So now, think of your students. How many are trying to learn the English language, trying to complete simple tasks without language to make it easier? How many have come from homes where alcohol, drugs, or violence were present on a regular basis? How many are currently incarcerated or have been so in the past? How many have been victims of violence or racism? This is the backdrop for your teaching, this tapestry of trauma. Based on what we know about the brain’s sketchy response to boiling in stress, what can we do in our classrooms to overcome it?
The general consensus is that trauma can be overcome and brain response can be reconditioned.
Here are some take-aways:
–Learning should feel good! There can be no focus on deficit. We don’t want our students to be subjecting their systems to cortisol while trying to learn. The environment must be nurturing without being condescending; each student must be seen and heard and empowered. Many of our adult students have been discouraged in their academic pursuits, possibly even re-traumatized. We MUST ensure we are not adding to that problem. Think about trust, engagement, hands-on activities—the elements that inspire learners to let down their guard and allow new information in.
–Adults are used to being in the driver’s seat of their lives. This needs to be true in the educational setting as well. Be flexible. Design projects that allow them to exert as much autonomy over the subject matter and rate of learning as possible. If you’re teaching science, find out what type of science interests them and would be useful in their daily lives. If you’re teaching math, be sure you make it relevant to their life experience. If you’re teaching English, use that opportunity to give them a voice so they can give a shape and texture to the experiences that have brought them to this point in time. Some may never discuss what their trauma is, but this does not change the fact that we need them to know that if they DO choose to share or make themselves vulnerable in some other way, they will be psychologically and physically safe.
–Adults need hands-on, concrete experiences to apply new knowledge, the sooner the better. This is also true of children, but children will accept new information without knowing why it’s important. Adults need some pay off pretty quickly so they can integrate this info into their perspective of the world. For instance, math should be relevant to helping them budget or file their taxes or know whether or not their mortgage interest rate is going to break their bank. Stories they read should speak to the reality they’re living in, so when you discuss theme, point of view, tone, etc… they can feel like this helps them understand voices that matter to them.
–Self-direction is guaranteed with adults, although examine this thoroughly, because sometimes their trauma-informed self-direction may be part of the problem. Your role, and you will define it based on the current crop you’re working with, should be that of mentor/educator, not authoritarian. They need to feel like you are invested in understanding their challenges but not judging them or writing them off because of them. It might be helpful to model the vulnerability you seek from them. In my classrooms, I’ve found that if I tell on myself about some of my challenges—paying attention instead of fiddling with the computer or my phone, feeling like things are moving too slow or that the teacher has no interest in me or my opinion and is just trying to get through the material which makes me disengage, or one semester attending my Old Testament class exactly one time and then showing up to the final ready to take the test—they see I understand self-destructive behavior and don’t judge it.
Remember that description of a well-used synapse that sheaths itself in myelin and increases the speed and efficacy of its transmission when we use it more? The opposite happens to our neural synapses in cases of high stress. Messages are intermittent, and new knowledge often doesn’t get sent into the long-term memory folder because stress shuts down neural plasticity. Read that again—stress shuts down neural plasticity. Living in stressful circumstances actually negatively impacts the brain’s ability to learn. This, more than anything else, should inform the environment you want to create in your classroom.