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  • Writer's pictureJanev Mehmet

Impacts of using the concept of Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy on children with SEMH

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

I have been dedicated to education for over thirty years and am currently undertaking my Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Coaching. My passion is working strategically within Education to ensure children have the best start to building a life rich with knowledge, skills and empathy for others. I strongly believe that teachers play a major role in ensuring children, particularly those with SEND, are made to feel safe and confident in the classroom.

As part of my master’s in educational leadership, I wanted to show how important it is for children to be secure and happy in order for them to learn and make progress. The focus of my study was the impact of teachers’ classroom strategies when using the concept of Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy on children with social, emotional, and mental health (SEMH).

There is often the notion that challenging behaviour in a classroom interferes with teaching and therefore it is the child or young person at fault. However in reality, the misbehaviour of some pupils is often a camouflage to hide a whole host of other challenges that the child or young person may be experiencing in class, like, for example speech and language difficulties that prevent communication or writing. Let us look at some of the theories behind challenging behaviour in classrooms and think about how we as teachers can tweak what we say and do to have a more profound impact on children’s behaviour. If we were to explore the significance of emotional development and how that links to effective teaching and learning in the classroom, particularly for children with SEMH, what would we find?

Childhood and adolescent behaviour difficulties such as verbal or physical abuse, aggression, and dishonesty are often exhibited by disruptive attitudes towards others (Goodman 2001). These behaviours have a profound effect on others, as well as themselves. In 2013, after Browne explored strategies and interventions for dealing with disruptive behaviour, she raised the point that strategies are usually developed based on the needs of teachers to maintain an orderly classroom, rather than to focus on the specific behavioural needs of the student. If these strategies are ineffective, this can often lead to children or young people being stigmatised and unwanted because of their needs and challenging behaviour. Having seen the latter situation many times in different schools and phases, I decided to carry out a project that would look strategies teachers could use; these were linked to Maslow’s theory of Hierarchy of Needs (1943).

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who studied positive human qualities and the lives of exemplary people (, 2016). As depicted below (Figure 1), his theory highlighted that a person’s basic needs must be met before one can reach self-actualisation. Self-actualisation refers to the need for self-fulfilment and being aware of ones’ potential. This was considered a motivational theory in his time.

Literature pertaining to student engagement and behaviour highlights that engaged students associate their teachers with care and support as well as running a well-organised classroom with high expectations (Klem and Connell, 2004). Studies show that there are close links between how happy children are made to feel in the classroom, and how much they learn (Hardiman, 2012).

The rationale behind the project was to ascertain whether a group of teachers who were trained on Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy (1943), could have a positive impact on behaviour and progress of selected pupils with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, by using specific teaching strategies linked to the theory. The strategies were formulated based on the main areas of the hierarchy. For example, the strategies for the Physiological need were linked to the pupils’ basic and health needs, necessary to concentrate in class, such as sleep, water, breakfast, physical comfort. Examples of strategies can be seen below in Figure 1:


For ten weeks, teachers applied the 15 strategies shown in Figure 2. Results of the project clearly showed that where pupils’ basic and emotional needs were met, their behaviour and progress in learning improved. This supports the notion that teachers who care about their pupils, who show respect, resilience and understanding, tend to get better results in terms of relationships and progress data (Miller, 2008).


Through the data sets, discussions, and outcomes, it was evident that the teachers who were involved in the project gained a better understanding of how to interpret, manage and improve pupil behaviour. Teachers indicated that they believed their future practice in attending to the basic and emotional needs of their challenging students will improve because of what they have experienced and discovered during the project. This supports Bandura’s findings that teacher efficacy increases as teachers became more experienced (1997)




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