there’s already too much to do.
However, this may be an area where it’s best to slow down to speed up. How can you work smarter and not harder at helping students grow? How can you increase the level of rigor in your classroom (working up the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid) and expect students to achieve?
Try taking a closer look at each individual, struggling student. See if you can identify deficits on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. After all, is it possible that you’d move that student along faster by focusing on self-esteem and helping him adopt a growth mindset? Could a simple pair of eye-glasses or a trip to the doctor be an absolute game-changer for your student?
Here is how you can combat learned helplessness in the classroom.