Case study: Boosting pastoral support using Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Written by: Gareth March | Published:
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What does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs look like in the context of a specific school? How can it be adapted to ensure staff can support students? Gareth March reports on his work using Maslow as part of pastoral and SEN support, including during year 7 transition

This article has grown out of a project looking into supporting key stage 2 to 3 transition, in particular for those with traits of autism. The outcomes, however, have had an impact far wider than this initial study.

Abraham Maslow first presented his hierarchy of needs in 1943 and while it has been modified, updated and is not without limitations (in particular the difficulty in collecting empirical data to support its structure), the core principles have remained and it is a widely accepted model for motivation and self-development.

The hierarchy is a theory of motivation contending that people are driven by a hierarchy of increasingly complex needs (Maslow, 1943). It is often shown as a pyramid, with the basic needs making up the base and the peak being more complex needs. The five levels are:

  • Physiological needs (e.g. water, food air).
  • Safety needs (e.g. physical safety, health, financial safety).
  • Social needs (e.g. belongingness, social connections, relationships).
  • Esteem needs (e.g. recognition, respect, appreciation).
  • Self-actualisation needs (e.g. fulfilling your potential, being your best).

Maslow described the peak of his pyramid, self-actualisation, as “the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities” – to me, this aligns closely with what we, as teachers, would want to develop in our pupils. If the peak corresponds to what we consider to be success for a pupil, I asked myself if using the rest of the hierarchy could be helpful in getting us there.

Maslow’s theory states that motivation is based on an individual’s desire to have certain needs met and that each “layer” must be fulfilled before higher level needs become operative.

Maslow in context

Considering Maslow’s work in the context of our school and using the pyramid that will be so familiar to many of you, we have produced an annotated version of the hierarchy (below).

Figure 1: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it has been adapted to support pastoral work at Southend High School for Boys

The stages are consistent with Maslow’s original work, but the most important aspects in the school context have been highlighted for each, as have examples of indicators that suggest a level is not being fulfilled and strategies to support each stage.

As SENCO, and previously head of year, I initially considered this model with pastoral support in mind. It was for form tutors, heads of year and other pastoral leaders to refer to when a pupil is identified as struggling socially, academically or behaviourally. While not without its limitations, the model has been useful in a number of areas...

Identifying need

Use of this model has made for a helpful “conversation-starter” as a pupil comes on to the radar of the pastoral team. Considering a pupil in the context of each layer of Maslow’s hierarchy focuses discussion and gives a quick idea of starting points for support or intervention.


Within the SEND Support team, we have monitored weekly progress by adding initials of pupils to a large copy of the model. This has allowed us to see at a glance which pupils need the most support in the coming week and the focus of support for each pupil.

For example, a pupil struggling with “belonging” may be encouraged to attend extra-curricular activities, or their interactions with others will be a focus of support from learning support assistants in their lessons. By regularly reviewing progress in each of the layers, we can identify the impact (or lack thereof) of any strategies.

Implementing support/strategies

Through both the initial identification that support may be required and the on-going monitoring of this support, the model has made it easier to identify areas upon which to focus support and a starting point as to which strategies might be most appropriate.

The model has allowed us to give context to presenting factors, implement appropriate support and focus on practical outcomes. It helps draw attention to a range of needs and contexts – from a pupil struggling in lessons as they are anxious about what might happen in the playground (safety) to a pupil identified as more able and talented in a subject failing to flourish as they don’t believe they are capable of doing so (esteem).


We must consider the potential safeguarding implications of a stage not being fulfilled positively and constructively. A child seeking funds to help their family or perhaps lacking a sense of belonging and recognition can be extremely vulnerable to negative influences – influences that may appear to provide these elements but at a cost that (initially at least) may be unseen.

Limitations of the model

I have found one of the most significant limitations of Maslow’s model to be the focus on prepotency (lower-levels needing to be fulfilled before higher-level needs become operative).

I think it is more useful to consider simply that each layer must be in place for a pupil to flourish, as opposed to viewing it as a pyramid to ascend. Each layer remains important, though the focus on each can change over time.

For example, the first pupil with which I used this model was having significant difficulty with the social aspects of school life. While he had a good friendship group, he was often very upset and would report feeling scared or worried, particularly during break and lunch times – his sense of safety was clearly not there.

However, once support was provided in this area – daily check-ins with a link learning support assistant; options of “safe places” in the school (a quiet meeting room, the SEN office, a reserved computer in the library) – he quickly became much happier both inside and outside of lessons, his parents reported an improved mood at home and his work improved.

It was not that with safety fulfilled he could move on to belonging, self-esteem etc – the other layers were in place and support with safety was simply the missing piece of the jigsaw.

Beyond pastoral

Next I plan to consider the use of the model beyond the pastoral team, encouraging colleagues to apply it to the more specific context of individual lessons.

There is of course a focus in lesson planning on self-actualisation (the Maslow language “understanding, exploration, problem-solving” reinforces this notion). However, if we want pupils in our classroom to “reach the peak”, it is important to consider the other layers. Are pupils’ accomplishments recognised? Are connections between ourselves and pupils positive? Are connections between pupils positive? Is this developed and utilised with effective group work? Do pupils feel “safe” to make mistakes? Is there a sense of consistency/predictability from lesson to lesson?

I have found it useful to consider the hierarchy in relation to an individual pupil who might be struggling in my lessons. For example, it may not matter how many different pedagogical strategies I try with a pupil if they are struggling because they cannot have a civil conversation with the peer sitting next to them.


While Maslow’s model does have its limitations, not least the question of whether it is possible to model, simply, a concept as complex as human motivation and development, it has been a useful template to identify concerns and implement strategies.

There is no doubt that the simplicity of the model makes it a blunt tool, and to dig into root causes and complex cases more sophisticated analysis is required. However, when it comes to gaining a rapid insight, a blunt tool is perfect to break down that first wall...

  • Gareth March is the SENCO at Southend High School for Boys in Essex.

Further information & resources

Conference: Pupil Mental Health

  • Gareth March is among the presenters at SecEd’s Sixth National Pupil Mental Health Conference, which takes place online on September 29 and 30. For full details, visit


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