Trauma presents unique challenges to ELL students

Friday, January 4, 2019
Laura Lukens shows teachers how social location can magnify the effects of adverse childhood experiences on a student’s life. The presentation, part of Targeted Student Supports, aimed to beef up awareness of mental health issues to give teachers a bigger tool box to handle how it impacts their classrooms.

With 63 percent of Storm Lake’s students being English language learners (ELL), cultural diversity is a given for teachers. But the trauma inherent with immigrants and refugees in today’s climate brings a new layer of stress to students—one that some teachers may find themselves less prepared to address.

Imagine being detained in isolation for months on end after your family brings you across the border. It’s a reality right now for 14,000 children.

Think about the ever-present fear of coming home from school to find your parents were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while you were gone—giving your family a crippling fear when leaving the house. It’s a reality even for American citizens—4.1 million of them, to be exact—who have at least one undocumented parent.

Picture the anxiety of never being able to do things other kids do as they grow up—like getting a driver’s license or securing your first job—because you don’t have the documentation. Of millions, about 790,000 have received relief through DACA.

These are a few of the things inherent to today’s pressurized experience as an immigrant, and a few of the toxic stresses that can make it impossible for children to learn in the classroom. While toxic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are not exclusive to ELL students, their impact is compounded by the stress that comes with the experience of being an immigrant or refugee.

“How could this apply to our immigrant and refugee populations if we know it impacts our students so much?” asked Laura Lukens, an ELL coordinator from Kansas City, as she presented to Storm Lake teachers preparing to return to school after winter break.

Simply put, learning can’t occur if our students’ basic needs of food, shelter, belonging and safety aren’t met. “It’s up to us to create those conditions for learning,” Lukens said.

Safety, security, belonging and predictability are all critical to students who have sustained trauma from abuse, neglect, violent events, substance abuse, household mental illness or other parental adversity.

In severe situations, the cortisol stress response stays activated in the body, causing damage that manifests in the form of serious, lifelong health effects. Neural connections formed in the brain, especially in the first few years of life, may be weaker and fewer. These changes in the brain architecture alter the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus—where executive function and memory occurs—the two areas of the brain essential to learning.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about all the need that’s out there,” Lukens said.

Children with three or more ACEs are more likely to need special education, fail a grade, score lower on standardized tests and be suspended or expelled as a result of their inability to regulate emotional states and behavior.

Academically, such students have trouble organizing narrative material, discerning cause and effect, seeing other perspectives via inferences, showing empathy, staying attentive and thinking critically.

“They devote incredible energy to assessing the safety of themselves in the moment rather than being able to pay attention to others,” said the ELL coordinator. This translates to increased impulsivity, aggression, withdrawal and even perfectionism causing work to go unfinished—because they don’t want to start it unless it’s perfect.

Some may try to recreate chaotic home environments with their behavior, because even though it’s not ideal, it’s what is familiar to them.

But that’s where teachers can help—by setting a safe, respectful environment sensitive to their past experiences to enable them to build positive relationships with adults and peers, leading to better emotional, physical and academic health.

“We shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Lukens. “There might be a mismatch,” between children from domestic backgrounds and those from immigrant families.

To do this, teachers are starting to look at behavioral antecedents—asking “What caused this behavior?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”

One technique being used is “grounding,” which brings students back to their present environment by reorienting them. This can be done by asking them to find five things of a particular color around them, for example.

Teachers are encouraged to learn as much as possible about a child’s background, especially with the advantage of interpreters available to them. “It’s an American concept to think we can’t pry into private life,” safe Lukens.

Even something as simple as consistency in a classroom, like knowing the schedule for the day, can be soothing to a student whose brain may have trouble learning in a constant “fight or flight” mode.

English learners can become very tired processing English for subject matter all day long. Brain breaks like grounding are being used to help with this, by helping students shift their attention to ensure a focus on long-term memory use.

Superintendent Stacey Cole says she hopes the presentation, part of a day-long conference of mental health awareness presentations, will help bring awareness to teachers working in one of Iowa’s most diverse school districts.

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