Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Maslow Before Bloom: Practicing Compassionate Pedagogy

a pair of hands holding three small pots with small green plantsAlthough “Maslow Before Bloom” is an expression that I’ve seen used most commonly in the K-12 setting (see this article for example), the concept of “compassionate pedagogy” is not new in Higher Ed. The expression, “Maslow before Bloom” captures the idea — in academic pedagogy speak — that until a student’s basic needs are taken care of, instructors won’t be able to address their cognitive learning needs. Another term that has become popular to express a similar idea is the concept of “bandwidth.”  As Cia Verschelden describes in her book Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization, when a student has “persistent worry about money, […] lack of access to adequate food, shelter, health care, safety ” it depletes the student’s cognitive “bandwidth” for learning (5).  Like “Maslow before Bloom,” the notion of bandwidth demands that we consider how we can support students in their learning when their cognitive resources are stretched thin.

 In the past year, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting crises related to it (job loss, eviction) have left students overwhelmed, grieving, and often, suffering from trauma.  In addition, as we know, many of our students are balancing their course work with the demands of family and work,  along with dealing with the structural barriers and subsequent physical and mental health issues related to systemic inequality and discrimination. In the face of this, we know that now more than ever, we must bring compassion to our classroom and to our teaching.  But compassion is not only the ethical choice,  it is also a pedagogically sound choice. When we approach teaching with compassion at the core, we utilize  strategies that center equity, inclusion, flexibility, and transparency. Some of the strategies that Verschelden and other researchers suggest to support students facing these challenges include:

  • Encouraging students to approach learning with a growth mindset, and using growth-focused language for student feedback
  • Helping students develop a sense of belonging and an “academic self” to counter the feelings of isolation and “I don’t fit in here” that many first-generation, non-traditional, or underrepresented groups of students experience. This can be achieved by making connections between what students know and what they have experienced with the course material;  building connections and community in the classroom; and asking students to reflect on their learning experience and their goals for the future.
  • Allowing flexibility, where possible, with deadlines and due dates
  • Using assignment choice to give students multiple ways to meet the learning outcomes (this way they can choose the modality that works best for them and gives them the best chance at succeeding)

Many of these practices resonate with trauma-informed pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) both of which aim to support  student learning with pedagogical practices that promote equity, accessibility, and transparency including ​

  • Providing content information in advance
  • Using content descriptions, especially for potentially triggering media
  • Creating a safe and inclusive framework for discussions
  • Checking in on students
  • Encouraging community building and sense of belonging
  • Allowing for multiple ways to engage with course content
  • Building flexibility into assessment and absence policies
  • Valuing student input and feedback

*(list taken from

Many of these strategies can be short, targeted interventions and don’t require an overhaul of your course. And given that our own bandwidth as instructors is stretched to capacity, it’s reassuring to know that even a few, small interventions can make a big difference to student learning.  If you are interested in learning more about some of these practices, consider joining our Faculty Teaching & Learning Community on Trauma-Informed Pedagogy this fall!

Photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

Verschelden, Cia, and Lynn Pasquerella. Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization. , 2017. Print.

kcrowther • September 6, 2021

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