The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” is familiar to many educators. It has perhaps never been so relevant on such a large scale as now, as the world battles the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has been identified by leading researchers as a traumatic event that is likely to have impacts both short and long-term on America’s children

What is Maslow before Bloom?

When one talks about Maslow before Bloom, they are referring to psychologists Abraham Maslow and Benjamin Bloom. Both professionals are noted for their behavior theories that continue to impact the way teachers structure their courses.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is often depicted as a pyramid with five levels. Each level contains basic human needs. In order to reach a higher level, the needs listed in the lower tiers must first be fulfilled.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us is that our students need food, water, shelter, safety, and the ability to rest easy before they can even begin to focus on academics. Put another way, a student experiencing trauma doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to focus on school because their energy is directed toward securing their basic needs. One’s math grade is not nearly as important as knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.


Bloom developed what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy: a system of classification of educational goals and objectives. There are, according to Bloom, six levels of academic tasks. These range in complexity and spell out the work of the academic classroom. Tasks from rote memorization to organizing information to creating and testing new ideas are represented.

Bloom's Taxonomy

The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” suggests that, before students are mentally equipped to do the heavy lifting that comes with learning new things (Bloom), their Maslow needs must first be attended to.

Trauma is present in every classroom

Even ignoring the pandemic, many of our students have experienced trauma. According to the Texas Education Association, in any given class of 24 students, nearly half of the class has been exposed to at least one traumatic event and four students have mental health issues that impair their learning. 

COVID-19 is trauma

The pandemic is shaping up to be an event of mass trauma, in which adults and children alike experience some degree of physical or emotional health toll (this is completely separate from the health repercussions of actually contracting covid-19).

The statistics are stark: 

  • High death rate: The statistics are stark: more than 260,000 people dead and counting.
  • Hunger: More people than ever before are going hungry. According to Oxfam International, this is a separate crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Unemployment: The hunger crisis stems from the fact that unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Domestic violence and child abuse: The New England Journal of Medicine expects to see a surge in domestic violence and child abuse reports. The rise is due to increased stress and economic hardship. Social distancing measures might also increase risk for abuse, according to the CDC

Students are struggling

All that is to say that America’s students are coping with more than they’ve ever had to before – plus, many are attending school online or in a hybrid model. Their pandemic learning curve is steep, and as a result, students are struggling to be students. They may be hungry, they may have an unemployed family member, they may even be grieving a loved one. Life is hard right now.

We need to focus on Maslow before Bloom

All this points back to Maslow before Bloom. Now is the time for educators to fully embrace the spirit of this simple idea. As educators, we must understand that our students are not equipped to learn until their basic needs are taken care of.

In a world where both children and adults are experiencing stress at unprecedented levels, one thing teachers can do is see to the social-emotional needs of our students. Academic benchmarks are arbitrary and can be redrawn as we saw in the spring when standardized tests were cancelled and diploma plans adjusted to help students graduate during a pandemic. Social-emotional skills can be used for a lifetime.

What do students really need from teachers right now?

Students need teachers to prioritize mental health over (or at least along with) academic learning. This means incorporating compassion and empathy into one’s teaching practice by asking students about their day and really listening. It means asking students if their basic needs are being met and helping to connect school families with community resources that can help with things like hunger. Some students may need to vent, others may benefit from an extended deadline or a differentiated assignment.

As teachers, we need to understand that sometimes, students don’t need tough love – they just need love.