Mindfulness and Maslow

By Marah Barrow, CEI Intern

In public education, teachers are asked to address the needs of students coming from diverse backgrounds, making this task rather daunting. More times than not, especially at the elementary level, students may have difficulty expressing their needs, and how these needs can most effectively be met. The needs of a student who walks into class crying, or is uncooperative, or comes to school without a coat in 40 degree weather, may be obvious.  At other times, it may be up to an already overworked, overextended teacher to figure out what is wrong, and develop an effective way of handling the problem.

What if there was a way for students to come to terms with their needs and maturely express those needs to someone with the power to help? Wait! Mindfulness strategies can do just that. By encouraging students to use mindful techniques like deep breathing, discussion, meditation, etc., students are better able to identify the source of their discontent (St. George, 2016).

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may not be universally applicable, it does highlight several areas that are frequent sources of both behavioral and educational distractions (Mason, 2016). Many of these areas are specifically targeted with mindfulness strategies. With an emphasis on self-actualization, safety, and esteem, each of the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy can be addressed with strategies like mindfulness and meditation:

  • With centering breaths, students learn to rein in their thoughts.
  • In turn, metabolic functions shift as anxiety is reduced and calmness emerges. This frees the brain, making it available for learning.
  • When extraneous thoughts are reduced, students can focus, increasing opportunities for deeper understanding, and with their emotions in check, they are able to more successfully cope with the events in their lives (McGuinness, 2017).

Adding Transcendence. As McGuinness references, Maslow refined his original hierarchy to include self-transcendence (see above), also known as enlightenment or ego death. Many discussions of Maslow do not mention this step, yet it seems worthy of our consideration. In some ways, meditation may be an ideal tool for furthering our progress along such a path, a path to enlightenment, or greater wisdom and understanding — in essence, a spiritual path. While many consider spirituality to be off-limits in discussing education, recently Vicki Zakrzewski, the Education Director at Greater Good Science Center, presented an interesting rationale for educational discourse in schools that address spirituality (2013).  Zakrzewski makes this point by discussing students’ needs for silence, meaning, joy, and transcendence.

Student Survival Skills

While teachers are expected to identify and deal with student behaviors that could be resulting from an underlying unmet need, mindfulness may expedite this process. With practice and guidance, it can be a tool that then transfers some of the responsibility to students, as students gain important survival skills. Rather than giving teachers the responsibility of identifying twenty some odd students’ challenges and needs, why not equip students with the ability to identify and express their needs in a way that will help them not only in a school setting, but in a multitude of settings for the rest of their lives?


Mason, C. 2016, Dec. 1). Maslow’s Hierarchy – Where does food fall?  Center for Educational Improvement.

St. George, D. (2016, Nov. 13). How mindfulness practices are changing an inner-city school. Washington Post.

McGuinness, B. ( 2017, Jan. 9).What stage is meditation in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Quora. 

St. George, D. (2016, Nov. 13). How mindfulness practices are changing an inner-city school. Washington Post.

Zakrzewski, V. (2013, Jan. 8 ). The case for discussing spirituality in schools. The Greater Good magazine.





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