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Trauma and English Learners

What experiences have created trauma for many English learners?


Trauma and Refugees


Refugees, probably more than any other immigrant group, have undoubtedly experienced complex trauma. They have been forced to leave most if not all of their previous life behind in their fight for survival.  Jobs, homes, schools, possessions, friends, and usually family members are abandoned, without knowledge of what lies ahead.  


The list below describes some of the situations common among refugee children that may have led to stress or trauma.  (National Child Traumatic Stress Network website, 2018.)


Traumatic Stress occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being. Refugees can experience traumatic stress related to:

•War and persecution

•Displacement from their home

•Flight and migration


•Family/community violence

Resettlement Stress involves stressors that refugee children and families experience as they try to make a new life for themselves.  Examples include:

•Financial stressors

•Difficulties finding adequate housing

•Difficulties finding employment

•Loss of community support

•Lack of access to resources

•Transportation difficulties

Acculturation Stress comes from stressors that refugee children and families experience as they try to navigate between their new culture and their culture of origin. Examples include:

•Conflicts between children and parents over new and old cultural values

•Conflicts with peers related to cultural misunderstandings

•The necessity to translate for family members who are not fluent in English

•Problems trying to fit in at school

•Struggle to form an integrated identity including elements of their new culture and their culture of origin

Isolation Stress is a result of stressors that refugee children and families may experience as minorities in a new country. Examples include:

•Feelings of loneliness and loss of social support network


•Experiences of harassment from peers, adults, or law enforcement

•Experiences with others who do not trust the refugee child and family

•Feelings of not fitting in with others

•Loss of social status



Trauma and Latinos


There are two main and sometimes overlapping groups of Latino students who are also likely to be impacted by traumatic events.  The first group is composed mainly of the children who come into the country undocumented, often without an adult family member and many with the intent to be reunited with someone who came to the United States before them.  The greatest percentage of these children, usually known by the label of ‘unaccompanied minor’, has come in the last decade from the three northern countries of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  This area is often referred to as the Northern Triangle and is rife with drug and gang violence. 


The second large group of children to be experiencing toxic levels of stress are those who are in homes with undocumented family members, somewhere between 3-5 million.  While the majority of these children are Latinos, there are children from many parts of the world living in this situation.  It is estimated by the Migration Policy Institute (2018) that there are about 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States.  People from Mexico constitute about half of this total, Central Americans comprise another one and half million, Asians from China, India, South Korea and the Philippines total about one million, and the other two million are from almost every other country.  


How does trauma manifest itself in children?


A leader in the field of traumatic stress in children, Joel Ristuccia, states that trauma places children “at significant risk for a host of social, emotional, academic, and cognitive impairments, and these impairments may create barriers to learning that lead to difficulties in school, risk-taking behaviors and long-term social, occupational, and health issues.”  (Ristuccia, 2013, p 253)


The following is a list of some of the common manifestations of trauma in school-age children, taken from the Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators, published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee. (October 2008). 


Potential manifestations of trauma in children of any age: 


• Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others (especially family members)

• Worry about recurrence of violence

• Changes in behavior such as an increase in activity level, decreased attention and/or concentration, withdrawal from others or activities, angry outbursts and/or aggression, and/or absenteeism

• Increased somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches)

• Changes in school/academic performance

• Over- or under-reacting to noise, physical contact, or sudden movements

• Statements and questions about death and dying

• Difficulty with authority, redirection, or criticism

• Re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares or disturbing memories)

• Hyperarousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, tendency to be easily startled)

• Avoidance behaviors (e.g., resisting going to places that remind them of the event)

• Emotional numbing (e.g., seeming to have no feeling about the event)


Manifestations more common at the elementary level:

• Clingier with teacher or parent than usual

• Increased distress (unusually whiny, irritable, moody)

• Distrust of others, affecting how children interact with both adults and peers

• A change in ability to interpret and respond appropriately to social cues

• Recreating the event (e.g., repeatedly talking about, “playing” out, or drawing the event)


Manifestations more common at secondary level:

• Irritability with friends, teachers, events

• Discomfort with feelings (such as troubling thoughts of revenge)

• Increase in impulsivity or risk-taking behavior such as substance abuse

• Negative impact on issues of trust and perceptions of others

• Repetitive thoughts and comments about death or dying (including suicidal thoughts, writing, art, or notebook covers about violent or morbid topics, and internet searches on these topics)


What can teachers do to support students who have experienced trauma?

Support for traumatized students is critical.  For most educators, the difficulty lies not in whether to provide support, but in how it can best be provided.  As classroom teachers, without formal training in dealing with the adverse effects of trauma, what can we do?  In most cases, it is not our responsibility to diagnose or treat in a clinical manner the results of this cumulative stress, but we are expected, as caring individuals, to create an atmosphere of safety and support that will allow the child to reset his or her emotional equilibrium and build upon this secure foundation.  In order to best do this, we need to understand to some degree what the student has experienced and what types of situations might trigger emotional responses.  We also need to realize that some academic or behavioral actions may be grounded in past experiences and take that into consideration when reacting.  In extreme cases, we may need to refer the student for help beyond the classroom, which will be addressed later in this book.


“The addressing of trauma within school settings is not only feasible but also fully consistent with and supportive of the primary goals of academic programs.  A trauma-sensitive environment is one that is, to the degree possible, safe and attuned to the needs of students, families, staff, and the community.  Such an environment supports the academic competence of all students, whether trauma impacted or not; provides tools to support students and staff with managing emotional and behavioral challenges; supports teachers and other staff in negotiating difficult situations, often reducing stress and burnout among teaching staff; and ultimately, has the potential to increase positive outcomes among youth across domains.” (Blaustein, 2013, p 13)


What about Latino children specifically?  Eva Thorp (2018) says that first of all, “It is critical that teachers understand how the threat of parental detention and deportation affects children’s social-emotional development, their behavior, and their academic performance.  These children have unique needs directly related to their family’s mixed immigration status.  With this understanding, teachers can adopt strategies to support children who are living in fear.”  She also believes that “teachers can communicate to these vulnerable children that their classrooms are safe spaces where they have allies and can safely voice their fears.  Teachers can become skilled at addressing the behavioral and performance challenges that may arise when a child is experiencing separation or is living in an environment of heightened fear.”  (Thorp, 2018, p. 36)  

Our recommendations for supporting trauma-background students


  1. Create and operate a trauma-sensitive school. (see Chapter Two of our book Supporting the Journey of English Learners after Trauma for details)


  1. Provide a learning environment that engenders success, both at the classroom level and the building level. (Chapter Three)


  1. Focus on the positive.  As teachers we must recognize that though the list of stressors that many immigrant children have faced and may still be facing is extensive, we cannot focus on the child’s past.  Those events and situations are beyond change, but teachers can assist students as they adjust to their new home, their new culture, and for most a new, complicated language with innumerable rules.  We need to focus instead on what the child can do.  We believe that students come with an inner strength, a linguistic and cultural heritage, and a determination to succeed.  Building upon those assets to form the foundation for the next phase of the student’s life is the role of the trauma-sensitive teacher. 


  1. Utilize family, school, and community supports already available and work to create new connections.  Focus on how to help the learner find their place in the school community, a place to explore who he is, recognize his strengths, and secure supports when needed, as well as look positively toward his future—to become a resilient learner.  (Chapter Five)



The best way to help all children is to develop a strong enough relationship with each student so that we as educators are able to notice small but significant changes that may signal internal struggles.

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