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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In this article find out what Maslow's theory is and why it is important in understanding child development.
© University of Reading

In the previous Step you reflected on your own expectations of learners, but what is expected of us as learning support staff?

For a child to be successful in school they need to be well fed, sleeping well, feeling safe at home, and have confidence in themselves. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a popular theory which focuses on a series of needs to be successful. Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who in 1943 published his hierarchy of needs to explain human motivation. He considered there were five needs – physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation and he put them in the shape of a pyramid.

Maslow theory triangle. The triangle is horizontally split into 5 sections. From top to bottom: Self actualisation in purple section, esteem in blue section, love/belonging in green section, safety in yellow section and physiological in a pint section

Figure 1: Maslow theory of needs. ©University of Reading

Maslow placed these needs in an order for one to be realised for the next to happen. Beginning with the foundational aspects of the basic needs – physiological and safety and eventually reaching the top of the pyramid to self-actualisation, which refers to a person reaching their fullest potential as a human being.

Maslow’s theory has its supporters and its critics. The main criticism being that his theory isn’t based on rigorous empirical data, but more on philosophy. However, the theory still serves as a simple framework and helpful reminder, that all learners are less likely to be successful if their basic needs are not met. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help focus on what children need, and to identify where there are gaps, for example, breakfast may be provided for children who come to school hungry.

If you go through the details of the needs this may become clearer:

  • Physiological needs are about having the right nutrition and water, access to fresh air, enough rest and exercise.
  • Safety needs are about security and feeling safe – physically and emotionally, the need to have shelter/a home and to have stability in one’s life.
  • Belongingness and love and are to do with others, the social side of feeling that you belong, are connected, loved and included.
  • Esteem needs concerns inner self – having feelings of achievement, being recognised, having power over one’s life and being a person different from another person.
  • Self-actualization is to do with achieving one’s full potential, being creative and finding that specialness of oneself.

From a purely child development stance, all child developmental needs are encompassed in Maslow’s theory – physical development, emotional development, social development, cognitive and language development and aesthetic development.

What’s important to take away from looking at Maslow’s theory is that the positive human condition rests on being healthy in body and mind. You have to attend to the basic needs of a child before you can expect them reach their full potential.

Are there any strategies you use to meet any of these needs? Are there any other needs you would add? Or other theories that you find relevant?

© University of Reading
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