Think back to the last time you were really hungry or tired. Nothing else mattered, right? You might have been almost entirely focused on getting food or rest, but you were at work, driving, or tending to your students. Perhaps while doing that, you made mistakes or misspoke. Regardless of the details, you were not fully focused on the task at hand.
Now imagine feeling that way as a child with a developing brain, one that doesn’t allow them to push past their hunger or exhaustion to successfully do what they need to do. It’d probably be hard to give your schoolwork, chores, and play your all. You might be cranky or frustrated, and unable to participate in the learning process—and as a child, your “job” is to learn.
And what if you felt that way several days a week or even every day? It’s almost guaranteed you’ll struggle to develop and grow at the same rate as your peers. You might fall behind in school. Maybe your reading skills lag, or you struggle with other foundational skills that make more complex learning difficult, if not impossible.
Many children experience all of this on a regular basis. (In fact, in the US, 1 in 7 children live with hunger, and in the 2015–2016 school year, more than 1.3 million students were identified as being homeless.) Not being able to meet those basic survival needs—having enough food and water, and a place to go home to and sleep—can severely impact the learning process, setting students up for years of struggling.
How Does Meeting Basic Needs Affect Learning?
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper in which he proposed a hierarchy of needs and suggested that if foundational needs weren’t met, higher-order needs couldn’t be met either. The needs he identified are often presented in a stacked pyramid, with physiological needs (like having your health, drinkable water, a place to sleep, etc.) at the bottom, and the ultimate goal of self-actualization (the ability to reach your full potential as a human being) at the top. If those foundational needs aren’t met, he wrote, people can’t focus on higher-order skills like creative thought and learning, which is particularly problematic for students of any age.
How Can Educators Help?
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to help, and many schools already have lots of great support systems in place. ESSA is helping schools reprioritize to make it easier to identify, monitor, and help students in need, particularly students who experience homelessness.
1. Ask for help.
One of the best first steps to take is to look to your community for support. Many businesses and charitable organizations want to get more involved in their local communities, so there may be a business down the street from you that can provide support and resources. Schools across the country partner with local businesses and organizations to offer WiFi, school supplies, food, and even housing, and there may be a business or two that can help your school community more than you might think possible.
2. Provide meals.
Another great option is for schools to provide kids with at least two solid meals a day to fill their stomachs and nourish their growing bodies. This is particularly important on high-stress days, so if your resources are limited, focus on making sure your students are well fed on those days. And if your budget allows, think about weekends and school breaks when kids don’t have the school cafeteria to rely upon for food. A cheese sandwich can go a long way!
3. Adjust the school schedule.
Later school start times can help students get more sleep, especially when they have full schedules and are staying up later than they did as young children.
Another option is to structure the school day so first period is a study hall or optional period that students can use to finish up homework. Or add in study halls later in the day where students are allowed to take catnaps, which can give teachers more time for administrative and planning tasks as well as help to relieve working parents by keeping kids in school for longer.
4. Incorporate online learning.
If adjusting the school schedule isn’t an option, consider incorporating online learning. The flexibility that comes with completing school work online helps students work when they’re ready and able to, even if that’s at 2 am.
5. Get creative!
Studies have also shown that spending time outdoors can help to boost mental health and relieve stress, so consider holding class outside occasionally.
And for students who experience housing and/or food insecurity, keeping the library open later and offering Saturday academy and intersession and summer school programs and camps can provide them a place to be during the day as well as opportunities for additional learning and support.
When resources, especially time and money, are limited, it can be difficult to give students everything they need to grow and develop, but there are lots of small things we can do to help students satisfy those basic needs. Even our youngest learners have worries that can be unimaginable, so consider what you and your school or district can to do help lift some of those worries so kids can get back to playing and learning. How does meeting basic needs affect learning for your students? We’d love to hear what works for you!
Burton, N. (2012, May 23). Our hierarchy of needs. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs
Duffield, B., & Bridgeland, J. (2017, July 31). For 1.3 million homeless youths, ESSA is a beacon of hope. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/08/01/for-13-million-homeless-youths-essa-is.html
Ehrenfeld Gardoqui, K. (2019, September 13). The irrefutable case for taking class outside. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/09/13/the-irrefutable-case-for-taking-class-outside.html
Massaro, H. (2015, June 22). The connection between sleep and academic performance. Where Learning Clicks. Retrieved from https://blog.edgenuity.com/the-connection-between-sleep-and-academic-performance/
No Kid Hungry. (n.d.). Facts about childhood hunger. NoKidHungry. Retrieved from https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/hunger-facts
Sparks, S. D. (2019, August 1). High school naps may boost learning for sleep-deprived teenagers. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2019/08/high_school_naps_may_boost_learning_for_teenagers.html