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How to address the effects of trauma in the English language classroom
How do we define trauma?
“Trauma’ refers to experiences and events that are physically and/or psychologically damaging. Humans are remarkably resilient. After experiencing an acute trauma (e.g. a road traffic accident or bereavement) we usually manage to heal or adapt, and continue with our everyday life. But the damaging effects of trauma can be lasting. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a well-known consequence of trauma. It is much more common amongst people with multiple traumatic experiences, especially if these are continuous or repeated, and if the trauma is extreme (e.g. they believed they would die). Trauma can also be experienced ‘vicariously’ – through witnessing the effects of trauma on other people. PTSD involves very distressing psychological symptoms including flashbacks, where the trauma is re-experienced, high anxiety, very distressing physical symptoms, avoidance of things related to the trauma, and hypersensitivity e.g. to noise.
How can teachers recognise trauma in young and adult learners?
The effects of psychological trauma are often not easy to recognise. Some people who have experienced trauma have clear symptoms of distress. They may avoid their usual activities, cry, be irritable or angry, and appear low in mood. People with PTSD also find it hard to carry out everyday activities, their concentration and memory is impaired, and they are more likely to develop depression. However, many people who have experienced extreme trauma do not feel able to tell other people. Their trauma may be deeply shameful to them, may be stigmatised, and may change how they think about themselves and other people. People who have PTSD often find their memories of the trauma so painful and distressing that they never think about what happened to them. They may need to prioritise caring for and feeding their family over dealing with their own psychological distress.
Children who have experienced trauma are likely to have the same learning and emotional difficulties as adults; in addition their distress can be expressed through behaviour that is disruptive or challenging in the classroom.
In the English classroom the effects of trauma can be seen on students’ attention, concentration and memory. Students may seem very passive, quiet and withdrawn, or irritable and angry. This interferes with how well they learn and with their motivation to learn. Students with PTSD may avoid certain topics that are associated with their trauma and this may interfere with their engagement with some classroom materials.
What approaches or common mistakes should teachers avoid when working with traumatised learners?
The trouble with trauma is that as soon as you re-visit traumatic experiences, you run the risk of re-traumatisation. A simple rule of thumb (which works for surgeons too) is “Don’t open someone up if you don’t know how to close them again”. People may need to talk about trauma, but they also need to be able to control their emotional thermostat if they are to feel safe. As a language teacher you can give people tools to manage their emotional thermostat through your approach to language switching. Language switching allows people to distance themselves from something traumatic – or move towards something emotionally charged, allowing them to self-regulate. You could ask students to list words for emotions, depicted by emoticons, in their own languages and then in the target language - noticing the different reactions they have when they think about or say the words in different languages. This activity could become a simple linguistic tool which students can use to move themselves away from overwhelming feelings when this is appropriate.
What are the limits of a teacher’s role in addressing trauma?
Powerlessness, anxiety and despair are contagious. Working with people who have very little control over their situation and who are in distress, puts you in touch with your own sense of inadequacy to help and to change the situation. Most teachers are drawn to their profession because they want to be helpful. Feeling unable to do anything to make things better can make you feel useless and despondent. Ironically, it is because we care that we feel so hopeless. Empathy was defined by Carl Rogers as the “sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the client’s point of view” (1980. p.85). It requires one to step out from one’s own experience of the world, to reach across and take the perspective of another while not losing one’s own sense of self. It is ridiculously difficult for human beings to achieve the simple task of thinking and feeling at the same time. And that is what true empathy requires you to do. Stick to thinking and you can appear to be a machine. Just feeling and you lose yourself in the other’s problem. That is why boundaries and limits are so important but so difficult to maintain. And yet without them, we become less resilient and we can eventually experience symptoms of trauma ourselves (vicarious trauma) or burn out. And burn-out can creep up on you without you having any idea that it is happening to you. Try checking yourself for these three most common symptoms: exhaustion; cynicism, inefficiency (or ask a friend for some honest feedback).
What other resources or support systems can teachers call on when they reach that limit?
The reality is that on the ground there may be very little else available in terms of support except perhaps a psychiatrist or, if lucky psychosocial workers, many of whom will have had limited training and experience. It is possible that the supportive and trusting relationship with the teacher is the best support students will receive and referring them on to others, who can’t really help either, can feel like rejection.
What support should a teacher expect from their line manager or the wider learning institution when working with traumatised learners?
Teachers are frontline workers. Teachers are frequently in a bystander position – witnesses to distress and unable to do anything about it. And in refugee settings, teachers and interpreters are often refugees themselves and so the trauma they hear is layered on top of the trauma they themselves have experienced. The International Red Cross (IRC) recognises this and provides appropriate support for frontline workers in crisis contexts.
Effective support with self-care is an ethical imperative for many frontline, educational services. Without this support, teachers are susceptible to vicarious trauma and burnout. Services should have a policy on support which should include spaces for regular, facilitated supportive and reflexive conversations, as well as input about trauma and the impacts of trauma. Managers need to be trained to facilitate these conversations and groups (and have access to groups they can attend for themselves) so that everyone can reflect on their practice, build up their own resilience and self- care and stay fit for their work and for their lives.
Rogers, C.R. (1980) A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Background to the 5 Language for Resilience blog pieces
In 2016, as part of the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the British Council commissioned research on the role of language in enhancing the resilience of Syrian refugees and host communities. You can read that research here. The report identified 5 interconnected ways in which language is an essential component in enhancing the resilience of individuals, communities and institutions.
This year, those 5 interconnected principles have been investigated further by a team of researchers, academics and practitioners. As an insight into their research each has written a blog piece. Read these pieces by clicking on the links below:
Seven reasons for teachers to welcome home languages in education | Kerryn Dixon, Associate Professor, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (published on British Council Voices)
How language affects refugees’ abilities to access education, training and employment | Chris Sowton, University of Bath, UK
How to address the effects of trauma in the English language classroom | Professor Shirley Reynolds, Director Charlie Waller Institute, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, UK and Beverley Costa, CEO & Clinical Director of Mothertongue and founder of the Pasalo Project
Language learning and social cohesion in a multicultural classroom with vulnerable learners | Mohammed Ateek, Research Associate, Birkbeck College University of London, UK
Developing teachers of refugees | Clare Furneaux, Teaching & Learning Dean/Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Reading, UK
If you are interested in finding out more about Language for Resilience you can: