This article explores some simple ways to support adult learners from refugee backgrounds in the classroom.
To provide some context to this subject I have included a definition of trauma and trauma informed practice, the impact trauma can have on learning, and a brief discussion around the body’s physiological response to it.
I have then related this information back to the effect of trauma on refugees in the adult learning environment, before summarising some simple strategies that educators can employ to assist their adult learners.
The Australian Psychological Society (APS) defines trauma as, “very frightening or distressing events that may result in a psychological wound or injury”.
Trauma can result in people having difficulty in coping or functioning normally. However, everyone’s reaction to traumatic experiences can be different, and whilst most people recover, some experience the lasting effects of trauma throughout their lives.
Kezelman, Hossack, Stravropoulos and Barley (2015) acknowledge in their 2015 study of trauma affected adults, that there are over 5 million Australian adults living with the effects of trauma.
Refugees and Trauma
The APS notes that refugees often have high levels of trauma during the migration process, which can negatively affect their mental health and wellbeing. When a person experiences trauma it can have a lasting effect on their brain (Perry, 2006). It can also affect a person’s ability to learn new information, and research by Sondergaard & Theorell (2004) suggests trauma can directly affect learning acquisition.
Often people with a trauma background remain in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’. This may mean they are hypersensitive to external stimuli, and hypervigilant for perceived threats. Perry, (2006) notes the impact of these behaviours on a student’s learning can be devastating (Gordon, 2011).
Common Behaviours in the Classroom caused by Trauma
An adult refugee with a history of trauma may have trouble concentrating in the classroom, because they may be reliving past trauma events in their mind.
This may cause them to become extremely anxious, as they constantly look for perceived threats in the learning environment. They may be highly sensitive to the educator’s tone of voice, facial expressions and body posture. The learner, in their heightened state may misinterpret these cues creating greater anxiety for them in the classroom. This can have dire consequences for their learning (Perry, 2006).
Adult learners suffering from the effects of trauma may find it difficult to begin new activities, answer questions, or have trouble understanding other people’s opinions. They may have little self-confidence and have trouble with their memory. They feel overwhelmed, even angry. Some may dissociate, which is a state similar to daydreaming, typified by a blank or glazed expression. Other students may choose to avoid the situation and miss classes (Kerka,2002).
What is Trauma Informed Practice?
‘Trauma Informed practice’ (TIP) is widely used in human service organisations and health services. In its simplest form, TIP can mean ‘do no harm’. The idea behind this is simply not to re-traumatise the adult learner when going about your usual business of teaching them. It is also acknowledging that some of the usual practices used in the classroom may inadvertently trigger a trauma response or exacerbate trauma symptoms (Wall, Higgins and Hunter, 2016).
Strategies to Manage Trauma Affected Learners in the Classroom
Disclosure: It can be difficult for teachers to manage student disclosures of a highly sensitive nature.
Teachers are not counsellors and are not equipped with the skills nor do they have the time to manage this. By acknowledging students’ emotional pain yet gently guiding them to focus on their present circumstances, such as the activity in class, they will remain present.
Simple mindfulness activities are excellent ways to do this and can be interspersed throughout the day to keep learners in the present. More common mindfulness activities include: focused breathing for 1 minute; focusing on our senses remembering to tailor this to the learner’s language abilities; or guided meditation. There are many simple exercises for mindfulness at Sane Australia, a mental health organisation.
One of my favourite mindfulness activities is mindful breathing. Spend a few minutes getting settled, sitting down comfortably, with feet on the ground, eyes closed or facing downwards. For approximately one minute using the timer on your phone, watch or computer, focus only on your breathing. Breathe in slowly then out slowly. After 1 minute, slowly return to your day.
Relationships and Connection: Relationships can be the invisible connection between educators and students and even students to each other. This established relationship is critical to being able to accurately evaluate the learner’s state of mind and assess how they are managing in the classroom. For example, if a student attends class and appears visibly distressed or anxious, by employing some simple mindfulness techniques at the start of the class this may settle the student and bring them back to the present.
Consistency: Learners under stress need a predictable routine and structure to feel safe in their learning environment.
Physical Space: Being aware of the physical space in the classroom and its impact on learners is important.
For example, closed doors and rooms with only a few windows may make a student feel threatened. Simple actions like leaving a door open, ensuring students know where they can get water or where the bathrooms are, is important for them to feel some element of control and less vulnerable.
Trust and Confidence: Once students feel less vulnerable, it is important to create a trusting environment in the classroom to lower learners’ anxiety levels. Consider ways to build confidence into everyday activities, using repetition and pre reading exercises to address memory impairment. Refugee trauma survivors can feel disempowered because of their prior experiences thus efforts to rebuild trust is crucial.
Motivation: Students may feel quite defeated at times due to memory loss and heightened anxiety in the classroom. Creating activities that value cultural identity may assist in re-engaging the student and help motivate them to participate.
Useful numbers: If you have a learner that you are concerned about it is always a good idea to give them the number for Lifeline 13 11 14 and encourage them to seek help through their local doctor. If you believe they are in danger or it is an emergency call 000.
Trauma can have a lasting effect on the brain. It can also affect a person’s memory, ability to learn new information and can directly affect learning acquisition.
Using some of the trauma informed techniques outlined above, educators will be able to provide an optimal learning environment which encourages and supports their students to learn.
Author: Maree Stevens, BAdVocEd; GCert Sp Ed; M SocWk; M HumServ; GDipCouns; GCert MentalHlthPrac.
Maree is a Social Worker with over 20 years’ experience working with vulnerable groups of people in the human services, health and education sectors within government, at a federal and state level as well as in the private and not for profit sector. She has an undergraduate degree in Adult Education and post graduate qualifications in the Education and the Human Services sectors including a Graduate Certificate in Special Education; Master of Human Services, Rehabilitation Counselling; Master of Social Work, (Qualifying); Graduate Diploma of Counselling; and Graduate Certificate in Mental Health Practice.
Maree is currently a registered teacher in QLD; a member of Australian Rehabilitation Counsellors Association and a member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. Her areas of interest include mental health and education; mental health practice; self-harm and suicide; trauma informed practice and domestic violence.
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- Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. (2000). Torture and second language acquisition. Retrieved: http://www.ccvt.org/torture_esl.html
- Finn, H. B. (2010). Overcoming barriers: Adult refugee trauma survivors in a learning community. TESOL Quarterly, Vol.44(3), pp.586-596
- Gordon, Daryl (2011). Trauma and Second Language Learning among Laotian Refugees. Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement: Vol. 6, Article 13.
- Kerka, S. (2002). Trauma and Adult Learning. Columbus, Ohio: Center for Education and Training for Empowerment, (Report no. 239)
- Kezelman, C., Hossack, N., Stavropoulos, P., and Barley, P. (2015). The cost of unresolved childhood trauma and abuse in adults in Australia. Sydney: Adults Surviving Child Abuse & Pegasus Economics.
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- Sondergaard, H. P., & Theorell, T. (2004). Language acquisition in relation to cumulative posttraumatic stress disorder—Symptom load over time in a sample of resettled refugees. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 73, 320–323. doi:10.1159/ 000078849.
- Trauma Psychology Topics. Retrieved 31 January 2019 from Australian Psychological Society https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Trauma
- Wall, L., Higgins, D., and Hunter, C. (2016). Trauma-informed care in the child/family welfare services. Child Family Community Australia paper no. 37. pp.1-19