Trauma and Adult Learning. ERIC Digest.
by Kerka, Sandra
Adult learning can often be challenging, and traumatic events add extreme
challenges to the learning process. The catalog of sources of trauma is
sadly long: psychological or physical abuse, rape, war, forced relocation,
diagnosis of a terminal illness, job loss, death or suicide of a loved
one, divorce, robbery, natural disasters, and terrorism. Some view poverty,
homelessness, and hate crimes as forms of systemic violence that cause
trauma (Pearce 1999; Rosenwasser 2000). Much adult education literature
focuses on the traumas of women who experience domestic violence or of
refugees who come to literacy classes, yet adult learners in all settings
and at all levels may have experienced traumatic events that have an impact
on learning. Horsman (2000b) notes that trauma and violence are not equivalent,
and the use of the terms implies a particular focus: with violence, the
focus is on the individual and social agents of trauma and with trauma,
on the response of the person experiencing it. This Digest focuses on the
individual response to trauma, its effects on learning, and ways in which
adult educators can respond.
EFFECTS OF TRAUMA ON LEARNING
Adults experiencing the effects of past or current trauma may display
such symptoms as difficulty beginning new tasks, blame, guilt, concern
for safety, depression, inability to trust (especially those in power),
fear of risk taking, disturbed sleep, eroded self-esteem/confidence, inability
to concentrate, or panic attacks (Mojab and McDonald 2001). Some people
may manifest no symptoms; at the other end of the spectrum is Posttraumatic
Stress Disorder, characterized by flashbacks, avoidance, numbing of responsiveness
(including substance abuse), persistent expectation of danger, constriction
(dissociation, zoning out), and memory impairment (Isserlis 2001).
It may not be readily apparent that a learner is experiencing the effects
of trauma. Instead, such manifestations as missing class, avoiding tests,
spacing out, and having what may be interpreted as inappropriate or extreme
reactions to class discussions or activities may actually be responses
to trauma. It is true that learning may be impeded by fear, anxiety, poor
concentration, and the enormous energy involved in hiding abuse or struggling
with immediate survival needs. However, interpretations of t rauma and
its effects on learning are shaped by education discourses (Horsman 1997,
2000b; Isserlis 2001). A deficit perspective suggests that the learner,
not the social system, must change. A medicalizing discourse emphasizes
that healing, "getting over it," must take place before learning is possible.
Discourses of educational practice may view dropping out, stopping out,
or spacing out/dissociating as lack of motivation or persistence rather
than survival mechanisms. Discourses focused on outcomes and accountability
fail to recognize the complex issues facing learners that may interfere
with achievement or program completion.
A number of authors urge reframing of these discourses:
* Instead of diagnosing and treating "victims," find ways to make the
learning environment safer for everyone (Horsman 1997).
* Recognize the role of power in limiting individual agency and choice
and the ways in which institutions make personal and structural violence
possible and legitimize it (Pearce 1999).
* Acknowledge the hidden learning that occurs through traumatic experiences
(Horsman 2000b; Williamson 2000).
What is learned from trauma and how might educators respond? Studies
of people enduring extreme situations suggest that learning is a key to
survival in adversity (Williamson 2000). Successful learning is supposed
to occur when conditions are right: accessible opportunities, time, appropriate
support, safety, motivation, risks with manageable consequences (ibid.).
Yet in extreme situations, learning must take place quickly and without
the right conditions. What is learned in response to trauma is influenced
by prior knowledge, background, familial and social relationships, and
personal qualities and abilities (Pearce 1999; Williamson 2000). This is
not to blame the victim for "inappropriate" learning or responses, but
to underscore the importance of resources and support and the recognition
that learning has to be geared to meet a range of individual needs. Some
of the "hidden" learning from trauma includes the following:
* All or nothing reactions such as shifting between control and abdication
of control, defensiveness and no boundaries, heroic efforts and neglect
of regular tasks. Strategies: curriculum that helps make the middle ground
or small improvements visible; portfolios or journals to track incremental
changes (Horsman 2000b).
* Dissociation, separation of mind and body as a way of coping with
unbearable experiences, sometimes triggered by situations evoking past
trauma. Strategies: helping learners recognize when they are more or less
present; identifying what helps create a feeling of safety; providing a
space in the classroom or another room to which learners may retreat as
needed; exploring through writing, art, or other activities what occurs
when "spacing out" (Horsman 1997; Morrish 2002).
* Trust and boundaries. Trauma affects trust in the world as a beneficial
place, the meaningfulness of life, and self-worth. Strategies: attention
to feedback, respect for boundaries and learners' physical space, programs
that involve an extended time period to allow for building of community
and rebuilding trust (Horsman 1997; Morrish 2002; Rosenwasser 2000).
* Silence and disclosure. Fear and shame make it profoundly difficult
to speak about traumatic experiences. Strategies: "recognizing that there
may be a continuum in particular circumstances of what seems appropriate
and useful to be shared" (Horsman 2000a, p. 25); finding a balance between
those who need to disclose and those who cannot bear to witness disclosures
ADULT EDUCATION RESPONSES
Educators' responses to learners dealing with trauma may be constrained
by a number of factors (Horsman 1997, 2000a; Isserlis 2001): (1) personal
beliefs or institutional policies that separate therapy/counseling from
education; (2) lack of knowledge of or access to resources for referral;
(3) the realization that learners' disclosures may put educators at risk
or have legal implications such as reporting requirements; (4) concern
for learners' privacy and confidentiality; and (5) the emotional and psychological
impact on teachers. To overcome these constraints and to help learners
regain control, connection, and meaning, educators might adopt a comprehensive,
multifaceted approach that includes the following: a holistic perspective,
creation of a safe learning environment, story telling, collaboration with
appropriate agencies, educator self-care and professional development,
and policy and advocacy.
A Holistic Perspective. Although the focus of education is often limited
to the mind, traumatic experiences affect mind, body, emotions, and spirit.
Rosenwasser (2000) describes the use of a holistic tool such as cooperative
inquiry, a group method for exploring experiences and creating strategies
for healing by sharing stories, art, movement, songs, co-counseling, poetry,
theatre, and dance. These methods access different ways of knowing, address
the whole person, and help build closeness, community, and connection.
A Place of Safety. Establishing a safe space for learning may involve
practical actions such as a workable institutional safety plan, financial
assistance for shelter/transportation, counseling, child care, access to
legal services, flexible entrance requirements and time frames, and a safety
audit of the physical environment (Elliott and Williams 1995). Attention
to psychological and emotional safety may include avoiding diagnostic,
classificatory testing; creating ground rules as a group; creating a culture
of collaboration by stressing full participation from each member, which
helps equalize power differentials within the group; allowing the choice
of opting out of any activity; creating a setting of beauty and comfort
to feed the senses and foster a sense of worth; and enabling learners to
take ownership of the space (Horsman 2000a; Rosenwasser 2000). Morrish
(2002) conveys the importance of the safe space: "When the door was locked
and the phones turned off and the fear of being interrupted was eliminated,
when the collective act of self-care was given top priority and the rest
of the world was sent a clear message that this was our time and space,
that was when we felt a sense of well being. And that was when trust was
built" (p. 17).
Telling One's Story. Narrative or story telling is a fundamental vehicle
for meaning making in adult education as well as a therapeutic technique.
Guidelines for the use of narrative include honoring learners' silences
as well as their words, bearing witness by being a caring listener, balancing
expressions of pain with those of joy and humor, and offering content and
activities that allow learners to share as much or as little information
about themselves as they choose (Horsman 2000a; Isserlis 2001). As Rosenwasser
(2000) found, attention and appreciation to story sharing are positive
contradictions to the destructive societal messages trauma victims receive.
Narrative techniques often include journal writing; Horsman (2000b) gives
the example of a gratitude journal as a way for learners to identify and
derive strength from something positive rather than focusing only on pain.
Story telling may also take nonverbal form: Lykes et al. (1999) describe
a participatory action research project in which Guatemalan women sought
to document their experiences of wartime violence in photographs. Other
methods for narrative expression include talking circles (Horsman 2000b),
art (Morrish 2002), and poetry, song, and ritual (Rosenwasser 2000).
Collaboration and Referral. It is essential that educators have knowledge
of reporting requirements and other related laws including immigration
laws, awareness of health issues and their impact, and a system of collaborative
partners including counselors, the justice system, media, clergy, government,
social service, shelters, and health care so that learners have access
to critical services (Isserlis 2001). In addition to social and health
services, other ways collaborative partners may assist include providing
workshops on community resources, self-care, or stress management techniques
(Horsman 2000b; Isserlis 2001). For example, the Women, Violence and Adult
Education project (Morrish 2002) offered wellness-focused courses on mindfulness,
creative writing, and collage, facilitated in turn by a therapist, a high
school student, and an artist.
A family literacy center in Missouri received a grant to employ a social
worker who provided small-group and individual counseling (Merritt, Spencer,
and Withers 2002). The counselor used an empowerment approach that included
accepting the client's definition of the problem, identifying and building
upon existing strengths, teaching specific empowering skills, and providing
mediation and advocacy to mobilize the community resources needed in a
state of crisis. The counselor also participated in weekly staff meetings
to provide adult educators with insight into family dynamics, confidentiality,
and ways to address stressful situations.
Educator Self-Care. If a counselor is not available to staff for personal
consultation, regular meetings with a supportive supervisor or colleagues
provide a way to vent frustration, prevent burnout, and assist one another
in dealing with issues of trauma in the classroom and in their own lives
(Horsman 2000a; Isserlis 2001). Professional development should be provided
to help faculty, staff, and administrators understand and recognize the
effects of trauma, develop appropriate responses, and locate community
resources. Isserlis (2001) also found it important to find ways to make
it safe for teachers not to take on this work. She also suggests that educators
reflect on the following questions: How do we balance the needs of learners
with our own needs? How much do we reveal of our own lives to the learners?
When? How? For what purpose? How do we work with the imbalance of power?
Policy and Advocacy. Institutional policies and funding structures can
make it less possible for educational programs to be sensitive to the needs
of learners affected by trauma (Horsman 2000b). Examples include time-limited
literacy/training programs, assessment practices, and attendance policies.
Horsman (2000a) focuses on keeping in touch with students as a way of showing
they were missed without making them feel guilty for missing class. Isserlis
(2001) suggests a policy of leaves of absence for "family reasons" to give
learners the time they need to deal with issues outside of the classroom
until they feel ready to take on learning again. Beyond classroom and institutional
policies, critical adult educators can play an advocacy role.
It may not be possible to implement all of these approaches in every
adult learning setting. However, they represent the range of areas about
which adult educators should become informed in order to assist learners
who have experienced trauma.
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