Trauma and Adult Learning
ERIC Digest no.
by Sandra Kerka
This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0013. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. ERIC/ACVE publications may be freely reproduced.
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 trauma 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:
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:
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 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.
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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