Student wellbeing: Maslow before you Bloom

Written by: Sanjo Jeffrey | Published:
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Very useful article as an NQT point of view. I will definitely be applying some of the strategies ...

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The idea of ‘Maslow before you Bloom’ is once again gaining traction in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. SENCO Sanjo Jeffrey says this approach is crucial to supporting academic outcomes this year and beyond

A few years ago, while having a conversation at a former place of employment, I emphasised the importance of building relationships as an effective strategy for supporting students towards achieving academic progress.

The suggestion was promptly “pooh-poohed” by a deputy headteacher, who stated that what they needed were “real” strategies that staff could implement with disengaged students.

This response has caused me to think about past ideas that have been espoused in academic arenas: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943) and the Every Child Matters (ECM) government initiative from 15 years ago.

Both Maslow and the ECM initiative recognise that nurture, safety and wellbeing are important for the development of children and young people. Both directly impact on the process of learning. In fact, developing relationships (nurture, safety and wellbeing) is the bedrock of nurturing that many disaffected students desperately need.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: 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 the 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).

The issue of nurturing is important, not least because of the number of young people and children who have mental health concerns. In the current pandemic, emotional wellbeing has become a focal point in schools. Now more than ever, schools are recognising that they must make time to focus on students’ mental health and wellbeing if we are to ensure that they can make academic progress.

In fact, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said that the recent NHS figures showing that one in six children now have a mental health problem were “extremely alarming” (2020).

She added: “It should shock the government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic.”

It is just as well then that the “Maslow before you Bloom” idea – Bloom of course referring to the Bloom’s Taxonomy classification of the different levels of thinking and learning – appears to have seen a resurgence.

In its simplest form, the “Maslow before you Bloom” approach posits that students need to be in the right state of emotional readiness for successful cognition to begin to take place.

According to Berger (2020), “putting Maslow before Bloom isn’t antithetical to learning – research demonstrates that it’s a way to support better learning”.

In fact, it is safe to say that until teachers can see that the basic needs of their students have been met, then there is little point in asking them questions about their learning, whether that be for knowledge or synthesis.

Teachers are in a unique position to help students form secure attachments which can enhance the positive development of their sense of self. This is Attachment Theory in action. A young person having the expected early age secure attachment or positive relationships will achieve greater academic achievement and have strong positive social skills (Martindale, 2018).

It stands to reason that all schools, especially during this pandemic, should be implementing a “Maslow before you Bloom” initiative of some description. The implementing of or return to such an initiative (or any variation therein) will give staff a “toolkit of social and emotional strategies” that will enable them “to check in with students and help them self-regulate, recharge, and reconnect throughout the day” (Berger, 2020).

This of course, is nothing new – it is simply a present-day response to a present-day situation using tools that have previously worked in creating the most appropriate environment wherein learning can best occur. Some schools already do these “things” that work. One girls’ school in north London has established the following:

  • Non-negotiables of classroom expectations such as the “meet and greet” between teachers and students as students enter the classroom.
  • An SEMH teaching assistant who has weekly KIT sessions (keeping in touch) with vulnerable students.
  • A strong positive home-school liaison where home is called weekly to share the positives that students are achieving in school.

SEND staff in the school also use the zones of regulation (Kuypers, 2011) to help students identify their emotions and learn strategies to move them through the zones so that they are ready to learn. A system like this which categorises the sometimes-complex feelings that children experience can improve their ability to recognise and communicate how they are feeling in a safe way.

Another north London school has a manned wellbeing room where students can go if they are feeling particularly overwhelmed. There, they can vent, refocus and return to the classroom ready to continue their learning.

One teacher at a pupil referral unit who has a “good read” of her students would stop the students and ask them to stand and do a few stretches and or dance moves with her. This routine offers the students a “brain break”. Sometimes she uses music for the students’ stretch sessions. The process ends with a countdown towards easing them back into learning.

One training session I attended a few years ago led by a borough educational psychologist identified the following as actions teachers could do to create the nurturing environment that would enable students to feel safe and eventually ready for learning:

  • Reduce change.
  • “Meet & greet” at beginnings.
  • Prepare for changes and endings.
  • Make endings positive.
  • Carers and professionals work together.
  • Name feelings and acknowledge anxiety.
  • Offer stories about change.
  • Provide information and reassurance.
  • Recognise that older as well as younger students need support.

Finally, when students know that teachers are their champions, that teachers have their backs, that teachers will go to bat for them, they will want to be the best that they can be. Employing a Maslow toolkit will ensure that every child will Bloom.

Follow Rita Pierson’s advice (2013) and let it be your mantra: “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them. Who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be.”

Undoubtedly, this is what happens when you “Maslow before you Bloom”.

  • Sanjo Jeffrey is SENCO at Copthall School in north London.

Further information & resources

Very useful article as an NQT point of view. I will definitely be applying some of the strategies mentioned. Thank you to the writer (Sanjo) for sharing the amazing article. Looking forward to more in the future.
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Very interesting article which furthers the ongoing need for educators to allow and provide a nurturing environment for all students, especially students will special needs to "Maslow before they Blood. " It highlights the fact that students with SEN and in PRUs do need the additional support to excell in their areas of interest. Education is about addressing the needs of the whole person.
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Excellent article - inspiring, thanks!
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