15 – Trauma and its Impact on Learning

Rochelle Chambers

In the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the population of newcomers settling in Saskatchewan, many of whom are learning English as an Additional Language. “Between 2008 and 2012, the number of PreK-12 students in the province requiring support for EAL grew dramatically following the introduction of the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) (Prokopchuk, 2014, p.81). “Increasing immigration means that our classrooms are likely to continue welcoming learners whose countries of origin are more and more diverse” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p.14). Although working with newcomer populations can be exciting, I have had first hand experience and know that some newcomers arrive with various needs and experiences that can put a strain on the resources that are available in our education system. I selected this topic based on my experiences as a classroom teacher in a community school that welcomed over seventy refugee children in the span of a few weeks. My own experiences encouraged me to begin researching the topic of trauma and its impact on learning. This paper will differentiate between immigrants and refugees, provide a definition of trauma, and describe how educators can ensure that they are prepared to work with EAL students who have experienced trauma.

It is important to examine the difference between immigrants and refugees when considering newcomers to our country. Manitoba Education (2012) explains that while immigrants choose to move and settle in Canada, refugees often do not have a choice. Coelho (2012) refers to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, which describes refugees as “persons with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership to a particular group.” Often, refugees are forced to flee from their home, are displaced for long periods of time and live in refugee camps.  According to The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, as of six years ago “the number of refugees and persons of concern worldwide exceeded 19.8 million” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p.13). Helmer & Eddy (2012) explain that this number has increased dramatically due to violence in the Middle East and Africa and is currently at an estimated 42 million.

Trauma is a very individual experience. An event that is traumatic to one person may not be traumatic to another. According to Manitoba Education (2012), a person may experience two different types of traumatic events. Acute traumatic events can include experiences such as school shootings, gang-related violence, natural disasters, serious accidents, sudden loss of a loved one, or physical or sexual assault. Chronic traumatic situations can include events such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, and wars or political violence. Whether a person experiences an acute traumatic event or chronic traumatic situations, both can “overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 15).  According to Souers & Hall (2016), students experiencing stress or trauma are using the downstairs area of the brain (limbic area), which controls arousal, emotion and the fight, flight or freeze response. Souers & Hall (2016) go on to explain that education and learning requires students to be using the upstairs area of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which enables them to think and reason.

In the past decade, “the experience of trauma has dramatically altered the landscape of the schools we work in” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 1).  “Immigrants and particularly refugees arrive in Canada from countries where they may have experienced trauma from wars, persecution, violence, torture, or other horrendous experiences” (Wilbur, 2017, p. 5).  As educators, we expect our students to enter our classrooms ready to learn but this is not the reality. We expect our students to leave their baggage at the door and focus solely on what we deem important and worthy. “Trauma has a powerful negative effect on students’ readiness to learn, leading to the “triple whammy” of school troubles in attendance, behaviour, and coursework” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 20).  It is plain and simple: “if our students aren’t in the learning mode…they will not learn” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 26). It is up to educators to help these students by building safe and trusting relationships with them, challenging our own personal belief systems, providing adequate positive reinforcement, and caring for ourselves.

One of the ways that we can support EAL students who have experienced trauma is by working towards building relationships with them. “A healthy relationship, in turn, is an instrumental aspect of feeling safe – and a sense of safety enables students who have experienced trauma to stay regulated and access the healthy parts of their brain” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 102). Building a relationship may involve taking an interest in something that they enjoy, articulating clear classroom expectations, engaging with their family, or modelling kindness and respect towards them and others. “We have an incredible opportunity…..to show students what they are capable of, to expose them to different ways of being, to teach them healthy ways of managing, to empower them to learn and grow in productive ways, and to love them for both who they are and for who they may become” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 140). However, this cannot be achieved without first establishing a relationship with students.

Another way that we can support EAL students who have experienced trauma is by examining our personal belief systems. “The way we see our students – through a strength-focused lens or in a deficit-based model – shapes our beliefs and our expectations follow suit” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.146). If we believe that certain students are only capable of being disruptive or uninterested, we will base our decisions and our efforts on those beliefs. Positive mindsets and belief systems about our students can help us be more patient, willing to help them or try new strategies that we have not attempted yet. Positive mindsets encourage us to think outside of the box for struggling students who might need us to go the extra mile for them. We must always remember that our EAL students who have experienced trauma are simply young people who are trying to make sense of the world and figure out how to get their needs met.

In addition to building relationships and examining our personal belief system, we must ensure that we are providing adequate positive feedback to our EAL students who have experienced trauma. Most people “rely on external feedback to confirm that we did something well, that we’re worthy of love, that our appearance is up to par, or that something we’ve done is valued” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.183). Compliments and praise feel good and we all appreciate this in our lives.  “Students who have experienced trauma have a significantly compromised capacity to self-acknowledge—that is, to recognize and validate themselves, their feelings, or their efforts” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.184). “Younger children (8 and 9-year-olds) respond much more favorably to praise and, in fact, do not access certain regions of their brains after receiving negative feedback” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.185).

One of the most important things that educators can do in order to support EAL students who have experienced trauma is to take a step back and focus on our own self-awareness. “If we aren’t physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, we cannot reasonably expect to be able to help our students become healthier and more successful in school” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 40).  Souers & Hall (2016) explain the importance of focusing on our health, love, competence and gratitude. Exercising for 40 minutes at least three times a week will do wonders to regulate and manage our stress levels. We need to take time each week to treat ourselves, whether it is with a bubble bath, reading a book, or a social outing. We must challenge ourselves and step out of our comfort zone by trying new things and overcoming our fears. Lastly, we must be thankful and express our gratitude for the little things in our lives. It is critical that we are also able to identify our own triggers, recognize when we are exhausted or emotional, and when we are thinking with our “downstairs” brain. Our ability to recognize these and regulate ourselves by providing self-care is critical for our jobs and interactions with students and their families.

“Although it’s not all about us, creating a trauma-sensitive learning environment begins with us” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.146). If we do not take care of ourselves, it is just a matter of time before our health is affected. Burnout refers to “when the individual feels that they have too many demands, not enough support, and lack resources” (Manitoba Education, 2012, p.55). Individuals suffering from burnout may begin to feel powerless and/or overwhelmed. Compassion fatigue is a condition of “deep physical and emotional exhaustion that leaves the individual feeling drained and having nothing to give to others” (Manitoba Education, 2012, p. 55). Vicarious traumatisation is the “result of the cumulative effect of contact and interaction with survivors of violence, war, and disasters” (Manitoba Education, 2012, p. 55). Educators working and supporting EAL students who have experienced trauma must be aware of these conditions, the importance of self-care and the risks associated with not putting ourselves first.

“As educators, we have an obligation to truly understand how students learn and what may be affecting their capacity to learn” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.117).  Although I initially started researching EAL students affected by trauma, I quickly learned that trauma does not discriminate and it affects each one of us differently. I have also realized that in order for learning to occur in my classroom, I must create a trauma-sensitive classroom by building relationships with all of my students (EAL and non-EAL), provide a safe and caring environment, encourage them and believe that they are capable of becoming resilient young adults. Most importantly, I must take care of myself if I want to continue to be a positive and healthy role model for any of my students who have experienced trauma.



Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol; Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto: Pippin.

Manitoba Education. (2012). Life after war: Education as a healing process for refugee and war-affected children.

Prokopchuk, N. (2014). Supporting strategies for English as an additional language (EAL) in PreK-12 education. In Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1).

Souers, K., & Hall, P. A. (2016). Fostering resilient learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Wilbur, A. (2017). Creating inclusive EAL classrooms: How language instruction for newcomers to Canada (LINC) instructors understand and mitigate barriers for students who have experienced trauma. In TESL Canada Journal, 33.