Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Make Decisions about Going Back to School

I have a psychology degree and I spent a decent amount of time studying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (and sat through an hour long senior thesis class where one student said “self ejaculation” instead of “self actualization” every single time and I kept a straight face and if that doesn’t make me an expert, nothing does.)

Basically Maslow is saying that until your most basic needs are met, you can’t move on to meeting your next level needs. So if you need food, water, shelter, etc., you aren’t worrying about making friends or gaining skills or becoming a fulfilled person.

Needs start at the bottom and you move up as they are met.

Your very bottom needs are physiological- the things you need to survive the week basically. Next are safety needs. Then you start to get into the more abstract needs, like friendship, feeling like you belong in your community, that sort of thing.

For some children, school is important to their basic needs. They are getting food, warmth, or safety from school. For other children, their basic needs aren’t coming directly from school, but more indirectly. For example, if they aren’t in school during the day, their adults can’t work and therefore can’t provide for their basic needs. So school may be providing for their basic needs just by being a place for them to be for the day.

For a lot of children, school functions primarily in the upper levels of the hierarchy of needs. They are getting socialization, learning, accomplishments- all the things school ought to be providing in an ideal world. (Because in a perfect world, we wouldn’t NEED school to provide the basic needs I talked about in the last paragraph, but in the real world, school does.)

In making the decision whether to send your kids back to an in person classroom, you need to evaluate what needs they are getting from school. Safety- which means not being exposed to a deadly global pandemic or spreading it to others- is very low on the hierarchy of needs. Socialization is above it. And believe me, I feel you. Elizabeth is suffering from this pandemic. She cries a lot, she’s miserable, she’s having a very hard time. But her safety, and the safety of our family and community, outrank those needs. Unless I felt that her safety was being threatened by keeping her home from school, it would be irresponsible to send her to school because doing so threatens her physical safety and that of those in our family and community.

Obviously there are dozens of different factors going into school decisions and nothing is ever this simple. But I have seen so many parents talking about their kids needing socialization and how they just need some time to themselves and everyone is miserable at home all the time. Yes. All of this is true. But we aren’t picking from good choices. We are choosing from a pile of a bunch of choices that really, really suck.

Keeping my kids home (and I am still waiting on options from their school- I’m really hoping that school at home is an option) is both important for them- because their need for safety outranks other needs- but it’s also important for the kids who need school because it provides more of their basic needs. If my kids aren’t there, there is more room for other kids to be there and to be safer being there. There’s less exposure for the teachers and staff who have to be there to provide for the needs of the students who get their basic needs from school.

And as a society, let’s work on getting better so that this wouldn’t have to be an option. We wouldn’t have to open schools because there would be safe and healthy options for kids other places.