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CATESOL Book Review: Supporting the Journey of English Learners after Trauma

Michelle Skowbo

Supporting the Journey of English Learners after Trauma by Judith B. O’Loughlin & Brenda K. Custodio, (2020) University of Michigan Press

Supporting the Journal of English Learners after Trama (book cover with images of classrooms)

By Erika Saito and Kara Mac Donald 
With the CATESOL Spring Virtual Conference on May 7th and 8th with a focus on transformation, inclusion, diversity and engagement, it seemed appropriate to feature a book addressing these focus areas for ELLs.
Supporting the Journey of English Learners after Trauma, by Judy O’Loughlin, a CATESOL member, and Brenda Custodio, her longtime colleague and friend, engages with ELLs’ diversity and challenges to include them in the larger discussion to make an impact on addressing their specific needs and transform the field and the learners’ journeys. Since this group of learners is diverse, they define various terms related to learners intersecting with the experiences of immigration and trauma in the introduction to set the stage for coming discussions. 

The first chapter  addresses such journeys from the beginning by describing what causes trauma for immigrant and refugee children, and the challenges of meeting the needs of students with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). With cumulative and chronic trauma in focus, frequent signs in children are outlined with some distinction between young and adolescent learners. Next, the authors describe the factors and/or events that provoke trauma for immigrant, refugee, recent-arrival and undocumented learners are addressed with respect to how different cultures deal with mental health issues and the understanding of what is a mental health problem and the stigma that may come with it. This leads to the close of the chapter with how teachers can acknowledge, support and provide resiliency to them. The chapter finishes with a set of questions for reflection and/or inquiry for readers to build on what was presented, as do all the coming chapters.


The next discussion, in Chapter Two, addresses how schools can be structured to be responsive to learners’ trauma (i.e. trauma-sensitive schools) by providing a space where students do not need to conceal their stress and emotions provoked by their previous experiences. The authors share how such schools can provide strategies and the development of skills for learners to not only cope with their trauma but move beyond it and negotiate distinct and new identities. They suggest this is first done by seeing learners with a compassionate and understanding lens, providing procedures and norms that generate stability but are also negotiable to offer flexibility for student needs, and offering a support system for learners that not only focuses on academic needs but also personal, social and emotional support to assist learners in navigating their paths successfully.


Chapter Three explores ways to support educators in fostering resilience in their English learner students recovering from trauma. Coined in the 1980’s resilience was found as characteristic of strength in a child’s stressful conditions. While studies have analyzed and described the conditions of children experiencing trauma, resilience is found in the way children conceptualize themselves within these traumatic experiences. In order to promote resilience in English learner children, the “I Have, I Am, and I Can” approach is applied. “I Have” refers to student access to supportive and trusting people. “I Am” refers to social emotional learning qualities of being responsible, respectful, and empathetic to others. Lastly, “I Can” describes children who are able to make responsible decisions, have self control, seek help, if needed, and express their feelings. The chapter provides thorough directions and suggestions for a host of activities for each of the aforementioned models that can be integrated into daily instruction as well as individual lessons.


Chapter Four addresses the need for educator self-care and the effects of secondary trauma, also known as compassion fatigue. English learners enter the classroom with a range of backgrounds and experiences, some of which may be traumatic. While teachers may identify stressors and aim to support these students, they are also limited in ways they can help. Educators experiencing previous trauma may be retraumatized when working with student issues. Thus educators need self-care to help promote their own emotional and physical well-being. Beginning with a self-care survey, educators can identify areas of focus in physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and professional self-care. Benefits of self-care include the long term effects of relaxation and decompression to decrease risks of disease and increase in well-being, stress-buffering, coping, and adaptation. School systems are equally important in promoting self-care. If current systems in place at school are lacking in the safety and behavior of staff members or students, restorative circles are suggested to “restore” the student and faculty community. At the end of the chapter, opportunities to reflect on experiences with trauma, self-care, and support systems are provided. 


Chapter Five takes a shift into the broader scope of responding to trauma beyond the classroom. It begins with understanding the hidden curriculum, which includes the social emotional climate and culture that are not made explicit--such as the norms and behaviors found in the physical, social, and academic dimensions of school. Outside assessments are recommended to determine the types of messages being transmitted to students with a recommended rubric to evaluate welcoming practices. Other forms of welcoming students, families, teachers, and staff include culturally accessible school handbooks that are color coded & visual with translations in students’ native languages. In addition is the need to develop staff that are trauma informed as well as having professional support for mental health services available on campus. In developing connections beyond the walls of a school building, home visits with staff that can communicate in the family’s first language is essential to understand each family’s goals for health, safety, concerns, and hopes. Communication with families needs to be culturally contextualized by schools as well as connecting families with resources that further connect them to the community. In this regard, paraprofessionals hold a critical role in bridging students’ families through the application of recommendations in Chapter Two alongside activities to promote relationship building. The chapter ends with applying multi-tiered systems of support as an intervention for social and emotional support, a rubric for promoting resilience, and guided considerations for self-reflection or discussion with stakeholders.  


The book serves as a great resource to inform teachers and educational leadership about the impact of trauma on English learners, how to create a school that is prepared to serve such students, classroom practices that can build learner resiliency and ways educators can care for themselves as well. As each chapter closes with a section on ‘For Further Study’ for the reader, engagement with the topic of the chapter does not close with turning the page to begin the next chapter as the questions posed expand the dialogue beyond the reader and the authors to one between the reader and the reader’s awareness and experiences in his/her teaching context. This permits the content in each chapter to be practically considered and applied or adapted based on learners’ needs and educational context. The appendix offers references for resources addressing personal accounts of migration experiences and resiliency, again extending the dialogue between the book’s content and the reader far after the book’s back cover is closed.