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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Guide to Improving SEL

February 27, 2022

The mental toll of the pandemic, and corresponding ESSER-recommended funding, put SEL (social and emotional learning) top of mind in schools. The benefits of SEL aren’t new. What is new is the broader awareness and heightened sense of urgency to address SEL. And yet there’s little agreement on how. Maybe until now.

social and emotional learningMaslow’s Hierarchy and SEL

After reflecting on the market confusion around SEL definitions, debates over who should “own” SEL in schools, and a recognition of MindPrint’s unique contribution around self-awareness, we realized Maslow’s nearly eight-decade old hierarchy provides a great model. Because it’s near-universally understood and accepted by educators, it’s a perfect starting point for gaining understanding and acceptance.

Maslow’s theory explains that all humans are motivated to satisfy five fundamental needs. A person’s basic needs must be met at the bottom of the pyramid before higher level, less tangible needs can be realized at the top. Below we show Maslow’s hierarchy. Next to it we show MindPrint’s interpretive model of Maslow needs through an SEL lens. In the MindPrint pyramid we include who in the school might own implementation.

maslows hierarchy

Physiological Needs / Mental Health

Quite simply, students will not learn if their minds and bodies are distracted. If students are hungry, sleep-deprived, anxious or depressed, they have limited physical or mental capacity for learning.

While physical needs and trauma have long been an endemic challenge in low SES schools, since the pandemic more students than ever are hungry or transient and clinical levels of anxiety and depression in adolescents have doubled.  The bottom of the pyramid, perhaps once considered a primarily low SES challenge, is now a pervasive concern.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based preventative classroom-level programs. They include mindfulness, health and wellness, and reductions in homework and intense extra-curriculars. Experts in your school, including counselors, nurses and school psychologists, can select and lead these programs. They also can screen and support students who need more personalized interventions.

Safety, Love  & Belonging / School Climate

To fully engage, students must know school is a physically and emotionally safe place. Since definitions of school climate always include safety and trusting relationships, the alignment to Maslow is clear. And it’s also clear to most educators that positive relationships with both adults and peers are a prerequisite for effective learning.

All adults can contribute to a positive school climate, but school leaders set the tone. Administrators must demonstrate they value students’ feelings, interests, and needs as much as they value academics and athletics. This can be a shift for districts known for high test scores, impressive college acceptances, and conference titles, but it’s clear that a positive school climate will result in even greater academic outcomes.

Plenty of screeners can efficiently show school climate trends at a grade, school or district level. Since school climate is closely tied to students’ ever-changing environment, continuous monitoring should be the norm. Given the localized nature of climate, there are no “one size fits all schools” solutions to address school climate concerns. However, hands-on leaders can readily find solutions to meet their community-specific needs. A word of caution, however. While screeners can provide a good window into the community as a whole, they will not identify if an individual student’s needs are being met. Climate screeners are never a substitute for personal relationships, individual data, and personalized interventions.

Esteem & Self-Actualization  / Self-Awareness & Self-Management

Once schools address mental health and school climate challenges, they can meet the higher order needs at the top of the pyramind. Don’t focus too much on the names. Some might prefer Maslow’s terminology. Others might choose a term from the CASEL framework. Others might prefer terms like metacognition or learning to learn. In the MindPrint pyramid we use self-awareness and self-management, believing they are foundational for deeper learning in and out of school.

All teachers, regardless of the school’s socio-economic demographics, have the power to meet the “top of the pyramid” needs of each and every student. Leadership must, of course, provide the right data (achievement, cognitive, SIS) and the right tools (curriculum, instruction, physical environment). However, only teachers who personally can connect to a student’s strengths, needs, interests and challenges, can cultivate these intangible lifelong skills of self-awareness and self-management. At MindPrint we pride ourselves in helping teachers at the top of the pyramid. We see amazing results and we are always happy to share our insights, tools and training.


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