Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: School Environments

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

That Maslow guy was pretty smart and I wonder if he was thinking about schools when he developed his hierarchy of needs. Have you ever taken a good look at them? (Those of you who have "healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged" in your minds as a daily mantra may notice some parallels!) He could probably write us a pretty good post for this month's theme on school environments.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

In some ways, what Maslow refers to as "basic" needs—the kinds of needs that no one can survive, let alone succeed, without—fall to the bottom of our priorities at schools rather than serve as the foundation he proposes. "Food, water, shelter, and safety" meet "mystery meat, rust, leaking roofs, and bullying."

So how do we reverse that process? We start with focusing on best questions we can ask ourselves to help us find the best practices for our kids, our school, and our community. I believe that there is a simple set of best questions to at least get us started on this path:

  • Are our kids healthy? Safe? Engaged? Supported? Challenged?
  • How do we know?
  • What have we done to make it so?
  • What have we taught them to keep it so?

Just asking these few questions would lead to richer, deeper, and more effective data-driven decision making and planning than much of what passes as school improvement these days. But even this set of questions can too easily be manipulated by faulty perceptions and low expectations. We've got to go deeper to truly celebrate our successes, monitor our action steps, and confront our challenges. Here are a few tougher questions straight from the ASCD indicators for a whole child approach:

  • Does our school facility and environment support and reinforce the health and well-being of each student and staff member? (Think about restrooms; hygiene; exercise opportunities; air quality; water quality; access for those with physical challenges; and ergonomics of desks, chairs, and computers.)
  • Is our physical school building attractive? Structurally sound? Does it have good internal (hallways) and external (pedestrian, bicycle, and motor vehicle) traffic flow, including for those with special needs? Is it free of defects?
  • What about our school climate? Is our physical, emotional, academic, and social school climate safe, friendly, and student-centered? How do we know? Is that true for each child in our building?
  • Do we model and teach taking care of the school and global environment as a part of our daily practice? Do we support, promote, and reinforce responsible environmental habits through recycling, trash management, sustainable energy, and other efforts?

Although this is just a start, these kinds of questions begin to move the conversation from the "if onlys" to direct action steps for any school. And they remind us that Maslow put these needs first for a reason.

Comments (7)

Corinne Gregory

July 27, 2011

I’m glad others are starting to explore this. I’ve long since shared the belief that if our kids don’t feel safe, valued, and included, they aren’t going to learn.

Although repeated studies show that social/emotional learning is THE most significant factor in both a child’s short-term (educational) and long-term (professional/life) success, we continue to overlook how crucial this is to their development. And the entire school environment - and all who are in it—are affected by it.

As another good resource for this discussion, I invite you to visit Having previously had one of my articles on the Whole Child topic published in ASCD, I hope you’ll find this article valuable as well.

- Corinne Gregory

Jody Stone

July 27, 2011

You are right on target, Molly.  Having a supportive, positive school environment allows you to push kids farther in their learning.  When student are certain you, as a teacher and as a school, have their best interests in mind, they are willing to go the extra mile for you and end up achieving at levels that surprise even them.  It is a continuous circle of high expectations and achievement that a school cannot hope to achieve in the absence of a focus on the whole child.

Jeanne Osgood

July 27, 2011

Thank you, Molly, for this clear expression of how very fundamental it is to attend to the development of the whole child by consciously subscribing to all of their needs from the physiological and safety, on up to those that provide self-actualized growth.

Maslow’s contribution in the 1940s lives on in the work you do as well as many others of us.

Your piece cuts to the chase and reminds us of the interconnectedness of human development and learning.

CASEL’s website ( provides resources on how and why to support the whole child so he/she ultimately becomes a young adult capable of living to full potential.

JoAnne Ferrara

July 27, 2011


Thank you for your continued advocacy for whole child education. As a professional community we must provide our future and current teachers with a clear understanding of the philosophy behind this movement so that they are able to fully embrace it in their teaching.

caleb gottberg

July 27, 2011

I couldn’t agree more. I have thought about this very thing myself. Love that you have indeed “gotten the conversation started”. Thank you!

Tom Loughrey

July 28, 2011

Another big thanks for highlighting such a “fundamental” approach to understanding human behavior.  This has been a strong part of my beginning approach to the study of Mental and Emotional Health and Well-Being in our teacher education program, along with Murrey’s (UK resource from mid-50’s) Psychogenic Needs. 
Also, from the Whole Child approach, with a perception of support for learning, review the Search Institute’s research on Developmental Assets (external and internal). 
After completing a 3-year PEP grant for a 11,000+ student school district, we found that improvement in health through achieving healthy indicators in physical activity and nutrition were related to increased rates of attendance, improvement in achievement of math and language arts skills, and reduced rates of behavioral incidents.
By focusing FIRST on the health and well-being of children (physical health and emotional/social health), and the healthful environment of the home, school, and community, every indicator of achievement and behavior will be improved.
In my 49 years as an educator, including 40 as a teacher educator, I have found that a school climate that is welcoming, comfortable, and safe will create a positively motivating climate for learning.  It is only when you take risks, without the FEAR of failure, that we grow and learn!
Then, when we focus on self-regulated learning and enhancing each student’s sense of capability (self-efficacy), we will unlock the unlimited potential for each student.
These are what I consider to be the “First Steps to Learning.” Let’s change our focus to this from the “high-stakes testing” climate that is so politically driven.

Ruth Beauchamp

November 23, 2011

You are my people! Bless you!

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