Many of us have heard the phrase “Maslow Before Bloom” before. It suggests that we must consider a child’s most basic needs before expecting them to consider whatever we are teaching.
You know that awful hangry feeling? When you go a little (or a lot) too long without eating – maybe you’re busy rushing from home to school to the copy machine to the classroom, and back again. You barely get a second to use the bathroom, and then all of a sudden, it hits.
Your stomach rumbles. Your energy tanks. You can’t think straight. You. Just. Need. Food.
We’ve all been there a time or two, right?
Now imagine you’re eight years old. Your pantry is empty. You chug a glass of water before bed, hoping it will tide you over until you can get to school tomorrow and get your free lunch. The only meal you absolutely know you’ll get is the one that comes at noon, in the school cafeteria.
All morning your mood is awful. You can’t concentrate. You have no energy, and you certainly don’t want to read out loud when the teacher calls on you. You ask to go to the nurse, because you know if you say your stomach hurts, you’ll get a few saltines at least.
On the outside, your teacher sees a disinterested, possibly even defiant student. She reprimands you for being unkind to your neighbor. She is disappointed when you refuse to remain on task. You know you’re not doing your personal best on that writing assignment, but honestly, you just don’t care. It’s the least of your worries right now.
Sadly, this scenario is way more common than we would like to think. According to No Kid Hungry, 1 in 7 children in America live with hunger. 1 in 7. Think about that in terms of your students right now.
The USDA reports that 11 million children in America live in “food insecure” homes. Food insecurity means that access to food is unreliable. Maybe the child doesn’t miss a meal every night, but maybe mom does. Maybe 3 weeks of the month are pretty stable, but that final fourth week is bare bones.
Food insecurity is a huge problem, and often a silent one as far as teachers are concerned. Most kids aren’t vocal with the realities of the home lives. Most kids wouldn’t even recognize the negative impact of coming to school hungry or undernourished. They don’t know that their brains are starved of healthy fats and nutrients, which makes them grumpy, tired, and distractible.
When basic needs aren’t being met, children often act out, become withdrawn, and do poorly in school.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Think back to those early days of education classes in college – I bet Maslow’s Hierarchy rings some bells, right?
If not, or if you need a quick refresher, here’s a quick version:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology that helps people understand human behavior. It’s most often presented visually as a pyramid.
At the base of the pyramid are the most essential, non-negotiable needs that humans have. Food, water, sleep, and warmth.
The second level is the need for safety – feeling protected, secure, and safe from harm.
As you climb up the pyramid, the needs become more complex. After security comes the need for love and belonging. Then comes the need for esteem, self-worth, and respect. Finally, the very top of the pyramid is called self-actualization. This is the level where people reach their fullest potential, use their talents, and are fully confident.
The theory says that without having your first layers of needs met, you’ll never be able to achieve the higher levels of personal growth.
So let’s look at this in terms of our students.
Are their first level of needs being met? Do they have food and water? Do they have a warm place to sleep? Statistics tell us that chances are, some of your students do not. 1 in 7 kids experience hunger. The number of students experiencing homelessness has also increased. Here in my home state of California, over 4% of the student population is homeless, meaning some of my kiddos may not have a warm, safe place to sleep each night.
And a side note – I’ve had a homeless student before and nobody told me. I found out by reviewing her IEP one day when looking for something else. The point is that students don’t always tell us about their personal battles.
It’s truly heartbreaking.
It’s so easy to forget this as we go about our day-to-day life in the classroom. It’s easy to see the grumpy kid who refuses to participate and become irritated, without stopping to consider what’s going on beneath the surface.
Did he sleep somewhere warm last night? When was the last time he had a nutritious, full meal? Is he worried about where he’ll sleep and what he’ll eat tonight?
What about those second-level needs? Does this child feel safe at home? Are they living in a safe neighborhood where they can play outside and feel like they belong (level 3 of the hierarchy)?
When we as teachers can stop for a moment to consider the struggles our kiddos may be facing, it gives us a lot more grace to handle outbursts or disruptive behavior in a different way.
It helps us be more understanding when a student loses their homework or simply brings it back incomplete. After all, assigning traditional homework makes a big assumption that students have a home environment to take it to.
As I’ve learned more about big issues like child hunger and homelessness, as well as anxiety and depression in kiddos, I’ve become more convinced that traditional homework just isn’t worth it. Awhile ago, I made all homework optional for my students, and I totally revamped the purpose of it.
Instead of sending students home to practice more of what they just spent eight hours practicing in school, I came up with Social Emotional Challenges. This type of (optional) homework encourages kids to practice life skills that encourage social and emotional growth.
Instead of practicing grammar exercises, one activity is for the student to write a letter to the mayor about something that’s important to him or her. Is their neighborhood playground too littered and unsafe to play in? Write about it!
Instead of solving hypothetical math problems about grocery shopping, another activity is to make a grocery list with a parent and then help choose food items within a certain budget.
Because students can pick and choose from a large variety of activities, there should be something everyone feels comfortable with. The freedom to choose if they complete these challenges also gives grace to those students who simply can’t because of their circumstances outside of school.
Another resource I came up with are Social and Emotional Reading Passages that address situations that might otherwise be difficult to talk about.
The passages are age-appropriate, but they focus on BIG emotions and problems, such as poverty and homelessness. This is a way to approach these topics in a way that promotes empathy and understanding amongst the students.
I’m curious: what do you know about the home life of your students? Is your district open about the number of homeless or food insecure students? Does your building talk about these issues?