Care for students’ basic needs first

Published 6:49 pm Thursday, April 4, 2019


Contributing columnist

When I was a college student in the early 80s studying to become a teacher, Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs popped up in most of my education, psychology and sociology classes. Abraham Mazlow was a psychologist who wrote a paper, and then later a book, that explained his theory of human development. His hypothesis was that humans had basic needs that must be met before development could occur.

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His basic principles of development were set up in a pyramid with the foundation being physiological needs, such as food, water, sleep and shelter. If humans didn’t have their most basic physiological needs met, they could have all the gold at Fort Knox and still not be fully developed humans. The next level up the pyramid is security — physical, financial, emotional and well-being.

The final three levels are social belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. I personally think these three stay in a constant state of flux, depending on how I slept, what I ate, and whether the puppy ate more of our couch. (After typing that list I realize those belong in the bottom two pyramid levels. Go figure.)

Those two bottom levels make a lot of sense to me. If I’m hangry (hungry which makes me angry), I find it difficult to concentrate on much of anything. I take small pieces of candy in my pockets when I teach. If I start to get hungry, I eat a piece of candy so my hunger doesn’t manifest into irritation toward the students. If I haven’t gotten enough sleep over two or three days, my pleasant shining personality becomes dull, sullen and snippy. And heaven forbid I sleep poorly AND I am hungry!

As an adult, even without the candy or a nap, I can generally pull through being hungry and tired. I can’t remember the last time I worried about getting a meal or worried about where, or if, I would sleep.

Sadly, this is the reality of many students and families in our community. I substitute taught in a class last week where a student slept hard through the class. He looked exhausted when he walked in. I let him sleep. It was more important that he get some rest than do the busy work left to keep him out of trouble.

Mazlow, bottom of the pyramid.

I see these needs daily in our schools. Teachers, in addition to teaching, have so many other issues when it comes to trying to educate our children. How much do you think a student can learn, or would be motivated to learn, when he can’t stay awake?

Mazlow, bottom of the pyramid.

The Danville Schools offer free breakfast for all of its students. An acquaintance and I were discussing this decision after it was announced. He couldn’t understand why parents don’t feed their kids. What he truly didn’t understand was that many students come to school have not eaten since the school lunch from the previous day. Can you, reader, imagine going from 11:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. — 20 hours —  without eating? This isn’t hyperbole. This is reality.

Mazlow, bottom of the pyramid.

Do you remember how hungry you were as a teenager? Grabbing a snack when you got home from school, then having dinner, then possibly having another snack before bed? Remember crashing on your bed, so tired from the day that you may have slept in your clothes? Remember coming home and not sleeping in your bed because you didn’t have one and going to bed hungry because there wasn’t anything to eat?

Here’s my point: Our teachers are inundated with trainings, policy, new curriculum to teach, larger classes, and fewer resources. I was talking to some teachers last week who were worried about leaving their classes for new required trainings. They get hammered by local administrative requirements, mandates from the state, and parents who have stunningly high expectations without a clue as to how to help their own children.

I think it would be an excellent experience for local administrators, school board members and fussy parents to substitute for a day or two each school year. Our teachers need less policy and the latest, greatest teaching theory, and more help in getting their students the basics, like food, sleep and safety.

I watch and listen to teachers agonize over their students’ lives. The easiest thing to do is watch from the outside, criticize, complain and pile on. Teachers are not the enemy. They are our community’s heroes and should be treated as such.

Stop with the endless trainings. Our children do not give one whit about the newest teaching theory when they are hungry and tired. Our teachers cannot continue to carry the load of all of the adults in the students’ lives that ignore their basic needs. 

Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Bottom of the pyramid.

G. Elaine Wilson-Reddy, JD, is a professional educator, consultant and advocate. She lives in Danville.