Applying Abraham Maslow’s theory of a pyramid-shaped hierarchy — physiological needs, personal safety, social affiliation, self-esteem and self-actualization — to education is an ideal way to assess lesson plans, courses and educational programs. Like the rungs of a ladder, each need has to be met before progressing to the next level. By asking themselves whether the five needs are being met in their school or classroom, educators can assess how well they are applying Maslow's hierarchy to their teaching practice. Students may move back and forth on the hierarchy, so it is important to have ongoing assessments of how well their needs are being met.

Step 1

Start with students' physiological needs — food, clothing and shelter — because it is impossible to advance to higher needs if students are hungry, don’t have warm enough clothes, or have to sleep on the street. Some schools apply this level of Maslow's hierarchy by offering breakfast or lunch programs to ensure the basic nutrition needs of their students are being met. In the United States, schools have provided low-cost or free lunches since 1946, when President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act.

Step 2

Address personal safety issues. Students, whether children or adults, have to feel safe — both physically and mentally — before they can let down their guard and learn. It is difficult to concentrate on a theoretical mathematical concept, for instance, if you are worried that a bomb is going to explode or that you will be bullied on the playground at recess. To apply this step of the hierarchy, it is essential to create a safe learning space.

Step 3

Encourage social affiliation. Students need to feel that they belong to a class and that they are accepted members of the group if they are to reach the next level. Games, group work and teamwork exercises are a way to apply this stage of the hierarchy, because interaction helps students feel more involved, whether in primary school or in a master’s level class.

Step 4

Promote self-esteem. Making students feel that they are making a contribution and that they are valued as individuals can be done with simple praise: "Well done!" goes a long way to helping students reach this level in Maslow's hierarchy.

Step 5

Aim for self-actualization — the illusive concept of “being all that you can be" — because it caps the learning experience, and is the highest level in the hierarchy. This stage relates to the ability to apply what students have learned and to be able to “give back” and become involved with the betterment of the larger community. A way to apply this in education is to have students who are very good in a subject — whether writing English essays or doing biology experiments — help their classmates with their work.