Maslow might be a name that you vaguely associate with your Child Psychology class from college, but his hierarchy of needs has major implications for your students.

I woke myself up

Because we ain’t got an alarm clock

Dug in the dirty clothes basket,

Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform

Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,

Cause the lights ain’t on

Even got my baby sister ready,

Cause my mama wasn’t home.

Got us both to school on time,

To eat us a good breakfast.

Then when I got to class the teacher fussed

Cause I ain’t got no pencil.

-Joshua T. Dickerson


She sat by herself during every dance class, her dark, choppy hair making her pale skin even whiter. With her headphones constantly plugged in, she sat in her own world, muting out the gossip and chatter of a room full of high school girls. She never talked to anyone and no one talked to her. She complied with all the dances and exercises, but, even then, she had a chip on her shoulder and a frown came more easily than a smile.

Maybe you’ve had a student like this, not quite a trouble maker, but troubling none the less. Or maybe you’ve had even worse. On the long days, when patience is thin, those kids are the last students you probably want in your classroom. Every teacher wants cheerful, cooperative, “normal” students – but teaching is more than lesson plans, grading, and talking at a room full of students. Teaching involves real people with real lives and real emotions, which makes it one of the messiest – but most important – jobs you could have.

You are not responsible for carrying the burden of your students alone, but there are ways to create a nurturing classroom environment to help your students reach their full cognitive potential. Before you can begin to address the needs of your students, you have to understand them.

MaslowMaslow’s famous theory of the hierarchy of needs applies to the classroom and can help lay a basic foundation for understanding the needs of your students. Maslow’s theory states that humans have five basic needs in a stepping-stone order: biological and physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Once someone has their biological and safety needs met, they can focus on finding and feeling love and community. And likewise, according to Maslow, someone couldn’t seek personal growth and development until basic needs like hunger and thirst are satisfied.

So what does this mean for your classroom? Every student has different needs and every student will be at a different place in the fulfillment of their needs. Nurturing your students academically and emotionally begins with awareness. Notice the lonely students, the girls and boys who never talk to anyone. Remember that those students might struggle with learning and personal growth because their need for love and belonging has not been met. Realize that bad grades don’t always reflect laziness, but sometimes difficult home situations. ‘Good’ students are often those who feel loved and secure in their home environments.

While you most likely can’t be the one to personally fulfill all the needs of your students, you can help. Start by knowing your students. Observe who works well in groups, who is included and excluded during social times, and who seems withdrawn or anxious. Next, know your – and their – resources. Make sure parents and students know what your school has to offer, from after-school tutoring to meal plans for low-income families. Encourage students to meet with your school’s advisors and counselors and even consider hosting workshops with the counseling center to address common issues like stress management, test anxiety, and mental health. Nurture the whole child and you will see improvement in even the most difficult students.

Most importantly, start by listening. Lean in to the hard situations, the uncomfortable conversations, the messy emotions. Even the most troublesome or closed-off student longs to be known and loved. Most adults could easily recall both their favorite and most hated teachers from high school, and those emotions usually have less to do with grades or lesson plans and more to do with genuine care and attention.

My dance class teacher probably never knew why that girl sat in the corner day after day. But I knew it was because she had a manipulative mother and an absent father. She was reeling from a rocky transition to a new school and desperately missed her friends. So she hid in the online world of her phone and stayed a safe distance from her peers who seemed so very different from her friends back home. I’m not a counselor or a psychologist – I just noticed and didn’t leave. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference.

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