Imagine you are in a doctor’s office being told that you have a serious, life threatening condition. Blood races through your veins, heartbeat pounds between your ears, breath is shallow, and you can feel your clothes sticking to your skin. Your body is in a heightened state of arousal. Do you recall the term “fight/flight/freeze” from science class? This is it — you are in what is called “survival mode”. By the time you get home, you realize how many questions needed to be asked but were forgotten while in the doctor’s office, and you barely remember what was said. This is an example of the psycho-physiology of trauma.
If you can relate to this scenario, (or one like it), then you can understand how difficult it is to function normally in this heightened state of arousal. It’s understandable that this state of anxiety can occur during a traumatic or highly stressful experience, but what you may not be aware of is that it can also persist for long periods after the traumatic event.
Why is this important now? With the refugee influx coming into Canada, you may encounter a surge of students in your classroom displaying symptoms related to post traumatic experiences like violence, displacement or loss, which will have an impact on how they learn. As a teacher, you may see a trend of problematic behaviours or students’ lack of progress in the traditional learning environment.
What does this have to do with language? The normal language learning centres in the brain may not be processing information properly (like the example in the doctor’s office). The person doesn’t process cognitive information like they normally would have prior to the post traumatic experience. They may still be in that “fight/flight/freeze” state of mind and they may not understand verbal directions or other cognitive information. They may have difficulties with memory, retention and processing of information.
Fortunately, there is science-based evidence that can help us identify and act on these symptoms of stress. Lessons can be enhanced so that students can feel a sense of control and empowerment to reduce stress, and in turn help them learn language so that they have restored hope for success in Canada. Here are some tips and information that may be helpful.
What Science Tells Us
After a traumatic experience there are both chemical and physical changes that occur in the brain that result in loss or inhibited normal brain functions. Areas of the brain affected by trauma are part of the limbic system which is responsible for things like: emotions, memories, regulation of aggression, pain, organizing motor behaviour and coordinating rule-based habit learning.
The frontal and parietal lobes are higher functioning. This is where we make sense of information, organize and use it. These areas don’t function well in a person who is experiencing post traumatic symptoms. On the other hand, the lower more primitive areas of the brain are working overtime for those experiencing post traumatic symptoms. These individuals are usually highly sensitive and respond better to sensory information like visual cues over verbal information to understand their environment.
A Sensory Experience
Neurons in the brain fire continuously which can be observed in behaviours like aggression (possibly resulting from misinterpretation of words or gestures), or withdrawal (due to trust issues). Both of these behavioural examples demonstrate the person’s need to control their environment to feel safe. Problems with learning, relationships and performance can be observed as both memory and emotions are altered by these physical and chemical changes in the brain. (A perceived threat may lead to aggressive or explosive reactions, lack of participation, dependency on the teacher, or absenteeism.)
The good news is that the effects of trauma can be reversed and individuals can eventually perform successfully. What research tells us today is that the brain can reorganize itself by making new connections and brain growth. Implementing strategies to create new neural networks, (e.g. using sensory materials instead of verbal or written instructions), we can communicate the same information but in a different way.
Possible Teaching Issues with Refugees Experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
According to some experts, there are three types of stress in the resettlement process:
- migration stress (sudden,unplanned move from one’s home)
- acculturative stress (attempt to function in a new culture or society)
- traumatic stress (willful harm committed by another human being).
The American Psychological Association defines PTSD, (or post-traumatic stress disorder), as an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. The American Psychological Association (2009) lists symptoms of PTSD as:
- difficulty concentrating
- memory impairment
Individuals experiencing post traumatic stress symptoms may:
- have difficulty beginning new tasks
- blame others
- not trust those in power
- have disturbed sleep
- have low self-esteem
- have difficulty concentrating
Language learning demands control, connection and meaning, therefore students with PTSD or resettlement stress are likely to be distracted with limited ability to learn a new language.
So how can you help?
Students will perform better in a relaxed, uninhibited, motivating and anxiety-free environment.
Provide Structure and Stability in the Classroom
- Provide an outline of the tasks for the day on the board so students know what comes next
- Make the process of the day predictable by creating routines
- Start, end, and give breaks at the scheduled time displayed somewhere that is visible
- Use visual timers like an hourglass for activities or group work
- Keep a clean and organized classroom
Foster Trust and Build Confidence
- Leave the door slightly ajar and remove any obstructions or coverings over windows or doors
- Inform students where the washrooms, emergency exits, water fountain, lunch room, smoking areas are located
- Acknowledge and praise students with thumbs up, smiles, stickers, prizes, certificates, clapping, etc.
- Identify any antecedents that may cause distress (buzzers, bells, scents, objects, working with the opposite gender etc. used in the classroom)
- Be flexible
- Provide a sense of belonging and emphasis on the classroom community.
Academic Goals and Other Expectations
- Use visuals like calendars or timelines to show progress or important dates
- Provide clear academic expectations using charts or images
- Progress should be measurable by the student by using stickers, stamps, checkmarks on performance charts or timelines
- Incorporate long and short term goals in your lesson plans to produce a sense of accomplishment and motivation
- Classroom rules and appropriate behaviour should be addressed on the first day
Holistic, Learner-Centred Environment
- Provide a diversity of activities such as individual and group work
- Use authentic materials and content reflecting the students’ real-life needs such as: signs, coupons, forms, tickets, newspapers, novels or song lyrics
- Ask students what they want to learn or know and have them bring in their own authentic materials so you can see what they have in their environments
- Ask students what popular topics are discussed in their social circles (e.g.: family, employment, shopping, transportation)
Focus on Present
Help students focus on the present situation to stay grounded rather than pre-occupied by distracting thoughts from the past or of the future
- Review in every class
- Consistency and reinforcement
- Flashcards/images/tangible activities like board games or computer activities
- Pre-reading strategies like brainstorming or bringing their own material related to the topic such as books, pictures, music
- Focus on speaking and conversation skills
Now that you understand a little more about the impact of trauma on learning, what would you do differently (or not) in your lessons?
References Further Reading:
Boundless Psychology (2015) The limbic system. Retrieved December 17, 2015 from https://goo.gl/wrgLvw
The American Psychological Association (2015) Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved January 14, 2016 from www.apa.org/topics/ptsd/
The Trauma and Mental Health Report (2012) Psychological trauma and the brain: Interview with Kim Shilson. Retrieved December 17, 2015 from http://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2012/09/psychological-trauma-and-the-brain-interview-with-kim-shilson/
Finn, H. B. (2010), Overcoming barriers: Adult refugee trauma survivors in a learning community. TESOL Quarterly, 44: 586–596. doi: 10.5054/tq.2010.232338
Steele, W. & Raider, M.(2001) Structured sensory intervention for traumatized children, adolescents and parents: Strategies to alleviate trauma. Queenston, Ontario: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Syrian Refugees – General Information