ELs Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress

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 Childrenfound 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.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to ELs Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress

  1. The workshop that we have provided in the past and panel we will be providing at TESOL this year reflects the writing that we did in our book, The Essential guide to teaching beginning English learners and the current writing that we are doing with a third scholar in a new book on this topic as it applies to the general population of students. In the TESOL blog, I discuss some of the key elements that are needed. One that we have developed that is not mentioned here is the importance of using an asset or strength based approach. This reflects more recent findings in the field including Stanford Scholar Dr. Carol Dweck who is know for her contributions about using a growth mindset as well as the principles of positive psychology, positive youth development, and neuroplasticity. I wrote a more recent article on this topic that you can find here http://zacarianconsulting.com/2015/12/21/what-is-a-growth-mindset-and-how-can-it-be-applied-in-the-classroom/
    in terms of programming for your argumentative paper, I highly recommend that it include drawing from students and families strengths, understanding their cultural ways of being, and creating programming that provides students with multiple opportunities to interact.
    If you would like more information regarding these ideas, there is a chapter in our book devoted to this topic that can be found here http://www.amazon.com/Essential-Educating-Beginning-English-Learners/dp/1452226156.

  2. tanina guiducci says:

    good morning,
    I am planning on writing an argumentative essay about the topic you are giving a workshop on. Teaching ELs who suffer from trauma, stress and violence. I am an ESL teacher who is also a student at Rowan University working towards my ESL certification. I was hoping you can send me some information from your workshop that can help me with my argumentative essay.
    My topic is: I am in favor of a special newcomer program for ELs who have immigrated because of and through trauma. The program would be a program that would include a social/psychological program, a language program and an academic program.

  3. The ideas and information presented here were punctuated, yesterday (Feb 25th), when President Obama held a town meeting in Miami in English and Spanish about the nation’s immigration policy.

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