English Learners Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress

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The film, Spare Parts, was released last month. It’s based on the true story (and book) about 4 undocumented Latino high school students who formed a robotics team that beat MIT engineering students in a contest. Their personal stories as well as the more recent questions, responses and comments heard at President’s Obama’s Town Hall meeting on immigration policies shine much-needed light on a large and growing segment of the nation’s population.

Understanding the needs of students

We often make decisions based on limited information. Schools build programming and policies for English learners [ELs], for example, based on their (1) home languages, (2) countries of origin, (3) rate of English language development, and (4) performance on state assessments of English language arts/reading and mathematics. While this is helpful information, many ELs have experienced or are experiencing high levels of trauma, violence, and chronic stress and these realities are critical to consider.

Trauma, violence, & chronic stress are affecting children in epidemic proportions

Unfortunately, trauma, violence, and chronic stress are occurring in epidemic proportions for many school-aged children. Consider the following:

  • In 2013, 69,930 refugees were admitted to the United States, with the largest groups coming from Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Somali, and Cuban nations.
  • 107,000 undocumented minor children, ages of 0-17, were apprehended crossing into the United States from Central America— 38,759 in fiscal year 2013 and 68,541 in 2014—a 77% increase in 1 year. A large proportion of these children are under 14 years of age.
  • 4.4 million children born in the United States have at least one parent who is undocumented. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a renowned community and developmental psychologist and author of Immigrants Raising Childrenfound that many of the nation’s children of undocumented immigrants experience high levels of chronic stress from fear of deportation, living in extreme poverty, and being isolated from peers.
  • According to the 2009 Quality Counts report, families of English learners had incomes that were 200% below poverty level.

Schools must be much more prepared for ELs as well as the general population of students suffering from trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Here are some steps to take.

Use an empathetic approach

Draw from students’ strengths intentionally to help them to manage new (1) activities, (2) behaviors, and (3) language until they are able to engage in these on their own. Provide modeling, student practice opportunities, and a gradual release of supports.

Build a collaborative team

Students who suffer from psychological trauma are driven by fear of something happening that is out of their control. To address this:

  • Create a collaborative team of counselors, teachers, support staff, and others (such as bilingual-bicultural translators/professionals) to provide a school and learning environment that is based on the personal, social, cultural, and world experiences of ELs.
  • Provide the team with ongoing professional growth (e.g., book study; professional learning communities) about ELs and other students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress

Implement Predictable Classroom Routines and Practices

Systematic and explicit instruction that is targeted to the developmental age and the language and literacy development of students is also critical. To do this:

  • Separate learning tasks into discrete single steps and provide students with the reasons/rationale for these steps.
  • Enact the same routines and practices on a daily basis (e.g, start each class with a description of the learning goals and what students will do to learn these).
  • Use clear and precise student-friendly-comprehensible language.
  • Use project-based learning, and experiences that are meaningful for students (e.g, the robotics project depicted in Spare Parts).
  • Consistently provide a model of expected behavior (e.g, how to engage in a paired or small group task) and multiple opportunities for students to practice these behaviors using paired and small group learning as a primary method.

Support student access to services

Many families of ELs living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress are not familiar with the range of programming and services that are available for school-aged children (such as Head Start, public preschool and after-school programming, public health, and legal aid). Educators can play a critical role in helping families to access these services by collaboratively engaging school support staff and others to work with community-based service agencies.

Using these strategies can help in strengthening programming and practices for our diverse learners.


This post originally appeared in a TESOL blog hosted by Judie Haynes, a nationally renowned educator with 28 years of experience as an ESL teacher who provides professional development throughout the US, is the author and coauthor of 7 books, founder of everythingESL.net, and cofounder and co-moderator of Twitter’s #ELLChat. We are presenting a TESOL sponsored webinar on March 4, 2015 about Teaching English Learners Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress and a Preconvention Institute on this topic on March 15, 2015 from 1pm-5pm at the TESOL annual conference in Toronto. This post draws from our book The essential guide to educating beginning English learners.

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