You Have to Maslow Before You Can Bloom

How to Maslow Before Bloom, All Day Long

“Maslow before Bloom” is a phrase that we hear all the time. Numerous educational institutions are guided by the principle that educators must first meet students’ fundamental needs for safety and belonging before moving on to more challenging academic tasks.

That is not as simple as it appears in this age of high-stakes testing and rigid curricula, which makes it all the more difficult. Given the requirement to complete 45 minutes of preplanned reading instruction, followed immediately by 45 minutes of math instruction, many teachers, particularly those who are newer to the profession, conclude that they simply do not have enough time to plan for brain breaks or to check in with students regularly to ensure that they are feeling well.

However, research indicates that this is a blunder. “When we’re able to combine social, emotional, affective, and cognitive development,” child psychiatrist Pamela Cantor explained to Edutopia in 2019, “we’re able to create a slew of new interconnections in the developing brain that allow children to accelerate their learning and development.” Schools would be better served if they set aside time to incorporate social and emotional learning into their academic programs rather than concentrating solely on academics.

This year, it will necessitate some additional planning and consideration. Prioritizing personal connections and students’ ability to manage their emotions in physical classrooms was difficult enough, but it will be even more difficult in distance and hybrid learning environments. The majority of the strategies presented here—a toolkit derived from high-quality research as well as from the experience of successful teachers—can be implemented in both physical and virtual classrooms throughout the day.


It begins even before the students walk into the room: Taking a few minutes to personally greet every student at the beginning of the day, or the beginning of each class in middle and high school, can help students feel more a part of a community of learners and more engaged in their studies. In a 2018 study, researchers discovered that positive greetings at the door increased academic engagement by 20 percentage points while decreasing disruptive behavior by 9 percentage points, resulting in an increase of up to “an additional hour of engagement over a five-hour instructional day,” according to the researchers.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
When students are working from home, there isn’t a physical door to greet them, but you can make a short daily video to say hello, or you can use a tool like Zoom—which has a virtual waiting room feature—to queue up students and then welcome them to class one by one. Another option is to adapt the 5×5 strategy (in which a teacher spends 25 minutes talking to five students for five minutes each) to be used over the phone or through video meetings such as Zoom or Google Meet) instead of in-person meetings.

Once students have arrived in your classroom, devoting a few extra minutes to a non-academic conversation that includes all students can help to foster a sense of community while also providing you with an indication of whether or not each student is emotionally prepared for academic work. Student discussions might include topics such as a question of the day—for example, “What’s your favorite pizza?” or What superpower would you choose if you had the chance?—before describing how they feel by naming their roses and thorns, or by simply typing a simple thumbs-up, sideways thumb, or thumbs down into your chat feature.


After a positive start, students are better prepared for learning, but they will face challenges as they try to manage their emotions, find inner peace, and maintain social connections throughout the day—just like they do when they are adults. As a result of your toolkit of social and emotional strategies, you can check in with students throughout the day and assist them in self-regulation, recharging, and reconnect.

Any time someone tries to convince you that providing students with a brief break is inefficient, you can point them to the research that supports breaks: Students lose concentration after a short period of direct instruction (about 10 minutes for elementary students), so shorter lessons with brain breaks in between improving a student’s ability to stay on task and allow for better consolidation of recently learned material.

Lori Desautels, a long-time Edutopia contributor, uses brain breaks to get students out of their seats. For example, she gives each student two small Dixie cups and some water, and has them pour the water back and forth from cup to cup a few times—then has them close their eyes and keep going for 30 seconds to see who has the most water left at the end. Some is cleaning up to do, to put it mildly.

If children have been concentrated for a long period, they should be given a more involved, more intensely kinetic break that can be done at home or in the classroom: A H.Y.P.E the Breaks video from Hip-Hop Public Health can assist students in learning a little dance choreography while also getting in plenty of exercises. Using dual encoding, you can incorporate content into your dance routine. For example, has a dance party coding tutorial that relates dance steps to computer-coding algorithms, which you can learn about by visiting their website. Alternatively, you can simply allow children to sit, relax, and engage in pleasant conversation with their peers.

Having a tool for every occasion is an important part of developing your social-emotional and well-being toolkit. Desautels recommends that when children are feeling antsy, they engage in focused attention exercises to help them regain their calm. Experiment with different ways of focusing on breathing, such as inhaling for four beats, holding for four beats, and then exhaling for four beats, or visualizing colors as students inhale and exhale—for example, if a student is upset, they might visualize red as they exhale.

Even though there is some lingering controversy surrounding mindfulness, the research is becoming increasingly clear: “Mindfulness is associated with lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones,” says Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s Surgeon General, while also having a positive impact on “physiological indicators of an active stress response, such as blood pressure and heart rate.” Burke Harris has worked with children as young as three years old, utilizing mindfulness techniques.

A guided mindfulness activity after lunch is conducted at Codman Academy in Boston by second-grade teacher Lindsey Minder. “The impact of the mindfulness practice is this general sense of them being more comfortable and confident with themselves and their varied needs,” Minder explains, “as well as decreases in anxiety around academic work.”

Once a week for four to seven minutes, teacher Aukeem Ballard incorporates a mindfulness activity into his high school classes—a guided focus on breathing followed by a brief reflection with a partner—into his classes. Alternatively, you could choose a shorter activity that is performed more frequently: Mr. Michael Ray, a middle school administrator, suggests that students take regular breaks from their studies by kneading playdough or oobleck, both of which can be made at home for very little money.

Your toolkit will be put to the test regularly when a student becomes frustrated and loses his or her cool. If at all possible, resist the temptation to rush into a punishment. As an alternative, try to identify the underlying causes of the child’s distress and teach him or her how to remain calm. Sometimes, simply asking a student if they would like to go outside and get some water may be sufficient to de-escalate the situation. Create a peace corner in the classroom, a non-judgmental, dedicated space in which students can go to spend a few minutes either calming themselves down or writing their feelings down on an already-prepared form as part of an overall proactive strategy.


It may seem like recess is constantly under attack from the demands of overscheduling, but play is a powerful, natural way to de-stress, connect with others, and give the brain the time it needs to process and consolidate the new information. Play is also a powerful, natural way to de-stress, connect with others, and give the brain the time it needs to process and consolidate the new information.

Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, believes that recess should be scheduled for 45 minutes to an hour every day, rather than the more common 20 minutes, rather than every other day. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but it serves to emphasize the importance of allowing children to play uninhibited in their surroundings. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that unstructured play is critical to the health and development of children.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
Even though school systems tend to abandon recess by the time students reach high school, the way our brains process information—and the need for deep social connections—doesn’t change. Although brain breaks and movement breaks may look different at different ages, they are still necessary. To accomplish this, Montpelier High School in Vermont created MHS Unplugged, which stands for “unplugging from the curriculum and screens.” This 15-minute break allows children to practice an instrument, play outside, create art projects or play cards with their friends. It’s a brief window of opportunity for them to have some influence over what they do.

You may be under pressure to concentrate on academics, but putting Maslow before Bloom is not inherently antithetical to learning; in fact, research shows that it is a strategy that can help you learn more effectively. Create a toolkit and use it judiciously throughout the day, according to your assessment of your student’s needs and abilities. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regularly will assist them in bloom.