I’d like to welcome and thank guest blogger Debbie Zacarian, whose impressive credits are listed below. Debbie and I are presenting a TESOL- sponsored a webinar on Wednesday, 4 March 2015, about Teaching English Learners Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress. We are also presenting a half-day Preconvention Institute on this topic on 25 March from 1 pm–5 pm at the 2015 TESOL convention in Toronto, Canada.
Last month, a film, Spare Parts, was released. It’s based on the true story (and book) about four 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 recent questions and comments heard at President Obama’s Town Hall Meeting on Immigration shine a much-needed light on a large and growing segment of the nation’s population.
Developing programming for ELs living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress
We often base programming on limited information. Schools frame and build programming and policies for ELs 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 information about these four characteristics provides us with helpful information, many, if not most, ELs have experienced or are experiencing high levels of trauma, violence, and chronic stress—such as the students profiled in Spare Parts.
Trauma and violence are affecting children in epidemic proportions
Unfortunately, trauma, violence, and chronic stress are occurring in epidemic proportions for many school-aged children. Here are some important facts about ELs with these experiences:
- 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. There were 38,759 that crossed the border 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 child developmental psychologist and author of Immigrants Raising Children, found that many of the nation’s children of undocumented immigrants experience very 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 language learners had incomes that were 200% below poverty level.
Schools must be much more prepared for the realities of ELs 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, we should:
- Create a collaborative team of counselors, teachers, support staff and others, such as bilingual-bicultural translators/professionals, to create 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) about ELs and other students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress
Implement Predictable Classroom Routines and Practices
Systematic and explicit instruction targeted to the developmental age and English language developmental level of students is also critical. This includes:
- Separating learning tasks into discrete single steps and providing students with the reasons/rationale for these steps.
- Enacting the same routines and practices on a daily basis (e.g, starting each class with a description of the learning goals and what students will do to learn these).
- Using clear and precise student-friendly language.
- Using project-based learning, and experiences that are meaningful for ELs. It was project-based learning that kept the four students from Spare Parts in school.
- Consistently providing a model of expected behavior (e.g, how to engage in a paired or small group task) and providing students with multiple practice opportunities to apprentice into these behaviors using paired and small group learning as a primary method.
Supporting 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 to 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 supports by collaboratively engaging school support staff and others to build connections with community-based service agencies to ensure that access is provided.
Following these practices can help us in building programming and practices that are far more tailored to the needs of ELs.
Debbie Zacarian is known nationally for her work and writing in advancing student achievement Pre-K–16. A policy and practice expert, she has provided professional development for thousands of educators; written policies for numerous urban, suburban and rural districts and state agencies; and supported the efforts of many school and district improvement initiatives.