Maslow's hierarchy of needs has great implications for the practice of effective teaching and learning. The hierarchy suggests that people cannot reach the level of self-actualization if they do not have basic needs met, including physiological needs and needs related to safety. This means that children who are not given sufficient food or healthcare are not ready or able to learn until their needs are attended to. The hierarchy explains the importance of programs such as Head Start, good public healthcare for children, and free school meals. Without these programs, children simply cannot learn. In addition, children must feel safe in their schools, with each other, and with their teachers if they are going to learn.
The next two levels of the hierarchy, love/belonging and self-esteem, mean that students must feel a sense of connection and love from their school. They must sense that their school administrators and teachers care for them. In addition, they must develop a healthy sense of self-regard, fostered by their schools and parents. Only if all of these elements are in place will they be able to move to the level of self-actualization or realizing their potential.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs posits that humans need to have the most basic life needs met before they can achieve anything in life beyond those basic needs. So, for example, we must be able to be fed, clothed, and sheltered before we are able to work on being part of a community or society, meeting our social needs, which are higher on Maslow's pyramid. This hierarchy has profound implications in the educational setting because unless and until students' most basic needs are met, they are simply unable to attend to higher order tasks such as learning. Teachers must have an awareness of the unmet needs of students, since teaching and learning occur at the higher parts of the pyramid, with social gratification, self-esteem, and self-actualization. These are what learning is meant to achieve. A student who is homeless or unsafe cannot focus on learning anything properly. A student who is hungry or tired cannot, either. Learning implies that one's brain is clear of the dreadful disruption of problems such as these. If you have ever tried to prepare for an exam while tired or hungry, you might have experienced just a little of this. So, while teachers sometimes complain that they are not social workers, it is incumbent upon us to understand Maslow's dynamic and do our very best to ameliorate the appalling conditions under which students often are trying to learn. I know many teachers who keep food handy, for example, or just take time out to listen and offer their best advice on solving students' most basic needs. It would be wonderful if the rest of society would understand this hierarchy and be willing to ensure that the most basic needs of all students were met. If that were the case, every student could be a success.