Psychologist Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of needs that he argued provides a model for understanding the need for human relations in the classroom. Needs lower on the pyramid, such as physical and safety needs, must be met before an individual will consider higher-level needs.

This hierarchy explains important components of behavior, including school behavior. Teachers often assume that the physical security and safety needs of their students are ensured, but in many schools, they are not. Increasing numbers of homes and schools are unable to provide simple safety. When physical security and safety, including sleep, are challenged, students will use most of their time, energy, and creativity simply trying to survive. This struggle interferes with learning.

Belonging needs are often strong in school. Children need to know they are a welcome part of the class. The teacher cannot allow derogatory name-calling and other forms of bullying and exclusion to dominate the classroom. These peer group relations substantially influence school success. It is difficult to learn in hostile, conflict-filled classrooms and schools. Classroom planning and curriculum decisions, such as the decisions to teach cooperative learning (see Chapter 10) and peer group mediation (discussed later in this chapter), can help to convert the classroom environment to one of support and belonging.

Maslow did not consider this hierarchy a rigid one. Students will partially fulfill some needs and thus become prepared to consider higher-level needs. The highest level, self-actualization, is a theoretical position Maslow described as a goal, usually for adults. Self-actualization is, at most, a goal advocated by practitioners of Gestalt therapy—anthropologists would not necessarily recognize it as a cross-cultural, universal human experience (Pastor, McCormick, & Fine, 1996).

Teachers can help students learn to meet their own safety and friendship needs and to recognize their own self-worth by building a positive classroom environment. These basic needs must be met before education can take place in school.

Human relations theory, including the work of Maslow, provides the psychological and sociological basis for the democratic claim that schools should promote equal opportunity. Once accepted, the concept of equal opportunity suggests a need for fundamental changes in school financing and in curriculum and teaching strategies.

Human relations theory assists teachers in promoting a safe and supportive environment at school. However, the Children’s Defense Fund (2001) points out that our society also must change in order to promote a safe and supportive environment for children, considering both psychological and physical needs. In many schools, roofs and windows need repair, buildings need reconstruction, failure needs to be reduced, violence needs to be controlled, and the children need sufficient food and safe homes.

Current conditions in our streets in many communities make the learning of positive self-worth difficult. In human relations lessons, all students are treated as individuals, often ignoring that the student is also a member of a group (gender, cultural, ethnic). Because each person is regarded only as an individual, human relations theory suggests there are few reasons to change or to adapt lessons to account for cultural, gender, or class variables. The same human relations teaching strategies are suggested for diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, language, class, and gender groups, denying the important contributions of culture to student learning and the importance of culturally proficient teaching strategies.

Human relations theory also assumes Maslow’s universal human hierarchy of needs and values that emphasizes individual differences and individual independence. Other cultures emphasize more group solidarity and interdependence with others in the community. In the dominant U.S. culture, children are encouraged to learn self-esteem and self-worth for themselves. This works for members of the European American community and for most teachers. But human relations lessons may fail to recognize that self-esteem and self-worth are significantly influenced by culture (Ladson-Billings, 1994b; Valenzuela, 1999).

The central insight of the human relations approach is that creating positive and nurturing human relationships between teachers and students and among students is one of the most important issues of school improvement. Young people do not learn math, reading, or English well if they are intimidated, defensive, and fearful.