Actualizing Achievement: How I Used Maslow’s Hierarchy to Boost Achievement in My Classroom

What do students need to achieve? How is achievement dependent on students needs being met? In 1970, Albert Maslow published Motivation and Personality, a text that would greatly influence his contemporaries in the field of psychology. In his book, Maslow organized human needs in tiers, with the most fundamental basic survival necessities at the bottom and the most advanced, sophisticated needs at the top. He theorized that we only have the ability to focus on the higher tiers of need if the lower ones have already been met. Obviously, you won’t be very concerned with finding love or making art if you’re starving.

Maslow’s simple, elegant theory became the basis from which many new branches of positive psychology grew. And, nearly 50 years later, it continues to hold merit today. So how can Maslow’s hierarchy of needs be applied to academic achievement and character growth?

I began my teaching career in an extremely impoverished high school where nearly 90% of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch and students regularly tested at an elementary school reading level. Violence was often part of daily life for my students. Many of them felt regularly unsafe and some of them couldn’t even depend on most basic needs being met when they left school.

How could my students be expected experience academic achievement and personal growth if they were stuck on the bottom two tiers of the pyramid?

With this question rumbling in my brain, I realized that while I couldn’t control what happened to my students outside the confines of my classroom, I could control what happened inside. I was capable of creating an environment in which students had their most fundamental life needs met, felt safe, were comfortable expressing and receiving love, were encouraged to grow creatively, and perhaps could even discover the intricacies of their own identities. Here’s what I did to enable students to meet each of Maslow’s needs:


1) Physiological

Many students would come to school with empty stomachs, would miss lunch, or both. I made sure to keep healthy, nourishing snacks in my classroom. if I could tell that a student was hungry (you learn to tell) I’d offer something to them. Green plants also helped to purify the air tainted by the nearby Chevron refinery.


2) Safety

From the beginning of the year, I made it clear that violence, bullying, and abuse of any kind were not tolerated. I was clear, consistent, and concise with my enforcement of this policy and although students tested me at first, my classroom quickly became a safe place for all.


3) Love/Belonging

I organized students into teams with clearly defined roles for each member, helping to create a feeling of interdependency and belonging. Every Friday students identified why someone else in the room made them grateful. Before I went home each day, I made sure to call three parents to tell them why I liked having their student in my class. By the end of the year, I had been able to talk to everyone’s parents multiple times and students obviously felt appreciated and motivated in my space.


4) Esteem

I made sure to provide detailed feedback to every student, especially on projects in which they had invested significant time and effort. I also highlighted exemplary student work by hanging it on the wall. This inspired the students who were highlighted, encouraged their peers to create exemplary work, and made my room beautiful.


5) Self-actualization

Students started each quarter by setting goals for themselves personally, academically, and socially and then graded themselves with summative feedback at the end of each quarter. I encouraged students to pay attention to what they found interesting from our lessons and pursue it in our projects. This self-driven learning empowered students to discover who they were and what mattered to them.