The Impact of Trauma on Learning in Adults

Early as well as recent trauma has an impact on learning in adults.

Flight, fight and freeze are survival tactics that are used when people are confronted with danger. These make sense when emotional and physical threats are present. But can interfere with everyday life in safe situations.

Continued exposure to traumatic experiences causes changes in the brain and behaviour. And the impact is long lasting. Adults are affected by traumatic experiences that occurred both recently and in the past. The consequences of traumatic experiences in childhood are carried forward into adult life. It has been reported that about 60% of adults reported having at least one Adverse Childhood Experience.

Trauma and Learning

Adults bring their experiences to the classroom, the good and the bad. Behaviours that have been adapted to provide safety in dangerous situations can be counterproductive in safe situations, including learning. If you are busy watching for danger, ready to fight, flee or freeze, it reduces or eliminates your readiness to learn.

What can this look like in the classroom? Trauma can appear as hyper alertness and vigilance, persistent anxiety or numb disengagement. It can be resistance to taking risks, trying new things or responding to questions. Because of trauma, these reactions are not intentional.

Trauma can also influence motivation, memory, decision-making and ability to plan.

Learn more:

Trauma-Informed Teaching

The good news is that you can support learning in all adults with trauma-informed teaching. Trauma-informed teaching is good practice for everyone.

A key factor is creating safety. A secure, predictable and consistent learning environment is important.

Find strategies and tips in:

Setting Boundaries

A clearly defined expectation of your role as a tutor or instructor helps maintain a supportive but not overwhelming relationship.

Although you are not a counsellor and should never take on a role as therapist, it is your ethical duty to listen and support your students, and then to make referrals accordingly. As the instructor or facilitator it is critical to recognize that you have power and privilege in the learning space and therefore it is your responsibility to share knowledge and resources for those who are struggling. (Community Based Training Guide: A Trauma-Informed Approach, 2018, p. 12)

Read more in I’m not a counsellor. What can I do?

Find discussion questions and exercises on boundaries in the Parkdale Project Read Tutor Training: Bringing the Whole Person to Learning/The Impact of Violence on Learning workshop notes.

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