CASPER, Wyo. — Three Natrona County School District educators gave a presentation on the effects of trauma on English language learners during the 4th Annual Wyoming English as a Second Language Conference on Saturday, April 27.
NCSD Trust-Based Relational Intervention practitioner and special education teacher Sarah Larsen, English as a Second Language teacher Lisa Birkett and ESL teacher Ashley Cardenas gave their presentation at Pathways Innovation Center/Roosevelt High School, the location of the ESL Conference.
“When we talk about trauma, we often think about physical and verbal abuse,” Larsen said. “It’s way bigger than that.”
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“There are big time trauma numbers in our ELL (English Language Learners) population.”
Birkett said that she’s been with the district for 28 years and currently works at Lincoln Elementary school, one of the district’s ESL “hub” schools.
“A lot of trauma comes from separation,” she said.
Birkett added that things like unrest, poverty or the stress of crossing international borders can have a big impact on people, especially children. Extended time in detention centers, food deprivation, war, human trafficking, racial discrimination, divorce and frequent moving were also mentioned as potential factors.
“It can truly make them sick,” she said.
Being in a school that does not primarily speak your native language itself comes with challenges, Birkett noted.
“The language barriers are huge and cause lots of trauma,” she said.
Larsen agreed with Birkett’s statements.
“The impact trauma can have is pretty significant, especially on our bodies,” Larsen said. “Coming here and being thrown into an English speaking school can have a big impact on their health.”
Some of the effects of trauma include headaches, muscle tension or pain, cardiovascular problems, fatigue, stomach upset, anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, irritability, sadness, emotional outbursts, activity avoidance, over and under eating, social withdrawal and substance abuse, according to the presentation.
Trauma can also affect students’ ability to learn language, express their feelings verbally, regulate moods or control their impulses. The teachers also pointed to problems with short term memory or the ability to feel joy, empathy or a sense of meaning as effects of trauma.
“You know, there are kids that you barely tap and they’re thinking you want to fight them. I have a lot of students that just want to hang out in my room because they feel uncomfortable elsewhere.”
She said that trauma has consequences on people’s ability to empathize and can have long lasting effects if a healing process does not begin.
“If you have not had some of your emotional needs met, it’s hard to understand the emotional needs of others,” Larsen said. “It can begin to take over who they are and determine who they are.”
She tried to describe the mindset of someone who is in a state of trauma.
“The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘How do I make myself safe?'” Larsen said. “We need to help them understand survival skills versus coping skills and help them stay regulated.”
While Larsen spoke in the role of educator, she said this topic is something she deals with as a mother as well. She said that she has adopted sons from orphanages in Ukraine.
“Any time there is a [substitute teacher] he freaks out,” she said of one of her sons. “He tells me, ‘I never know if they’re going to beat me or not.'”
Birkett said that educators need to be mindful of the types of environments they create for their ELL students.
“We need to create spaces in the classroom where kids can feel safe,” she said. “I think that we need to make sure there’s lots of awareness and we need to find something that helps our kids have a sense of purpose.”
Birkett added that being mindful of the effect ELL students’ peers can have on them is important, especially because one of the best way students learn is by forming relationships with their classmates.
“If another child is going to laugh or make fun of them, that’s going to shut them down,” she said. “Standing out in any way can feel really scary to these kiddos.”
The teachers pointed to examples of English language learners being told by other students that the government is going to send them back to their country of origin, something they said might exacerbate the stress that they are in.
Their presentation included the following list of strategies for addressing trauma in the school environment:
- Create a positive relationship and environment
- Use an empathetic approach
- Draw on students’ strengths to help them manage activities, behaviors and language
- Provide modeling, practice opportunities – gradual release support
- Predictable routines and procedures – systematic and explicit instruction
- Tap into their prior knowledge
- Modify your methods
- Create partnerships – based on personal, social and cultural experiences of ELLs
- Don’t overemphasize error correction (model correct use of language)
- Consistently encourage risk-taking
- Incorporate learning games, manipulatives, hands-on activities visual aids
- Support families providing access to services
The teachers added that the way kids are affected by trauma can vary, so it is important that educators pay attention to this. They said that sometimes even praise can be interpreted negatively by someone in a traumatic state.
“Some of these kids, because they’ve never had a lot of praise, praise can feel really uncomfortable,” Larsen said.
She said that one thing teachers can do is try to act in a very consistent manner.
“If they understand what a teacher is going to do ahead of time, it helps to eliminate that reaction,” Larsen said. “Be a behavior detective.”
Cardenas presented a psychological concept of affective filters that she said could be useful to understanding where students are coming from.
She said that students with a high affective filter experience a lot of stress which can block their language learning. The goal should be to move students toward a more low-affective filter.
“Students feel empowered to interact with their peers,” she said of kids with a low-affective filter.
At the end of their presentation, the teachers gave out laminated cards with strategies and activities they think are useful in the classroom.
“All of our teachers in our building have these,” Birkett said of Lincoln Elementary.