Trauma + Second Language Learning = Alternative Pedagogy

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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.

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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:

  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • headaches
  • 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

Beginners’ Needs
  • Repetition
  • Review in every class
  • Consistency and reinforcement
  • Flashcards/images/tangible activities like board games or computer activities
Advanced Students
  • 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

The American Psychological Association (2015) Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved January 14, 2016 from

The Trauma and Mental Health Report (2012) Psychological trauma and the brain: Interview with Kim Shilson. Retrieved December 17, 2015 from

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


21 thoughts on “Trauma + Second Language Learning = Alternative Pedagogy”

  1. My experience has been that trauma survivors go one way or the other. Either they over achieve and are highly functional in the effort to keep those memories and skeletons locked up – or they become very dysfunctional. In either case, they are eventually going to need help to survive and recover.

    1. That is an excellent observation Burns Wattie, thank you for bringing it up! In fact, many individuals are not identified as having PTSD unless they specifically get treatment or have access to mental health care support. One of the studies I used in my research for this blog discusses a mental health care facility in New York where English language instruction is the last part of the treatment for refugees with PTSD. It states that many individuals are reluctant to learn a new language as they believe they will eventually go back home. It is only after they realize they cannot return to their home country that they become more open to learn English and have less anxiety about it. Learning English is then encouraged to empower these individuals so that they can have more control in their lives in a new culture and country.

      Also, you are correct that each individual has their own coping mechanism to deal with his/her experiences. Some people are more resilient than others after the same traumatic event. Some will have difficulties and some will not, exactly as you have witnessed.

      Thank you very much for taking the time to share your experience with us!

  2. Another point I should add is that often times we (naturally) empathize with our students and assume things about how they feel or think. Through my trauma training I learned that when students do choose to share their experiences it is more effective and beneficial to act as witnesses to these stories and let them tell us how they feel or think.

    As teachers, we do not have the responsibility to act as “therapists”. However, by observing classroom behaviour or monitoring performance, we might become more aware of possible symptoms in our students who may be at risk. If we understand them (or their circumstances) better, we can reduce stress and frustration, prevent problematic behaviours before they escalate, and work more effectively.

  3. Maria, this may be the best post I’ve ever read here on this blog. Thank you SO much. It is coherent, well structured, well researched and immediately applicable to my teaching. I am going to share it with all my coworkers. Right now our Syrian refugees are either en route or are here (housed in hotels) but not enrolled yet. I certainly want to be ready to give them an experience that is the best it can possibly be given the circumstances.

    1. Kelly, thank YOU so much for your kind words and feedback. I really appreciate you sharing it with your colleagues as well. If you have any other questions, comments, or need ideas for sensory activities, please feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to support your work and collaborate with you!

  4. What a well written and timely post! Thank you Maria for compiling all of this information. Would you be interested in presenting this as a workshop to other teachers who may not have the trauma training that you’ve gone through? I’m president of TESL Ottawa and I think that teachers here would really benefit from this. Please contact me if you’re interested.

    1. Hi Sharon!

      You are very welcome. It’s a pleasure to share my experiences and knowledge with our members. I think that many of us have diverse backgrounds in training and there is so much we can learn from each other. Thank you very much for reading the article and posting your comments. I will contact you soon!

  5. Hi Maria. Good morning. I’ve just read your insightful article and I’m so excited, excited because I proposed an article for the next TESL conference on Immigrants as Linguistic Toddlers, the Englishes, Trauma and the ESL Classroom. I have been searching for material and I tumbled on this beautiful article. Thank you for sharing this all-important aspect of your training with the ESL community. I would be most grateful to tape from your reservoir when I start writing the article. Have a great week.

    1. Hello Augustine,
      I am happy this information was helpful for you! Feel free to cite this article or use the references cited for this article.
      Good luck with your article!

  6. Dear Maria,
    Thank you so much for this invaluable work. It is just amazing.
    I am currently working on traumatized children and language learning, and you work is very helpful. If you have anything else to suggest, I will be grateful.

    Kind regards,

    1. Hello Azad,
      Thank you very much for your comments! I am happy to hear you are taking the time to investigate best practices for working with children of trauma. It is a very important role and I encourage you to continue your work as you will help many people, reducing their suffering and adding meaning to their lives. Thank you for what you are doing! I have listed several links that are specific for helping children. You will find excellent information specific to your population.
      You can also join (if you are not already a member), to watch my presentation on this topic.

      You will find a downloadable resource page with more links for further study and support: Go to, register or log in. Here is the link to my webinar:

      For Books and other products that could be helpful:

      For Online training:
      For free resources:

      An activity to use with children for re-framing:

      Here is a list of activities you can do with children to help them cope with what is “happening” in their bodies on a sensory level as they experience post-traumatic stress or high levels of stress/worry in general:

      I hope this helps! Please contact me if you need further support. I would be happy to be there for you. You are not alone.

      Good luck with your work!

  7. Hello Maria,
    My question is a little bit off topic, but would you know about research being done on the therapeutic effects of learning a second or foreign language to cope with past trauma? Not necessarily with PTSD cases, but in a broader perspective?

    1. Hello Madlina, thank you for your excellent question. Most of the research I have studied supports the idea that the social aspect of language learning classes/groups, and the sense of control one would acquire by better communicating in a new environment are therapeutic benefits. If a safe atmosphere is established in the classroom, allowing the student to progress at his/her own pace (student centred), this is also a benefit. However there is a lot of evidence in current studies demonstrating that language learning and executive functioning skills are hindered/limited because of the effects of post traumatic stress, (and other forms of stress ) on the brain and central nervous system. To better answer your question, based on what I have studied and experienced as a teacher, what is therapeutic to the student is the experience of being in a non-judgemental, low stress, social, creative “space” that provides a sense of safety and belonging which could provide healing and thus progress. It is the sense of safety and belonging that need to occur first before successful language learning can take place. This is basically what is understood from empirical findings. I hope this helps!

  8. Thank you Maria for this well written and insightful post.
    I just came across your post and found it so appropriate and relevant to describing our new immigrants, especially our refugees. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said and that is why I am very concerned with the implementation of PBLA for these students. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety and does not address this issues. Under this system, we do not have the time nor flexibility to address the needs of our students but rather spend an inordinate amount of time constantly assessing, over 32 assessments a term. Imagine the anxiety students feel when their focus is not on learning English but rather on “will I pass the assessment” and always asking me, when the next assessment will be.
    Anyway, I just thought I’d put my two cents into the conversation. Thank you again! To everyone, Stay Safe and at a distance!

    1. Hi Joanna,

      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and share your insights. In my experience teaching LINC, I have to agree with you. The program has become more of a “teach to test” function rather than an authentic learning experience for the students. I found that many of my literacy students became more focused on passing their assessments and getting to the next CLB level than on how they could use their skills in their community for their new life in Canada. Instead of creating a sense of safety, (belonging, mastery, autonomy, generosity and control) through language/communication skills, it seemed to create more insecurity and judgement where newcomers seemed stressed about the purpose of learning English.

      However, with more reflection on PBLA for LINC, I think the stress for both teachers and students results from the combination of the LINC PBLA program with the policies and procedures (i.e.needs) of the centres administering the program. PBLA can work if the teacher has the power and time to control how it is implemented in their classroom with a given group of students (as you mentioned).

      In addition, the students themselves have practical family issues such as daycare, work, physical health problems and medical appointments that also interfere with regular attendance and the learning process. Some newcomers often change schools to attend classes with friends or family, or they move to a new home and do not have transportation to get to the same school. All of these factors can contribute to interrupted schooling in Canada, causing more distress and limiting progress. Students often stay in “survival mode” long after they arrive in Canada. Having to worry about PBLA or not moving to the next CLB level is something students with PTSD or post traumatic stress symptoms, can do without. As educators, we can have more patience and show compassion for newcomers who are struggling, and try to bring attention and meaning to the benefits of improved English communication, rather than PBLA assessments. Unfortunately, given the requirements of LINC funding, and PBLA assessments, this is easier said than done.

  9. Thank you for adding to our post. I hope you are well during these complicated times. I appreciate your feedback and kind words!

    Increased collaboration and cooperation between all the stakeholders within each community can improve daily life and social interactions. I find that in Western societies, we function individualistically as opposed to a community of practice. We have systemic and institutional barriers that interfere with progress, unfortunately. However, as things are changing globally, I feel we will find better methods to solve problems and we will start to take better care of each other.

    Stay tuned. You may see more of my writing soon…: )

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