Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs & Metacognition in Schools

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a student-friendly* depiction of which is shown above, is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is used to study the motivations underpinning human behaviour. Maslow used the terms "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "social needs" or "esteem", and "self-actualisation" to describe the pattern through which human motivations tend to progress. This means that in order for motivation to occur at the next level, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Furthermore, this theory is a key foundation in understanding how drive and motivation are correlated when discussing human behaviour. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met in order for an individual to complete their hierarchy.[3] The goal in Maslow's theory is to attain the fifth level or stage: self-actualisation.

*We have removed mentions of sex and sexual intimacy from the diagram for obvious reasons: we don't want students to conclude that they need to have sex before they can engage in problem-solving!

Relevance to Teaching, Learning & Metacognition...

As you can see in the diagram: Maslow considered problem-solving, achievement and creativity to be inherent human needs, but that humans will only tend to be motivated to full-fill those needs once certain other needs have been met. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs points to a number of obstacles your students might face that prevent them from reaching their full potential in school: it is an essential component of the metacognitive process that students understand how failing to meet certain basic needs can interfere with their capacity to learn.

For example:

  • A student may be failing to get enough sleep, this might disrupt their ability to focus in school, engage in higher-order thought, creativity and problem-solving in the class.

  • Similarly, a student may not understand the profound impact low-level dehydration has on their ability to learn.

  • A student may be distracted by difficult emotions due to issues around safety in their home-life or due to relationship issues with their parents.

  • A student might be held back by low self-esteem

In each example it could be very useful for students to engage in metacognitive reflection in relation to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and to consider the impact these needs (and failing to meet them) might have on their learning and their ability to reach the higher-level needs described by Maslow.

Ideally, the general process of metacognition should include metacognitive knowledge about the importance of taking care of these basic, universal, human needs before hoping to reach one's full potential in education. Students need to understand the value of securing those basic needs and how failing to do so can impact studies: they may need help from teachers and wider support-networks in order to full-fill them. It all starts with diagnosis an identifying current obstacles.

Monitoring is an essential component to metacognition: students, accordingly, should monitor learning-processes in order to understand how they learn best. Whilst this is often described as the very foundation of metacognition, very little has written about teaching students to monitor how these basic needs (such as hydration, nutrition and sleep) can profoundly impact learning and achievement.

You may have a highly intelligent student in the world, they may have a fantastic attitude to learning, supportive parents and the best teachers in the world: but that counts for little if they enter the exam-hall dehydrated after a bad night's sleep. Likewise, you may expend great efforts in interventions and special assistance for a more typical student: but if they are failing to get regular exercise, abusing energy-drinks, and eating a high-sugar diet that fails to nourish their brain properly - you are fighting an uphill battle.

The above diagram can be useful to show students so that they can reflect on which of their needs are being met and which are not and may serve as a useful prompt for discussions around metacognition and learning-power. Students should reflect on how they can better meet the needs outlined by Maslow with a view to maximising their learning power.

Teaching Students How to Maintain a Healthy Brain

All schools have a provision to teach students about health, healthy lifestyles, and how to care for their bodies. Few schools have dedicated resources to teach students about how to:

  • Protect their brain from neurological decline

  • Improve lifestyle choices to assist brain-development

  • Improve lifestyle choices tend to improve both short and long-term performance in school

  • Meet the physiological needs that are most important for success in school

Given that metacognition, broadly speaking, is 'thinking deeply about how one learns best', teaching students about these issues and having them reflect on how these factors are influencing their current learning can be an invaluable component of a school's wider ambitions to improve metacognition.

You might be interested in our 'Boosting Brain Power' resource pack. This collection of six learning sessions (each lasting 40-60 minutes) includes an exciting array of presentations, activities and worksheets on the following topics:

  1. What Your Brain Needs to Develop

  2. Water & Metacognition

  3. Sleep & Metacognition

  4. Nutrition for Brain Development & Boosting

  5. Exercise, Fitness & Metacognition

  6. Emotions, Mental Health & Metacognition

Each session works to create metacognitive awareness surrounding how different lifestyle choices and factors impact their learning power both in the short-term and the long-term.


A Theory of Human Motivation. A. H. Maslow (1943). Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.