What’s your hierarchy of needs?

Abraham Maslow’s theory know as the Hierarchy of needs has been around since 1943, and published in his paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. If you work with children and young people in any capacity, it’s probably a theory you’ve come across time and time again. Basically Maslow believed there are layers of needs, such as depicted in the pyramid above, that we all need to meet or have met in order to progress to the layer above.

What’s interesting to me, as I’ve been studying this again for our training courses, is that it speaks not only of needs being met but what happens to our motivation or desires to progress up the pyramid if a layer is deficient in some way.

For many children and young people who have had difficult starts in life, the basic physiological needs (bottom layer) such as air, water, food, shelter, sleep may not have been adequate. Food might not have been readily available or the right kind of food, sleep may have been constantly disrupted, their surroundings may have been cold and unhygienic. If that bottom layer is met, then it allows the child or person to concentrate on the next layer of safety. If it’s not met though, the person can be stuck in that place of survival and show no motivation to keep themselves or others safe.

We tend to just think about this theory for children but what about us as adults? Making sure our own basic needs are met continuously is important. It’s a fluid process. You don’t just meet the needs once and never have to revisit that layer. We ALL need to eat, sleep, breath every day in order to survive and to thrive.

The safety aspects fall into four categories

  • Personal security
  • Financial security
  • Health and well-being
  • Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts

Many children can’t focus on their own or others safety if they are hungry or tired. Think about how this might relate to the timings in our school days. What is their behaviour like just before lunch? First thing in the morning or last thing at night? Have they had any breakfast at all or eaten dinner the night before? All these things can impact on their anxiety levels, their behaviour and their ability to focus.

Belonging is incredible important for people’s all round development. For children and young people, the need to fit in and to be accepted is huge. You only have to look at social media and the impact it has on our young people to see that. I’m watching a series at the moment on Netflix called ’13 Reasons Why’. You may have come across it, particularly if you work with teenagers. The story is about a high school girl (about 17) who dies by killing herself. She leaves a set of tapes for the people she believes all played a part in her decision to take her own life. I would love to say I didn’t see any parallels with what my teenagers have to go through at school but I can’t. The teasing, name calling, bullying, sexual harassment and general disregard for each others feelings seem to be the norm these days.

Being aware of how important acceptance and belonging is to a child’s development is so important. If we were more aware maybe we wouldn’t leave them to ‘sort it out themselves’, or say they need to ‘toughen up’.

What about us? What about your feeling of belonging and acceptance in your work? In your home? With your family and friends? Is it something you intentionally work on or just ignore it?

Esteem – whether self-esteem or respect from others is the next layer on the pyramid. Once our basic needs are met, we feel safe and accepted, we can then feel good about ourselves and value others too. I know from many of our workshops with educators that feeling valued in our educational system can be hard sometimes. Not only might you be dealing with complex childrens lives but also the pressures to achieve and the strain on funding which can all contribute to an unhealthy working environment.

For children and young people again, self esteem may be a difficult thing to grasp. Whether from a typical background or one involving trauma, there are times when all children and young people may struggle in this area. Helping them to feel good about themselves and to respect others is so important, as it enables them to move onto the final layer of self-actualization.

This layer is about finding a person’s true potential. Helping them to be creative, find meaning, independence. Basically everything we’re trying to get children and young people to do falls into this category.

What amazes me as I think about this theory again is that there are five layers. In terms of size the basic needs is the largest layer and gets smaller as you go up the pyramid. However, we spend all our time, resources and energy in education on the top smallest layer of five. So four larger layers are overlooked in preference to the top. BUT Maslow’s theory states that you have to experience each layer below before you can reach the top. Why then don’t we spend more time on the bottom layers?

In our new online course we talk about the importance of understanding those bottom layers, how they impact on learning and what to do in order to help children and young people to experience those layers before they can move onto the top, You may have heard us say these things before but it’s a message we will continue to get out there as it’s so important.

So as you’re going about your day today give a thought to Maslow. How does this impact your children and young people? Also how does it impact you and your colleagues? Maybe focusing on a lower layer of the pyramid will help much more than times tables or reading….

Nicola Marshall
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Nicola Marshall

With over 13 years working in personal development Nicola Marshall has attained numerous skills and a genuine care for others. She is a fully trained coach, adoptive parent as well as the founder of Brave Heart Education.
Nicola Marshall
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