Meeting the Diverse Needs of our Students

How can a teacher foster student self-esteem?

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was interested in figuring out what motivates people.  He conducted a lot of research in his life about human potential as well as mental health.  He came up with a hierarchy of human needs.  You can see an illustration of this concept in figure one.  The needs are arranged with the most basic at the base all the way up to the peak, which is self-actualization and meeting one’s full potential.  Individuals cannot progress to the next stage before having their needs met at the previous level.


figure 1

The very first level of needs is physiological. These are basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and clothing.  Unfortunately not all of our students get these needs fully met, but when they come to school they can get breakfast and lunch, and will be in a warm building.  The school also has resources and counseling available for students and their families that are struggling to get these base needs met.

The next level is safety and security.  Teachers want school to be a safe and stable place for all students.  This is why school and student safety is such a high priority for educators and administrators.  We want all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or socio-economic status to be able to come to school without fear.  Teachers want their schools to have a positive climate for all students and to be a welcoming place for all learners.  This is why so many schools have put anti-bullying campaigns into action and have worked on PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports) lessons that aim to make the school and inclusive place.  Through PBIS, they emphasize the importance of all students being respectful, responsible, and safe.  At my school, we give students golden tickets (they can be entered into a raffle for rewards/prizes) for good behavior, which includes helping others and being good citizens.  My school also periodically gives something called Second Step lessons which were designed by the Committee for Children.  These lessons contain information about stress management, coping skills, bullying, staying in control, disagreeing respectfully, giving and receiving support, working well with others, identifying future goals, and prejudice.  Key components of these valuable lessons are posted around the school on posters, and example of one such poster can be found in figure two.

Second Step Poster

figure 2

The third level is love and belonging.  We want all students to feel like they are a meaningful part of the larger school community.  Teachers want students to make friends, and have kind interactions with their peers.  Teachers can ensure that their classrooms are a positive learning environment that has a positive learning community.

The fourth level is self-esteem.  As teachers, we want to foster feelings of self-worth among our students.  This level is so important because it is absolutely necessary for reaching the final level—self-actualization.  “The important message is that students can learn not only academic content and social skills, but how to become integrated selves that reach out into the world and reciprocally contribute to and profit from their transactions with it” (Joyce, p.301).  Educators understand the importance of going beyond content and curriculum, of educating the whole child.  This means meeting their emotional needs and teaching them skills that are not purely academic.

Students need to gain independence and strong self-concepts.  This is accomplished through self-actualizing behavior.  In practice, this is the act of reaching out to the environment with confidence that there will be a fruitful interaction.  A person who is self-actualized seeks out opportunities for growth and ultimately helps others develop as well.  They have strong coping skills, and are not focused on merely surviving.  They feel good about themselves and about their lives.  It is important that we as teachers make it a priority to lead by example for our students.  “If we model activity and reaching out toward the world, we encourage active states” (Joyce, p.310).  I personally make a great effort to encourage my students, and also to show them how I am working on improving myself.  I share my love of reading and learning with them.  I talk about higher education, and my experiences in college.  I want them to feel empowered to accomplish great things, and meet their full potential.  Positive relationship building and sharing our excitement for self-growth will encourage students to seek self-improvement as well.  “In general, positive human relations are related to positive human behaviors” (Rogers).  Teachers displaying empathy and asking students for feedback are ways they can make their classrooms positive learning environments for everyone.  Studies have found that “for students identified as having learning difficulties, the teacher’s level of interpersonal facilitation was the single most important contributor to the amount of gain on all outcome measures” (Rogers).  This means that teachers have a great deal of influence upon their students and their achievement levels.  When students feel valued by their teachers, and have an affirmative relationship with them, they do much better academically.

It is clear that Maslow’s work is very relevant to educators and students, and something we should be mindful of in our practice.


Joyce, B., Weil M., & Calhoun, E. (2014). Models of Teaching. 9th Ed. Allyn & Bacon.

Rogers, Carl. 1970. Teacher Effects Research on Student Self-Concept.






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