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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).
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.
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