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Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees

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Abstract

Although not usually trained therapists, in many contexts around the world ‘teachers are on the front line of coping with the outcomes of displacement’, one of which is trauma, and, consequently, ‘language learning classes are increasingly seen by many agencies as a potential space in which to deliver psychosocial support’ (Capstick, 2018: 60). However, research and training into appropriate trauma-informed pedagogies is sparse and largely dissipated across various disciplines, namely ELT, refugee studies, trauma psychology and positive psychology. This makes it difficult for teachers to gain the required knowledge and skills to work with refugees as effectively as they could. This article attempts to redress this situation by synthesising insights from the above fields. After examining how we might respond to the challenge of mitigating the effects of trauma in the language classroom to maximise the possibility that effective learning will occur, it will explore how we might use our lessons as an instrument through which students can begin to move on from trauma and thrive in their lives, a phenomenon which has been referred to as post-traumatic growth. It is hoped that the result will be a move towards the creation of a more comprehensive trauma-informed pedagogy for refugees.
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees
Abstract
Although not usually trained therapists, in many contexts around the world teachers are on
the front line of coping with the outcomes of displacement, one of which is trauma, and,
consequently, language learning classes are increasingly seen by many agencies as a
potential space in which to deliver psychosocial support (Capstick, 2018: 60). However,
research and training into appropriate trauma-informed pedagogies is sparse and largely
dissipated across various disciplines, namely ELT, refugee studies, trauma psychology and
positive psychology. This makes it difficult for teachers to gain the required knowledge and
skills to work with refugees as effectively as they could.
This article attempts to redress this situation by synthesising insights from the above fields.
After examining how we might respond to the challenge of mitigating the effects of trauma
in the language classroom to maximise the possibility that effective learning will occur, it
will explore how we might use our lessons as an instrument through which students can
begin to move on from trauma and thrive in their lives, a phenomenon which has been
referred to as post-traumatic growth. It is hoped that the result will be a move towards the
creation of a more comprehensive trauma-informed pedagogy for refugees.
Introduction
Whether in a makeshift classroom in a refugee camp in Northern Greece or in an inner-city
FE college working with unaccompanied minors in the UK, language teachers in refugee
contexts are frequently finding themselves dealing with the fallout of trauma and being
drawn into increasingly psychosocial roles (Costa, 2018:19). Some of their students have
lost their entire families, their homes, their jobs. Some have been persecuted, trafficked,
tortured.
The degree to which such experiences leave a mark on an individual depends on a number
of variables, including whether they were able to employ a degree of agency to act or flee at
the time of the traumatic event(s) (van der Kolk, 2014:55), the nature, severity and duration
of the event(s), what conditions were in place to support their recovery and their
personality and coping strategies (Stone, 1995:50). Due to the interplay of such variables,
potentially traumatic events might leave some individuals relatively unscathed, manifesting
no symptoms at all, while others may go on to develop full-blown Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD), with many others lying somewhere between these two ends of this
spectrum (Kerka, 2002:1).
For many refugees, the effects of potentially traumatic events are compounded by other
factors such as their loss of support networks, living in limbo while waiting for a decision to
be made about their asylum case and, for many, various difficulties caused by lacking a
functional level of proficiency in a required or desired language which, in many cases, is
English. While attending English language classes and improving their level of English might
be regarded as a way in which trauma survivors might begin to remove some of these
barriers and gain a measure of control in their lives, the symptoms of trauma, especially
when PTSD is present, can interfere with their learning, affecting their ability and motivation
pre-print
How to reference this article: Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-
informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
to learn the language and thus all of the opportunities that being proficient in it might
afford them (Dixon, 2018:64).
This can pose a real challenge for teachers uncertain as to whether it is better in this
situation to continue to employ their existing pedagogies, or to attempt to adapt these to
tackle the issue of trauma in the classroom, and, if so, risk the possibility of trespassing into
the domain of the therapist, which might result in further harm being caused (Horsman,
2004:142). While recommendations for trauma-informed pedagogy do exist (e.g. UNHCR,
2017; Kerka, 2002; Davidson, n.d.), much of the body of literature focuses on pedagogies
related to other subjects and/or children and young people. In terms of trauma-informed
pedagogy for adult ESOL, there is very little research which has been conducted in this area,
but that which has been done does offer a glimpse of hope: certain pedagogical
interventions can be and have been successfully implemented in the language classroom to
minimise the detrimental effects of PTSD symptoms on language learning in refugees (e.g.
Clayton, 2015, in Furneaux, 2018:66; Finn, 2010; Stone, 1995).
It is the aim of this article to synthesise many of these findings, highlighting areas in which
what is commonly regarded as good practice in ESOL coincides with good trauma-informed
practice, and areas in which the two are at odds. To do this, it will draw upon a range of
insights from the fields of language learning pedagogies, refugee studies, trauma psychology
and the emerging field of positive psychology, which addresses human difficulties from the
standpoint of human strengths rather than human deficiencies (Seligman &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). After examining how we might begin to respond to the challenge of
mitigating the effects of trauma in the language classroom in order to maximise the
possibility that effective learning will take place, it will then go on to explore how we might
use our lessons as an instrument through which students can begin to move on from trauma
and thrive in their lives, a phenomenon which has been referred to as post-traumatic
growth. It is hoped that the result will be a move towards the creation of a more
comprehensive trauma-informed pedagogy for refugees.
Presentation of trauma symptoms in the language classroom
It is important to start by examining how the symptoms of trauma might present in the
language classroom, to sensitise us to what we might expect to encounter. Firstly, many
trauma survivors are trapped in semi-permanent fight or flight mode (van der Kolk,
2014:46), reacting to their environment as though the traumatic event was still happening.
This often results in their having heightened levels of stress, being restless and irritable,
startling easily, being fearful of taking risks and feeling generally unsafe (Hoch, Stewart,
Webb & Wyandt-Hiebert, 2015, in Davidson, n.d.:8). This can make it very difficult for them
to feel that they can trust others, especially if their trauma involved inter-personal violence
such as torture (Stone, 1995:53), which can affect their willingness and ability to work with
others in the class and to take risks. This anxiety might also lead to avoidance behaviours
such as being absent or late for class, not turning up for tests and creating excuses to leave
the classroom (such as to use their phone).
Furthermore, certain topics or activities (such as describing one’s family) might function as
trauma triggers for particular individuals, causing them to experience an extreme emotional
reaction such as anger or despair, or a panic attack, or even a highly-vivid multi-sensory
flashback of a traumatic event (Stone, 1995:52). In order to shut themselves down from
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
their constant sensory overload, some people experience dissociation, numbing themselves
to their emotions when they feel overwhelmed (van der Kolk, 2014:84); however, this
coping strategy impairs cognitive processes such as attention, concentration and working
memory, which can severely impede new learning (ibid, 70).
To the untrained eye, many of the above behaviours might be misinterpreted as deficiencies
in motivation or discipline. However, Kerka (2002) points out that, in the case of trauma
survivors, these are adaptive behaviours which function (or once functioned) as survival
mechanisms as a response to one or more traumatic events. Such a shift in perspective is
one of the first steps towards employing a trauma-informed pedagogy, but what other steps
might we take?
Mitigating the effects of trauma
Before we can begin to think about how we might foster post-traumatic growth in the
language classroom, we need to employ strategies to deal with the very real challenges that
a student with trauma symptoms might present us with. How can we help them trust others
enough to engage in pair and group work in the ESOL classroom? How can we bring them
back into the present moment if they are continually reliving a traumatic event as if it were
happening now? How can we minimise the chance that trauma survivors will be triggered in
our lessons? To tackle these and other similar questions, I will focus on four main areas:
reducing post-migration stressors; creating a safe space; reducing trauma symptoms; and
practising practitioner self-care.
Reducing post-migration stressors
In addition to being highly likely to have experienced one or more potentially traumatic
events, refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants (hereafter referred to as RAS)
are highly likely to be dealing with multiple daily stressors in their host countries. These
might include poverty, inadequate housing or, in the worst cases, homelessness and
destitution. Many will also be negotiating a complex asylum system, sometimes living for
years in limbo, unable to start rebuilding their lives for fear that they will lose what they
have built if they are suddenly deported, detained or moved to another city. When students
are experiencing practical struggles such as these, their capacity to focus on future-oriented
activity (such as learning) can be severely reduced (Uy & Okubo, 2018: 12). However, there
are certain actions that we can take in order to address this issue.
First of all, we can help reduce students’ anxiety by reassuring them that we understand
that they may be experiencing difficulties, which might mean that they sometimes need to
be late or absent from class, that they might not be able to complete their homework on
some days, or that they may need to leave the classroom to make a phone call.
Furthermore, as language is likely to be a barrier for many of our students when dealing
with their daily stressors, we are uniquely placed as ESOL practitioners to find out which
types of situations they most need functional language for, and to help them meet this need
through our classes. It is important to note, though, that while many of the situations and
phrases covered might be very similar to those covered in regular ESOL classes, others may
differ. For example, students may wish to learn phrases which they can use in their Home
Office interview, or when they are accessing an emergency hotline (Isserlis, 2000).
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
Finally, when working with RAS students, it is important to recognise the limits of our own
agency in certain situations, and to refer them on to relevant local and national
organisations who might be better placed to offer specialist services to meet their needs. To
this end, it is very useful to create or source a list of such services, or to find a key,
knowledgeable contact who can signpost students when required.
Creating a safe space
The literature on trauma also emphasises the need to create a safe space, which can help
reduce students’ anxiety levels. A safe space is one in which a person can feel confident that
there will be no unpleasant surprises or threats to the self, one in which an individual can
experience some measure of control over events. It has been suggested that, for some
trauma survivors, the classroom may be the only safe space they experience (Horsman,
2004:133); however, this is only the case if we make it so.
Recommended good practice for creating a safe physical classroom space includes ensuring
that there are no physical hazards, that it has easily accessible exits and restrooms and that
it is well-lit (Fallot & Harris, 2009, in Davidson, n.d.: 17), preferably through choosing a room
with plenty of windows and natural light (Finn, 2010:591). It has been suggested that
implementing such measures may help some students feel a greater sense of control and
agency (ibid). The physical space of the classroom also holds great potential for being
decorated in such a way as to show students that they are valued and respected, which can
foster a sense of hope (Horsman, 2004:140).
Building on these principles of fostering a sense of agency and respect, another way in
which we can create such conditions is by establishing a predictable routine, structure and
clear expectations, both within lessons and over the course as a whole (Furneaux, 2018: 67).
If students are aware from the beginning of what to expect, this can help to orient them and
diffuse some of their anxiety. In terms of course content, this can be done through simple
practices such as giving the students a scheme of work or overview of the course at the
beginning and setting out lesson objectives at the start of each lesson. In terms of roles and
responsibilities, it is greatly beneficial to lay out what you expect from students and what
they might expect from you from the beginning of a course, thus establishing clear role
boundaries, which is a recurring theme in the trauma literature, as boundaries can help
foster a sense of safety (e.g. Fallot & Harris, 2009, in Davidson, n.d.: 15+19; Horsman, 2004;
Kerka, 2002). Examples of ground rules might include ‘it’s okay to have time out if you feel
uncomfortable doing an activity or you don’t have to answer personal questions if you
don’t want to’.
Some commentators recommend that some or all of these points be developed in
conjunction with the students themselves to help them feel a measure of control over the
process (e.g. UNHCR, 2017:9; Kerka, 2002). This resonates with existing learner-centred
approaches commonly used in the ESOL classroom, and is echoed by many proponents of
strategies for trauma-informed pedagogies (e.g. Furneaux, 2018:67; Finn, 2010:592; Isserlis,
2000). Other examples of learner-centred strategies that might be used with trauma
survivors are: actively giving time and space to learners to discuss their daily struggles
(Isserlis, 2000); ensuring that a course is meaningful to students by making it relevant to
their daily contexts of language use (Finn, 2010:592); and giving students the opportunity to
select materials and set goals (Horsman, 2004:139).
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
However, Horsman (ibid) warns us that raising control issues with trauma survivors in the
classroom before they are ready can be extremely problematic, and that, for some,
activities such as setting goals may be very difficult indeed. She explains this with reference
to individuals’ capacity to foster a sense of ‘control, connection and meaning, which
Herman (1992, in Horsman, 2004:138-9) purports to be overwhelmed in trauma survivors,
one of the repercussions of which is a reduced ability to set goals. Another explanation for
these difficulties with goal-setting is that trauma can block the imagination, thereby
stunting the brain’s ability to visualise the future (van der Kolk, 2014: 17). These insights
indicate that goal setting and other activities designed to foster learner autonomy should be
approached carefully, and that not all students may be ready for such approaches at first.
Care should also be taken around the issue of personalisation, as this is one area in which
what is currently hailed as good practice in ESOL diverges from one of the key tenets of
trauma-informed practice. In the communicative tradition of ELT, personalisation in
language production is commonly recommended as a way in which activities and language
items can be made more meaningful and more memorable to individuals, thereby
promoting deeper learning (Thornbury, 2006:160). However, requiring students to talk
about themselves and specific details of their lives, especially in front of others, can cause
intense anxiety and risk re-triggering trauma in some students. This is particularly the case
in activities such as getting to know you pair or mingling activities, which commonly occur
before good class rapport has been established and before students feel comfortable and
safe in this unfamiliar interpersonal context (Isserlis, 2000).
In terms of how to approach this, one strategy is to find ways to give the students more
control over activities in which they divulge information about themselves. In the case of a
getting to know you activity, for example, the students could share two facts and a lie
about themselves, and their classmates can guess which is which. This minimises the risk of
students being asked potentially triggering questions. Another strategy, as noted above, is
to let students know that they can choose how much or little information about themselves
they wish to share (Isserlis, 2000). Also, when setting up writing or speaking activities that
would commonly necessitate personalisation, students can be given a choice as to whether
to share a true story or one from their imagination, although, as noted above, some trauma
survivors may struggle to access their imaginative capacities. Alternatively, they could be
presented with a real or fictional stimulus that might enable them to speak in the third
person or, indeed, take on the role of another and speak in the first person. However this is
managed, the key principle here is that students are given a choice and that personalisation
is never forced.
Furthermore, although trauma triggers do vary from person to person, it is prudent to tread
carefully around certain potentially triggering topics which are common to ESOL courses
such as those of family, homes, journeys and one’s past life (Stone, 1995: 52), particularly
when they arise early in a course (Isserlis, 2000). Some would advocate avoiding these
topics altogether; however, this is doing our learners a disservice, as they are likely to
require the language necessary to talk about these topics in a variety of situations in their
daily lives, including when discussing their asylum case with an immigration officer or
solicitor, and, on accredited courses, these topics may also form a required part of the exam
syllabus. Therefore, wherever possible, it is advisable to move slowly, starting with safer
topics, building relationships with and between students and being responsive to the
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
students in front of you, taking cues from the students themselves as to what topics they
feel comfortable discussing.
The importance of inter-personal interaction and relationship-building, often referred to as
establishing good class rapport, is no stranger to ELT pedagogies (e.g. Williams & Burden,
1997:79, in Harmer, 2001: 114), and, as we have seen above, is central to establishing one’s
classroom as a viscerally safe space for trauma survivors. Feeling safe in one’s social
environment is of great importance in learning a language, as this type of learning
commonly requires students to take risks and make mistakes, which means that they need
to first feel comfortable enough with their teacher and their classmates to do so (Stone,
1995: 55). This can be facilitated through explaining to students that making mistakes is a
natural and, indeed, essential part of the language learning process, and through the use of
sensitive error correction strategies. Another strategy to foster good rapport is to help
students feel known and seen by greeting them by name (without putting them on the spot)
(van der Kolk, 2014: 352) and having the flexibility to allow some time in class for students
to share experiences and concerns when they need to, and to feel heard and supported by
others.
While it important for students to feel known, this needs to be on their own terms (Isserlis,
2000); we as teachers need to ensure that we do not divulge personal information about a
student to other students (Kerka, 2002). For example, in a class in which some students are
RAS and others are not, it is important not to out the RAS students. Doing so is not only a
breech of confidentiality; it also risks the possibility (real or perceived) of exposing these
students to stigma and discrimination, and also, in some cases, may actually put the student
and their family in real danger. The decision as to whether and when a RAS student’s status
is disclosed should therefore rest firmly with themselves. Some students may offer this
information freely, while others may never broach this topic.
The principle of choice can also usefully be applied to other aspects of classroom practice.
For example, it is advisable to inform RAS students that, should they feel uncomfortable
with any topic or activity, they can decide to opt out of it. This principle might be extended
to the common practice of nominating students to answer particular questions. For some
students, being put on the spot in such a way might be extremely distressing, particularly if
the question directed at them is a trauma trigger for them, or if they have experienced
torture, as they may associate this with being interrogated under duress (Stone, 1995: 56).
One way around this is to avoid nominating students to answer direct questions until we are
confident that they feel safe and comfortable enough to do so.
Reducing trauma symptoms
As noted above, there are a variety of ways in which the symptoms of trauma might present
in the classroom, which include spacing out, being fearful of taking risks and having
flashbacks. Fortunately, we have at our disposal different methods of tackling these when
they arise.
There is a sound body of advice available in the trauma literature regarding techniques
which can be employed to tackle situations in which a person spaces out or experiences a
flashback. For example, a procedure outlined by Siebert and Pollheimer-Puhringer (2016, in
UNHCR, 2017: 4) includes the following steps: taking deep breaths and remaining calm both
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
inwardly and outwardly; trying to make eye contact with the individual affected whilst
moving slowly and giving them space, taking care not to touch them at first; re-orienting
them by saying their name, telling them that they are safe, and reminding them of the date,
where they are and who you are; if required, creating stronger sensory stimuli by speaking
more loudly, letting them know you will touch them on their arm and, if possible and
required, putting a cold damp cloth on it. Once they are back in the present moment,
explain what happened to them and that they are safe, and ask them if they would like a
little time out, and a drink and a sweet snack, if these are available. Ask them privately if
they would like to explain to the class what happened, or if they would like you to do this,
and agree how you might do this. This strategy takes into account the impact that such
episodes might have not only on the person experiencing the flashback but also on other
students in the class. This is an acknowledgement that a classroom needs to be a safe space
for everybody (Horsman, 1997, in Kerka, 2002), as visceral safety is largely a product of
inter-personal relationships and reciprocity (van der Kolk, 2014:79).
One of the strategies noted above involved reorienting an individual to their current
spacial and temporal context, which is also known as grounding. Many of the symptoms of
trauma survivors arise because they are re-experiencing, or afraid of re-experiencing, the
traumatic event(s) of the past. When having a flashback, for example, the traumatic event is
experienced mentally and physically as though it were happening in the present. One way of
bringing students back into the room and into the present moment is through helping them
ground themselves through activating their physical senses. This might be through simply
asking them to sit up straight, plant their feet firmly on the ground and feel the weight of
their bodies in their chair (van der Kolk, 2014: 245). It might be through asking them to
name things that they can see, hear and touch now. Alternatively, common ELT activities
themselves could be used to ground students. This might be through highly rhythmic
activities involving clapping such as jazz chants, through games involving movement such as
running dictations or through physical instruction-following activities reminiscent of the
Total Physical Response methodology (e.g. Harmer, 2001:90). Such physical grounding
activities can be incorporated into students’ regular lesson routine, and may be particularly
effective if used at the beginning and end of a lesson, as both a symbolic and physical way of
demarcating the classroom as a safe space qualitatively different from the world around it.
Another characteristic of trauma survivors is that they typically view the world in terms of
extremes, displaying an all or nothing mentality, which can prevent them from taking risks,
from feeling comfortable with ambiguity and also from recognising incremental progress
that they might be making in their learning (Horsman, 2004: 136-7). It is important,
therefore, to help them set small, regular goals and to factor in progress checks. Moreover,
carefully scaffolded activities can optimise the chances of meaningful success, after which
students could be encouraged to reflect on and recognise their achievements, no matter
how small, and to see how these are related to the achievement of a larger goal.
Practising practitioner self-care
When considering best practice in mitigating the effects of trauma in the ESOL classroom,
we must not neglect compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma (or secondary traumatic
stress). These are conditions that educators working with traumatised students may be
susceptible to, and are characterised by a feeling of being physically, mentally or
emotionally overwhelmed or exhausted by others’ trauma (American Counselling
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
Association, 2011, in Davidson, n.d.: 20-21). Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness,
having intrusive thoughts or dreams about severe traumatic events and anxiety or guilt that
one is not doing enough to help (ibid).
Another recurring theme is the criticality of setting emotional boundaries, which broaches
the issue of how to display empathy without over-identifying with a student, as such over-
identification can be harmful for both parties, and reduce the capacity of the teacher to be
effective in this situation (Davidson, n.d.: 20). The issue of boundaries also relates to one’s
role and one’s time, as working with students with multiple complex needs can prompt
teachers to step out of the usual remit of their role and can be time-consuming (Horsman,
2004: 141). One solution to this is to refer students to appropriate support services, such as
a college counsellor or the local branch of the Red Cross, where these are available (Finn,
2010: 594). The trauma literature also emphasises the importance of peer support and
supervision (e.g. Horsman, 2004: 141; Davidson, n.d.: 21; UNHCR, 2017: 9), including talking
to colleagues about challenging experiences individually or in a group, and accessing your
educational establishment’s counsellors / therapists where available (whilst taking care to
maintain confidentiality). Another alternative is reflecting on experiences and feelings in
journals, which has been found to help people manage their stress (Davidson, n.d.: 21), or
finding an online community of teachers to share experiences with.
A further common theme from the trauma literature emphasises the importance of self-
care. This includes any activity which is nurturing and good for one’s well-being, such as
exercising, doing mindfulness-based meditations, engaging in fun activities, spending time
with friends and family, spending time in nature and taking time to reflect (e.g. UNHCR,
2017: 9; Kerka, 2002; Davidson, n.d.:21). Activities such as these can help teachers maintain
balance in their lives and help protect against the effects of compassion fatigue and
vicarious trauma.
Moving beyond trauma to post-traumatic growth
The previous section outlined a number of strategies for mitigating the effects of trauma in
the ESOL classroom both that of the students and that of oneself. The last part of this
article will focus on the concept of post-traumatic growth, and how we might go about
fostering it in our teaching.
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) has been defined as a positive transformation as a result of a
major crisis in which survivors develop beyond their pre-crisis level of adaptation and
psychological functioning (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). It can be explained in terms of one of
the possible responses to a potentially traumatic event, the others being succumbing (i.e.
resorting to self-destructive behaviours), survival (i.e. experiencing a far lower quality of life
than before) and resilience (i.e. a return to one’s previous level of functioning) (Carver,
1998; O’Leary & Ickovics, 1995). For PTG to come about, one’s core schemas are disrupted
and restructured (Chan, Young & Sharif, 2016) through an individual’s attempt to find
meaning and overcome the trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). PTG is characterised by a
greater appreciation and sense of meaning in life, an increased sense of personal strength
and the setting of new life goals (ibid).
These are all things which are useful in the ESOL classroom, but can we help facilitate the
development of these? The literature on PTG indicates that there are certain favourable
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
environmental conditions which may facilitate the development of PTG in some individuals
(e.g. Berger & Weiss, 2003). However, as with PTSD, individual variables such as one’s
degree of flexibility and risk-taking will also influence the likelihood that PTG will occur
(e.g. Norlander, von Schedvin & Archer, 2005), so PTG will not develop in all individuals, and
it may be stressful for an individual to have expectations imposed upon them that they
should be experiencing PTG (Berger & Weiss, 2003: 35). Furthermore, for individuals for
whom the potentially traumatic events and daily stressors are ongoing, or for whom the
potentially traumatic event was very recent, they are unlikely to be ready for PTG (ibid, 35).
With these reservations in mind, this article will pick out two themes from the PTG
literature which can be translated into gentle strategies to be employed in the ESOL
classroom when we feel our students might be ready and receptive to these. These are the
use of role models and the importance of meaningful activities.
Role models
Weiss (2000, in Berger & Weiss, 2003: 28) suggests that PTG may be fostered through
exposure to ‘role models which demonstrate an alternative way of living with … a similar
trauma and perceived growth. In terms of language learning, such role models might take
the form of former students who have succeeded in their studies or, as termed by Murphey
and Arao (2001), near-peer role models (NPRMs), whom individuals are more likely to
imitate due to perceived similarities to themselves. They suggest that this could be done
through channels such as: having NPRMs come in to the class to demonstrate their language
learning success, however implicitly; videoing short interviews with NPRMs about their
language learning histories; having NPRMs write down comments or longer reflective
accounts to be shared with future students; and the teacher telling stories about NPRMs
(ibid). The implication is that, for refugees with trauma histories, observing NPRMs from
similar backgrounds who have succeeded in their language learning and begun to grow and
move forward in their lives, such vicarious growth may provide a powerful form of
verification that they can begin to move beyond their own trauma.
Meaningful activities
One way to foster PTG in the ESOL classroom through meaningful activities is to do so with a
view to promoting eudaimonic well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2001, in Tedesci, Calhoun & Cann,
2007: 401), which has been found to be compatible with PTG (Tedesci, Calhoun & Cann,
2007: 401). Eudaimonia can be described as a deep sense of personal contentment, linked
to the idea of self-actualisation (Dornyei, Henry & Muir, 2016: 105). As outlined in
Waterman’s Eudaimonic Identity Theory (1993: 679, in Dornyei, Henry & Muir, 2016: 106),
eudaimonia can be brought about through engaging in activities in which one is able to be
expressive and realise one’s potential through developing one’s talents and skills and/or
advancing one’s purposes in living. In the language classroom, this might include students
participating in discussions or debates on topics which resonate with them and in which
they can express their personal viewpoints. If students are involved in choosing these topics,
it may be easier to discover those which hold more meaning for them. Furthermore, as
noted above, giving students a choice of topic and/or the nature and level of their
contribution can minimise the risk of re-triggering trauma.
Conclusion
Palanac, A. (2019). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’. Language Issues, 30(2), pp. 3-14
Being on the front line of coping with the outcomes of displacement (Capstick, 2018: 60)
presents ESOL teachers with an unbidden challenge: how might we begin to mitigate the
effects of trauma in our learners, and create conditions which might contribute to PTG for
some? In terms of the former, we have explored how trauma symptoms might present in
the classroom in refugee contexts, and what strategies might be most effective in mitigating
these. It is important to acknowledge that trauma may affect individuals differently, and
that not all individuals respond in the same way to classroom strategies.
In terms of the latter, this article has begun to touch upon the possibility that language
classes can create conditions in which PTG might occur, but these suggestions require
further research, and there are many other potential areas of overlap between PTG and
positive psychology to be explored here, such as with Langer’s (1997) Theory of Mindful
Learning and Dornyei, Muir and Ibrahim’s (2014) Directed Motivational Currents. Of
particular importance is guidance as to how to manage the transition between mitigation of
trauma symptoms and the facilitation of PTG.
The key principles to bear in mind are to be responsive to the learners in front of us,
employing strategies flexibly and always ensuring that learners are given a choice. We also
need to remember to practice self-care and to be kind to ourselves; we are doing the best
we can in an imperfect situation, but small changes to our classroom practice have the
potential to really make an impact for trauma survivors both in the classroom and beyond.
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Biodata
Aleks Palanac is an ELT practitioner at the University of Leicester and is heavily involved in
developing its University of Sanctuary initiative, particularly pertaining to widening
participation to HE for asylum seekers and refugees through trauma-informed English
language provision. More information about her work is available here:
https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/eltu/about/staff-directory/staff-pages/aleks-palanac
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Incluye bibliografía e índice
Combining different areas of expertise and working across disciplinary boundaries to help teachers understand the relationship between language and trauma' in T. Capstick (ed) Language for Resilience: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives www
  • T Capstick
Capstick, T. (2018) 'Combining different areas of expertise and working across disciplinary boundaries to help teachers understand the relationship between language and trauma' in T. Capstick (ed) Language for Resilience: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_for_resilience_-_cross-disciplinary_perspectives_0.pdf (accessed July 2019)