Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress

Learn why a strengths-based approach is so important and effective for English language learners (ELLs) who have experienced violence, trauma, and chronic stress, and what kinds of strategies to use in the classroom in order to begin integrating this approach.

Using a strengths-based approach allows educators to draw upon students' internal strengths and capacities, and it can be a particularly powerful practice for English learners who have experienced trauma, violence, or chronic stress.  In this article adapted from Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress (ASCD, 2017), ELL experts Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Álvarez-Ortiz, and Judie Haynes offer some concrete strategies for shifting to a strengths-based approach in the classroom, as well as numerous student examples.

Overview

Who are the nation's students experiencing trauma, violence and chronic stress? 

One in every two of the total student population in the U.S. come to our schools having experienced or still experiencing some type of trauma, violence, or chronic stress – many of them at a very young age.  This startling statistic presents a challenge to all of us as educators – especially since the available professional literature focuses almost solely on the therapeutic aspects for providing counseling supports and services to students who have experienced one or more of the following:

  • Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse;
  • Physical and emotional neglect;
  • A parents who is an alcoholic (or addicted to other drugs);
  • Witnessing a mother who experiences abuse;
  • A family member in jail;
  • Loss of a parent due to death or abandonment, including abandonment by parental divorce; or
  • Mental illness or a depressed suicidal person in the home

Source: (Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, 2011/2012).

What make these realities particularly relevant are the distinct circumstances of many English learners who experience violence, trauma, and chronic stress. Consider the following:

  • In 2015, U.S. Department of State reported that 69,930 refugees were admitted to the United States, with the largest groups coming from African, South Asian, Asian, and Latin American countries.
  • 4.1 million children born in the United States have at least one parent who is undocumented (American Psychological Association, 2016)
  • 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 (Yoshikawa, 2011).
  • 60 percent of English learners' families had incomes that were 185 percent below poverty level (Grantmakers in Education Report, April 2013).

In addition, very little professional literature has been written about teaching this particular population and doing so from a strengths-based perspective.   

Why use a strengths-based approach?

The absence of any formal training in this area, understandably, has led many educators to feel quite unprepared to teach and work with the epic numbers of students, including English learners, who experience trauma, violence and chronic stress.  Further, many teachers believe that some students' experiences are so extreme that there is little hope for them, despite all of their efforts and good intentions. This perception often puts limits and restrictions on them in terms of how they teach and interact with students as well as how they work with families. In a real sense, it has almost forced many teachers to look at students and their families as "broken" instead of as individuals who already possess inherent strengths and who can make great contributions to their classrooms, their communities, and the world. Indeed, for too long, teachers have found themselves using language to name their perceptions in terms of what they believe are impossible situations for students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress.

Student vignette: Javier

Here is an example from Chris Homiak, a middle school English and mathematics teacher of English learners in Kansas City, Missouri.  He tells us about Javier, a 7th grade student.

Javier is a 7th grade student who joined our class after being out of school for six months.  He is an English learner whose home language is Spanish. Prior to enrolling in our school, he had recently moved across the country and was in transition, living in homeless shelters with his large family.  At first, Javier answered questions very quietly, and his eyes often looked toward the floor or quickly around the room. Also, he often got out of his seat without permission and walked in a small circle near his desk.

In this example, it would be easy to pinpoint the adverse conditions and behaviors that would make Javier's ability to learn and our ability to teach him to be very difficult. However, it is important to take it a step further and look beyond "what is lacking" to find "what is already there". To accomplish this, we need to begin with a shift in mindset from what we believe is not happening and impossible to what is happening and possible. To do this we must take time to:

  • Identify students' existing strengths.
  • Honor, value, and acknowledge these strengths.
  • Help students become aware of their strengths.
  • Build instructional programming that boosts social ties and networks by drawing from students' strengths.

Let's take a look at Javier's story. What strengths can you see in Javier?  At first glance, getting out of his seat without permission may seem to be an unacceptable behavior and, indeed, difficult to view as an asset. But adopting an asset-based perspective requires us to find evidence "in what students do; in what they don't; and in their intentions, hopes, successes, and even failures" (Grove and Glasser, 2007). In this example, Javier didn't disrupt class by yelling or screaming, or by going to other students to talk to them. He contained himself in a small area, trying not to disrupt the class. This is the behavior we focus on, and the one that we want to acknowledge and reflect back to him to make it visible and transparent. Among Javier's assets is his ability to understand what he needs to turn his classroom environment into a favorable learning experience for him. In this case, it is an environment that will allow him the opportunity to engage in movement like standing, stretching, and moving his body. (Think of yourself during those long professional development trainings!) It is also evidence of Javier's good judgment, consideration, and respect for other people's spaces and time for learning because his behavior was contained and not disruptive. The goal is for Javier to see his strengths, value his own self-worth, create a personal account of his strengths, and begin to operate by drawing from it.

Let's look at what Chris Homiak did to identify Javier's strengths and what this understanding led to:

Observing him during independent work time, I saw that he had a deep capacity for abstract thinking and that he was strong in algebra. I shared my observation by saying: "Javier, you are such a strong problem-solver and algebra-thinker! I noticed that you can see patterns and break down the parts until you solve the problem." As his trusting relationships grew in our small group, I pushed him to explain his answers in more detail and to explore alternative ways for solving the same problem. Initially, he wanted to share his answers first and fast; I supported him to wait for others to catch up, and to see if he could help find their mistakes. I often turned to him to provide constructive feedback or error correction, handing over the document camera or whiteboard for him to play the teacher role.

It is greatly helpful to take time to identify students' strengths and teach by drawing from this understanding. 

What strategies support a strengths-based approach?

In this article, we discuss some strategies for using a strengths-based approach in our classroom practice so that English learners, like Javier, and all students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress experience a real sense of being safe, valued, capable of learning, and worthy contributory members of their classroom communities.   We consider these four essential experiences to be the basis for creating a strengths-based classroom that is inclusive and responsive to all students, and particularly to those living with trauma, violence and chronic stress. 

Take time to build positive, asset-based student-teacher relationships

Working with students living with trauma, violence, or chronic stress requires us to be empathetic educators who care about our students and seek to support them. Nevertheless, we must take it a step further and strive to be asset-based teachers as well. That is, seeking, reflecting back, and honoring the many inherent attributes, values, and qualities our students (and families) possess. But it doesn't stop there.  We must support them in drawing from these strengths and capacities to develop the skills, competencies, and confidence to be active learners, independent and critical thinkers, and contributory members of their learning community.

In Javier's story, his teacher was able to cultivate a positive relationship by helping Javier see his intrinsic assets and strengths and by capitalizing on them to engage Javier in learning.   He observed Javier's curiosity and eagerness to solve problems and drew from these qualities to cultivate self-monitoring and leadership skills.

There are many strategies that we can use to identify students' strengths and assets and build trusting relationships with them based on these, including: 

  • Gather as much information as we can about our students.
  • Use this background information to build and strengthen our relationships with students by personalizing our interactions using the strengths and assets that we continuously identify. 

An example, that can be adapted with support in a students' home language, is a high school teacher who asks students to complete questions on an index card during their first day of school.  The front of the card asks them to write their name and nickname. The back asks the following, "What activities, such as sports, music, and work, are you involved or would like to be involved outside of our high school?" He meets first with individual students who leave the activity question blank and supports them in joining an after-school club, obtaining work, and/or engaging in an activity of their interest.  He also takes time to visit students after school where they are participating in a sport or are at work. His sole goal is to help them see that they belong to a classroom community and that they are valued and capable individuals who have many personal strengths and assets worthy of recognition.  

  • Use consistent positive, asset-based language when communicating with students. 

An example is a teacher who greets a student with personalized messages such as "Good morning, Lilliana, great to see you after that tough basketball game last night.  I heard you were very determined on the court" shows that he understands what is important to the student, and at the same time, he's naming the attribute she is demonstrating (determination) which is one of her strengths. Or, in the case of Javier, his teacher took the opportunity to observe him during independent work and noticed that he had a solid capacity for abstract thinking and that he was strong in algebra.  The way he reflected back these personal assets to Javier was by saying, "Javier, you're such a strong problem solver and algebra thinker! I noticed that you can see patterns and break down the parts until you solve the problem." This type of positive energy and language is one of the biggest assets that those of us that work with English learners and all students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress can bring to the classroom.

Construct a physical environment that is conducive for communication and cooperation

Learning spaces have the ability to positively or negatively affect students' learning and morale.  From the selection and arrangement of desks, tables and chairs, to the attention we pay to what we place on the classroom walls, every detail counts toward our efforts to keeping students engaged and maximizing their cooperation and creativity.  To do this, we have to consider how to:

  • Create a physical environment that encourages students' sharing, participation and ownership of their physical classroom space. 
  • Co-create (with students) an environment that facilitates their empowerment and voice and reinforces the skills necessary to be successful in a global society that demands constant communication, collaboration, teamwork, and innovation.  
  • Foster unconditional acceptance, a sense of being safe, and of feeling valued and capable of learning.

Students living with traumatic situations, including those who may be English learners, are likely to experience loss of control and sense of powerlessness to various degrees.  As such, regaining control is crucial to coping with traumatic stressors (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). In the classroom, this translates to implementing practices that value and encourage all students' participation in decisions that matter to them.

For example, some groups of students may wish to work at their desks in the corner of a room, others may prefer to work on the floor, and others may want to stand at the white board.  What's key is co-creating a space where students have a voice in arranging their desks, tables, and chairs and displaying (e.g., on classroom walls or tablemats) their shared ideas, opinions, and concepts to demonstrate a shared ownership of learning. 

Classroom environments that promote this type of empowerment do so by building the confidence and capacity of English learners and all students to speak up, to present and address issues of their concern, to make changes, and to take risks.  Students are more likely to encounter success in this process when adults become partners and provide active support.

Use predictable classroom routines and practices

Using routines and practices that are consistent and predictable have been found to be essential when working with students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress (Blaustein, 2013).

The following questions help to form the routine responses that students need at the beginning of the school year or when a new student enrolls in our schools:

  • What time does school actually start and should they arrive?
  • What should students do if there is a delayed opening or closing of school (e.g., a delay due to inclement weather)
  • If there is a delay, should students go directly into the school or wait on the playground?
  • Where should students go if they arrive at school late? 
  • Where do they put their coats and backpacks when they enter their classroom?  Where does their homework go?
  • What should they be doing while they are waiting for the rest of the class to arrive?
  • Who will be my teacher and what's his/her name?

According to Blaustein (2013), using the same routines and rituals in our classroom activities allows students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress to downshift from a fearful state where unpredictability takes control, to a calmer and more positive one where events happen in a predictable manner. These include the ways in which we:

  • Start class
  • Start the lessons
  • Sequence the lessons
  • Transition students from one task to the next during the lesson
  • End the lessons
  • Support students during non-instructional time

Here are some suggestions:

  • Welcome students positively by letting them know that they are welcomed and valuable members of our classroom community. 
  • Engage students in a sharing activity about special news such as the arrival of a new sibling, an event, and/or occasion such as a birthday or a school event or sports, performance, or curricular activity.  Create routines for this sharing activity to help it to be a predictable social activity.
  • Provide information about the day or class' schedule so that students know what to expect during the school day or class period
  • Conduct a short academic or social learning experience. For example, during one meeting, a teacher asked for a student volunteer to share with his/her peers the process that students should follow when leaving from and returning to the classroom for small group instruction.  His teaching goal was to support his students in making transitions and empower students in making good choices.
  • Support students to transition from the opening meeting to the next classroom activity by noticing and acknowledging those who show readiness.

Apprentice students in social and emotional communicative skills

While paired and groupwork are important methods in any classroom, an important means to support the method working more successfully is the level of trust that we create with and among all of our students.  Classroom settings are ideal places for students to acquire the social and emotional communication skills that they need to work cooperatively.  All students need this type of instruction so that everyone feels safe, competent, valued, and a sense of belonging. Our instruction must involve supporting students in the development and use of the following:

  • Listening skills
  • Empathy
  • Social and emotional language that is needed to express their feelings to their peers and others.
  • Attention to their own and their peers' values, assets, and strengths.
  • Mediating their own emotions.
  • Resolving conflict in a productive way.

Design pair and group work with plans that explicitly and intentionally support students in the development and strengthening of these skills. Look for opportunities within these groups to recognize the many ways in which students, overtly or covertly, demonstrate their personal assets.  Some examples of the type of language/communication that is helpful to acknowledge students' efforts and help them acknowledge others is the following:

Asset-Based Language to Describe Students' Qualities

Focusing on student strengths: Sample feedback

That is excellent use of logic.

You are being wise. That is a great quality that is coming across in your responses.

That was a very insightful thought you just shared.

That was a solid educated guess. That is an important skill.

I appreciate your willingness to collaborate.

You seem to be getting the picture after showing so much hard work analyzing this idea!

That was a great deduction you just made to figure out a possible answer. Well done!

You are showing great curiosity, which is a great way to learn.

The way you put these two ideas together shows how you are using great analytic skills in your problem solving.

I can see how much you are enjoying sharing and defending your unique ideas.

I really like how you are showing respect to your partner by listening carefully to what he is saying.

You are using your great mind to figure out an answer.  Well done!

Student attributes, strengths, and values

Many English language learners who have experienced or are experiencing trauma, violence, or chronic stress are demonstrators of great tenacity and determination.  Despite the many horrendous and traumatic experiences that many have experienced, living through civil strife, natural disasters, war, extreme poverty and more, they still find the energy to show up in our schools and classrooms every day.  This energy reflects one of the many attributes, strengths, and values that they possess.  How many other intrinsic qualities and values hidden under adversity can you identify in the students and families you serve?  Although not an exhaustive one, this list can help you identify them.

Adaptability

Compassion

Commitment

Courage

Determination

Daring

Endurance

Faith

 

Friendship

Energy

Flexibility

Honesty

Honor

Humility

Insight

Knowledge

 

Open-minded

Passion

Perseverance

Resilience

Responsibility

Respect

Sacrifice

Self-control

 

 

Adapted from Glasser, 2011, p. 64-65.

Final Thoughts

Adopting a strengths-based approach allows us to draw from our students' internal strengths and capacities.  It also supports the academic and social-emotional growth of all students – including English learners like Javier. 

The strategies and the ideas found in this article are a small sampling from our book Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress.  It is our hope that by using these our classrooms can be transformed into safe, productive, and positive places where all students can see their many strengths and unlimited human potential.

References

American Psychological Association (2016). The effects of parental undocumented status on families and children.  Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2016/11/undocumented-status.aspx

Blaustein, M. E. (2013). Childhood trauma and a framework for intervention. In E. Rossen & R. Hull (Eds.), Supporting and educating traumatized students: A guide for school-based professionals (pp. 3–22). New York: Oxford University Press.

Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health. (2011/2012). National Survey of Children’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.childhealthdata.org/docs/drc/aces-data-brief_version-1-0.pdf

Grantmakers in Education.  (April 2013).  Educating English Language Learners: Grantmaking strategies for closing America's other achievement gap.  Retrieved from: https://edfunders.org/sites/default/files/Educating%20English%20Language%20Learners_April%202013.pdf

Grove, T., & Glasser, H. (with Block, M. L.). (2007). The inner wealth initiative: The Nurtured Heart approach for educators. Tucson, AZ: Nurtured Heart, p. 66.

Perry, B., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York: Basic Books.

U.S. Department of State. (2015). Cumulative summary of refugee admissions.  https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/prm/releases/statistics/251288.htm

Yoshikawa, H. (2011). Immigrants raising citizens: Undocumented parents and their children.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Endnotes

Note. This article is adapted with permission from Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress, by D. Zacarian, L. A. Alvariez-Ortiz, & J. Haynes. 2017, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2017 by ASCD.

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