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I wish, in my early career, I understood why some students tried so hard to impress their friends.  I recall the faces and circumstances of specific students throughout my career when students’ actions just didn’t make sense. Instead, I presumed they were simply exhibiting “attention-seeking behavior.” My antidote was to shower them with positive attention when they did something good. My hope was that the recognition I provided fulfilled their need to be affirmed, elevated their status in my classroom, and would reduce their urge to blurt out unrelated and sometimes ridiculous comments just to get a laugh. 

The problem was, I was only half correct with my amateur diagnosis of student behavior. I was on the right track to recognize it as an esteem issue. However, what I missed completely is how and why esteem needs cause students to act in ways that defy what they know as right, to ignore their own strengths and accomplishments, and to restrict their success as a learner. 

Some educators blamed social media. When I taught middle school, it was often labeled a trait of the age group. It wasn’t until recently, when I was revisiting Maslow’s Hierarchy, that the lightbulb turned on. Not only did it click, I think it busted the glass with what I had overlooked for so many years.  The need to meet the fourth tier in the hierarchy—esteem—is more significant than I had realized. If we can better understand how this tier works, we can help our students satisfy their esteem needs in healthy and beneficial ways.


Editor’s note: Since the publication of this post, it has been brought to our attention that Maslow built his hierarchy with significant, but uncredited, influence from the Blackfoot Nation. While this fact does not negate anything written here, it is a history all educators should know. Learn more about the background and the significant differences between the two models in this collection.


How Maslow’s Theory Impacts Learning

In order to motivate students to achieve and be willing to take risks, we have to understand the needs humans have that impact their ability to tap into that motivation. According to Maslow’s original hierarchy, there are five tiers that make up a hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1987).

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Deficiency vs. Growth Needs

In the first four stages—physiological, safety, love and belonging, and esteem—Maslow says that we don’t feel anything when these needs are met, but anxiety kicks in when they are not. For example, if you’ve had a good meal, there isn’t a boost of motivation, but hunger can impede a person’s ability to concentrate. He calls these deficiency needs. His theory is that when we are craving physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem needs, we become distressed. There is a negative impact when we are deprived of these needs, but no impact when they are met; we simply avoid unpleasant feelings or responses. (Maslow, 1962). 

The top tier of Maslow’s Pyramid is where behavior and motivation turn. The fifth stage is self-actualization. Self-actualization is the lone motivator that Maslow labels as a growth need. This means that the energy that is presented as anxiety when seeking fulfillment at the lower four levels converts to actions to improve oneself at the top level.

How the First Three Tiers Play Out in School

Tier 1: Physiological Needs

Without these biological and basic needs, the body can not function at its best. These foundational needs  (air, food, clothing, warmth, sleep, etc) were determined by Maslow to be most important, causing the other stages to be secondary until these basic needs are met.

It is more important than ever to remember how powerful these physiological needs are. Students who are hungry and sleep-deprived are not cognitively open to learning. It’s not that they choose not to learn; their brains and bodies simply make it extremely difficult to do so.

Tier 2: Safety Needs

Take a hard look at the list of examples that fall under the stage of safety. Protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear. This means predictability, control in their lives, emotional security, and social stability are all impacted in this area. 

Family and schools are among the entities that fulfill these safety needs. When K-12 education—a major source of stability for students—is not consistent, predictable, and routine, it leaves students unfulfilled. For example, when schools are faced with a sudden need to change from in-person to virtual, it significantly disrupts the comfort a regimen provides. Established school and classroom routines play a role in students’ feelings of safety at this level.

Tier 3: Love and Belonging Needs

Once the physiological and safety needs are met, the next stage concentrates on social interactions and a feeling of belonging. This is more about lack of exclusion and avoiding isolation than it is about status. (The level of clout is more directly connected to the 4th stage, esteem.) 

Besides their families, students often experience feelings of belonging at school. Classroom families, friendship groups, clubs, and sports teams all offer the sense of being part of a group. Students who are missing love and belonging in their home lives can get some of these needs met in the educational and social settings. We accomplish this through seating arrangements, peer partner groups, an overall sense of caring and compassion, and taking interest in students outside their identity as a learner.

The Fourth Tier: The Truth About Esteem Needs 

Here’s where many of our assumptions about student motivation are debunked when Maslow’s theory is applied. It is logical that warm clothes, a desire for stability, and even a sense of love and belonging are all deficiency needs. A common misconception is that esteem belongs with self-actualization in that they both drive improvement of oneself. While this is true for self-actualization, esteem is a deficit need. This means the motivation is triggered by negative feelings that lack of esteem generates.   

Maslow identifies two categories within the esteem stage: (1) esteem for oneself or self-esteem, and (2) esteem from others (Maslow, 1987). It is the second type that includes reputation and respect from others that he claims is most important for children and adolescents. The desire for respect is established before true self-esteem is developed (McLeod, 2020). 

The need to be respected  by others plays a direct role in students’ willingness to take risks in the classroom. If a student’s status is vulnerable, they are less likely to engage in activities that will prevent their esteem needs from being met. However, students who have established reputations with their peers can bounce back from an event that could otherwise lower their social status. 

We often recognize when students care more about what others think about them than their own success. This is the esteem stage we are noticing. Adults often try to divert children’s attention from their need for respect from others to being content with themselves. The result is not overwhelmingly effective because the desire to be accepted by others precedes the self confidence kids have. This, according to Maslow, is not a chicken-egg scenario.

Here’s the tricky part about meeting esteem needs: They can’t be faked. False praise and inflated achievements don’t contribute to a student’s self-esteem or improve their reputation with others. Because esteem is aligned with the internal feelings people have about themselves, when participation trophies, for example, are given, the recipients have an underlying awareness that the trophy wasn’t actually earned. So, while the positive attention is welcomed, it doesn’t positively impact the confidence people have in themselves. It can actually work in the opposite way because it calls attention to a lack of true success which can lower people’s beliefs that they’re worthy or capable (Kay & Shipman, 2018).

When intentionally working to address the esteem needs of our students, we have to provide authentic experiences of knowledge, competence, independence, recognition, and confidence.  Even though esteem is an internal quality, it relies on external experiences to reinforce or build it. In their book, The Confidence Code, authors Kay and Shipman explain that confidence—a close cousin to esteem—is grown by overcoming challenges. They share that failing fast, then using the lessons learned from those initial failures to eventually achieve success, is one of ways confidence is built. If success is not ultimately achieved, and in a genuine way, then the person is simply left with a feeling of failure and you can easily guess what that does to esteem. The formula is challenge + success (no matter how long it takes) = confidence increase (Kay & Shipman, 2018).

When success seems to be a stretch, then the teacher’s focus should move to reducing the negative impact a classroom event has on damaging esteem. Strategies like “phone a friend” have that potential. If students are asked to provide a response and when invited to get help from a peer the question then transfers to the peer, the initial student sees the opportunity for a status boost handed off to a classmate. However, if the initial student asked was provided the choice to solicit a prompt or hint from that classmate, the original student maintains the feeling of success. One giant step to building esteem in our learning spaces would be to reduce the emphasis we place on right answers. It encourages cheating at every stage of the learning process. When students feel they should know the answers from the onset of a lesson, they engage in efforts that do not promote building their knowledge (an esteem booster) but rather, reinforce a feeling of incompetence (an esteem buster).

3 Esteem-Building Strategies to Try

In my observations of hundreds of lessons across the nation, the following strategies have an impact on the willingness students have to take risks when faced with a challenge and therefore, present the opportunity to truly pump up esteem. As Kay and Shipman point out, lack of trying guarantees confidence will not rise (2018).

1. Give students an “out” up front.  

Offer students specific language that allows them to “under-commit” to responses or give them an opportunity to save face. It’s much easier to shift or back away from an answer if it was prefaced with something like, “I might change my mind later, but right now I’m thinking…” versus “I think the answer is …” 

2. Listen for opportunities to elevate a student’s status. 

When you’re intentionally trying to fulfill students’ esteem needs and you’re not seeing opportunities, create them. You can solicit affirmations from your students by calling attention to contributions they bring to the class. Then, when you recognize an example of one or more students impacted positively by something a peer said/did, narrate it to call attention to it. These two actions, soliciting opportunities and labeling make for a solid pairing. Solicit positive peer comments, then label them as such.  

3. Support Positive Peer Interactions. 

Classroom culture and structures can also be used to encourage ways to support positive peer interactions to fulfill esteem needs. Planning ways to fulfill the esteem needs of your students, the results will be quicker and stronger than if you wait for them to happen organically.

Moving to Tier 5: Self-Actualization Needs

Students in this stage seek opportunities to grow. Examples include creative thinking, contributing to a greater good, self assessment, and independent goal setting. The forces that feed self actualization, the only growth need on the hierarchy, come from within the individual. This is distinctly different from the deficiency needs that come from external forces. For students who appear to be self actualizing, they will thrive in environments that provide autonomy, self expression and creativity.

Attending to the hierarchical needs of our students will help us provide a safe learning environment. A place where their basic needs are met, they have a sense of safety, and they feel they belong is necessary. Attention to their esteem needs will create a classroom where students do not fear losing status or triggering their need to protect their own self esteem. These levels are deficiency needs; when they are not satisfied, students experience negative emotions that can drive their actions and impact behavior. Rather than addressing the behavior as if the student is trying to elevate their esteem, seek ways to satisfy their need to be valued and respected. You will have more luck making a long-lasting change and a positive impact on the young humans in your classroom. 


References

Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2018). The confidence code: the science and art of self-assurance– what women should know. HarperBusiness, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. 

Maslow, A. H. (1967). A Theory of Metamotivation : the Biological Rooting of the Value-Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7(2), 93–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/002216786700700201

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Harper & Row Publishers.

McLeod, S. (2020, December 29). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html 


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12 Comments

  1. Heather B. says:

    I usually don’t comment on things but this article is inspirational. I didn’t think of “attention-seeking behaviors” as a response to a need. I wish I could go back in time and undo some of my reactions to those students who just wanted to maintain their status among their peers. Wow. I asked myself: Did I have any students functioning at Tier 5 in my classroom? Did I give students the opportunity to grow emotionally? Hmmmm. There were some really great ideas about allowing students to “opt out”! I loved that! I can see that next year will be better! Thanks!

  2. Synthia M Williamson says:

    Awesome information. I have been saying this for years as a survivor of Childood abuse and neglect.

  3. “Every time you think of calling a kid ‘attention-seeking’ this year, consider changing it to ‘connection-seeking’ and see how your perspective changes.”
    ~Dr. Jody Carrington, psychologist

  4. Thank you so much for this information. I was particularly struck by the podcast discussion around mindfully selecting collaboration groups so that students can shine. Although it’s not mentioned in the post itself, Connie Hamilton discussed her strategy for choosing students who might otherwise not have opportunities to shine and providing them important information that they can go back and share with their groups, thus giving authentic esteem building interactions. This is very reminiscent of BeGLAD’s use of expert groups which is like a jigsaw, but it scaffolds students in heterogeneous groups to access complex grade level texts. For some students it is the the first time they have accessed grade level text successfully and this allows them to disseminate learned info to their team. I think it fits right in with Connie’s observation that challenge+success=confidence.
    While BeGLAD strategies are often used in elementary school, I have really enjoyed using them in middle and high school for the past five years. I find that expert groups not only give students important information to share but enable them to do so in a highly supported manner.

  5. Liz says:

    Can you please elaborate a bit more about tier 2 and what you mean by Protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
    How are these seen?
    We have modern learning environments with around 110-120 students in one learning space.
    They don’t have freedom of fear when there are multiple violent students in their learning space who are violent almost every day.
    How would you see security, order and law playing out? We have very little boundaries in place and no consequences for attacking other children or adults making the other children frightened.

    • Maslow’s theory is generally that a person’s motivation will lie with the lowest level of unmet need. So, in your case, if students feel there is danger of harm, their energy will focus on keeping themselves safe.

      If the deficiency need is not mostly satisfied, they are unlikely to take much interest in the higher levels. For example, when you fear for your safety, you’re not likely to be concerned with whether if not the people presenting a threat think you are smart or good looking – unless it protects you from harm.

      A more common situation is how people get “hangry”. When hunger needs are not met (Tier 1: physiological need) the focus is on food and being kind to others and make friends (tier 3: love and belonging need) is temporarily paused.

      The motivation to achieve higher levels is present when the lower levels are mostly satisfied. Therefore, based on Maslow’s theory, you will have a challenge to achieve a sense of community, build esteem or have many students take on learning challenges. Their ability to work to fulfill higher levels will often be superseded by their need to be free from fear.

  6. Erin says:

    This podcast has given me a huge “aha” moment- thank you for that. I realize now the importance of addressing the third tier- absence of belonging, especially after the extreme isolation of the last year. It’s an interesting lens through which to view the SEL framework that my school has planned for this upcoming year. I would love to hear/read your thoughts on addressing the third tier, beyond clubs, teams, and cliques.

  7. Andrew Perry says:

    Is it possible for you to give an example of this?
    2. LISTEN FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO ELEVATE A STUDENT’S STATUS. When you’re intentionally trying to fulfill students’ esteem needs and you’re not seeing opportunities, create them. You can solicit affirmations from your students by calling attention to contributions they bring to the class. Then, when you recognize an example of one or more students impacted positively by something a peer said/did, narrate it to call attention to it. These two actions, soliciting opportunities and labeling make for a solid pairing. Solicit positive peer comments, then label them as such.

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      Hi Andrew, there’s a graphic below the paragraph you cited that gives some examples of how to solicit affirmations from students. Scroll down and you’ll see it. Let us know if you have any further questions!

  8. Michellea Millis Rucker says:

    Great article! Thank you so much for acknowledging the influence of the Blackfoot nation!

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