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Research Proposal: The Ambiguity of The Foreign Student: Embodied Teaching Praxis of Trauma-Informed Education

“you broke the ocean in half to be here. only to meet nothing that wants you. – immigrant”

― Nayyirah Waheed, Salt


Trauma has a compelling way of shaping a student’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Information surrounding trauma-informed approaches within the settlement sector is still at its infancy; there is a need to recognize the benefits of implementing a trauma-informed approach within this sector. In this paper, the literature on trauma-informed approaches connects the tenets of settlement and integration principles of providing equity and inclusion within learning spaces. Educators working front-line with newcomers are challenged to support unique cultural, socioemotional, and learning needs of their students. Using various critical theory paradigms, I will attempt to provide a voice to these students within settlement learning spaces by rooting in reflexivity and understanding of how one’s social location is a source of knowledge for educators. The aim of this proposed research explores questions, such as: how can educators engage and provide support to such learners? How can we create inclusive learning spaces for our students? This paper aims to explore the implementation of trauma-informed practice to help educators provide a response within their curriculum and practices to help renew their perspectives and understanding of trauma by learning the oppressions and barriers faced by their students while framing new ways of responding to trauma in a classroom setting.

Table of Contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Acknowledgment
  3. Table of Contents
  4. Introduction
  5. Background
  6. Problem
  7. Research Questions
  8. The Significance of the Study
  9. Method for Searching the Literature
  10. Literature Review
  11. Understanding Trauma
  12. Shifting to Trauma-Informed Education (TIE)
  13. Exploring Identity Post-Trauma
  14. Framing Trauma-Informed Education
  15. Discussion
  16. Conclusion and Future Directions
  17. References

Description of the Project/Introduction

Trauma-affected newcomers experience trauma in their countries of origin, but they also encounter trauma when dealing with various oppression and barriers during and after settling in Canada. Trauma is described as our psychological response to emotionally or physically harmful events that damage our ability to function across social, emotional, behavioral, or physical domains (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2012). These experiences of trauma can directly impact a learner’s ability to learn by manifesting in behaviours that appear to educators as being angry or disengaged. Introducing Trauma-Informed practice in learning spaces will allow educators to understand that the emotions displayed by newcomer learners often mask various emotions such as fear, discomfort, and sadness. Therefore, when teaching newcomers, implementing trauma-informed practice can help educators renew their perspectives and understanding of trauma by learning the oppressions and barriers faced by their students while framing new ways of responding to trauma in a classroom setting. Working in the community, I have heard countless stories relating to newcomers feeling hopeless, loss, isolated, and depressed which pushed me to want to explore ways of better supporting clients who are attending educational programs to support their settlement while suffering from trauma. The primary aim of these articles will outline methods of delivering service and learning in a practice that is welcoming and appropriate to the unique needs of those affected by trauma (Harris & Fallot, 2001). My primary research question is: how educators can implement a response within their curriculum and practices to address trauma-affected newcomers complex needs.

Theoretical Framework

Various societal factors contribute to the prevalence and persistence of trauma. Trauma-informed critical pedagogy is choosing to teach culturally sensitive and relevant curriculum that places value on student’s voice and lived experience. The theoretical framework of this paper consists of three critical theories: critical responsive pedagogy, critical consciousness, and reflexive inquiry. I chose these theories for the following reasons: culturally responsive pedagogy for its focus on emancipation, critical consciousness for its focus on critically understanding self and openness, and reflexive inquiry for its focus on each individual as a unique and multi-identitied person.

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Culturally responsive pedagogy recognizes the significance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings, 1994). It includes using the cultural knowledge, previous experiences, frames of references, and ethnically diverse students’ learning styles to help them learn how they can improve their skills (Gay, 2010). Culturally responsive pedagogy challenges educators to understand the impact of social oppression on the communities in which their students live as well as their individual experiences by developing skills that translate this recognition into strategies for student engagement and teaching (Milner, 2011). These strategies call for developing close relationships with students to identify and build upon their strengths and using newcomer students’ culture, ethnic heritage, and experiences of oppression as foundations for teaching and learning (Gay, 2010). By implementing this theory into the classroom, it will promote resiliency and student achievement by addressing the intersections of institutional bias, trauma, and the chronic stress often associated with immigrating to a new country all within the context of historical and structural oppression.

Critical consciousness represents a person’s awakening to and awareness of inequities in social, economic and educational systems (Freire, 1995). At the core of critical consciousness is reflection. Reflection requires the continued study of the self in relation to what is happening in the surrounding environment. Critical consciousness creates transformation through the construction of reality—this work is done alongside others, taking action against oppressive elements in one’s life, illustrated by the understanding of the self, the self in society.   Freire introduces a concept termed critical conscientização or critical consciousness, which is understood as how we as educators learn and relate to awakening the consciousness as well as one’s possibility to not only “be in the world, but to engage in relations with the world” (Freire, 1995). Through conscientização (consciousness raising) and praxis teachers and learners actively counter dehumanizing practices and reposition lived experience to the center of settlement-based learning (Freire, 1995).

Reflexive inquiry teaches heightened self-awareness and reflection which leads to increased effectiveness and enhancing student’s ability to learn. By using reflexivity, it will allow the researcher’s engagement with the research question while also involving continually examining one’s own lived experiences in relation to theoretical and methodological presuppositions (Ryan, 2005; Colombo, 2003).  Reflexivity is, therefore, a tool whereby we can include our “selves” at any stage, making transparent the values and beliefs we hold that almost positively influence the research process and its outcomes (Etherington, 2007). Reflexive research inspires us to display in our writing/conversations the interactions between ourselves and our research, so that our work can be understood, not only in terms of what we have discovered but how we have discovered it (Etherington, 2007).

According to the critical theories, to be trauma-informed, in any context, is to understand how traumatic experiences in the lives of the individuals are involved and learning how to apply provisions and learning to accommodate the needs and vulnerabilities of trauma survivors. The research context including problems and questions are looking to find ways to review and observe alternative pedagogical considerations to learning. A central tenet to trauma-informed practice is ensuring through efforts to minimize the possibilities for inadvertent retraumatization, secondary traumatization, or new traumatizations in the delivery of services (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014) Through introductions of critical pedagogy and reflective inquiry, it will promote experiential learning by actively listening to newcomers’ voices. It recognizes their agency and respects their capacity to choose and navigate their own learning trajectories. Educators in flexible learning programs aimed to maintain a balanced perspective between formal education and newcomers’ welfare. They place a strong emphasis on positive relationships rather than punitive behaviour management that can be demeaning to newcomer learners. This requires proactive, rather than reactive, responses to newcomers who need support and encouragement to actively participate in and take responsibility for their learning (de Jong and Griffiths 2006).

For educators, seeing themselves as being and becoming culturally responsive in this way of working with newcomers require them to be more fully themselves in order to break down hierarchical relationships with newcomers (Nabavi and Lund 2010). These critical theories allow for the existence and reality that newcomers have multiple truths, multiple roles, and multiple realities. Overall, it allows for a liberatory experience that allows educators to develop awareness of the impact of trauma on newcomers’ capacity to learn and develop relationships making them more equipped with strategies to address these issues.

The Significance of the Research

This paper will fill a gap in the existing literature on integrated trauma-informed practices in settlement and integration services classrooms. This paper gives educators a chance to consider the complexity of newcomers’ experience, particularly ones that experienced trauma. This research paper connects literature that pertains to the utilization of trauma-informed practices in the classroom to encourage educators to understand the needs of these newcomer students and how to best support them better. The significance is bearing witness to the unique identity and ethnic history of each student while honouring and understanding their experiences through the lens of resilience and emergence from oppression. Finally, this paper offers a critical paradigm shift in the way that education is approached and the potential to inform settlement education policies in an effort to increase the newcomer’s capacity to overcome oppression.

Literature Sources to be Searched

The literature sources to be searched will reflect the core components and areas that I want to explore within this capstone. I will aim to explore understanding trauma, exploring the identity post trauma, locating praxis: shifting to trauma-informed education and framing trauma-informed education.

Understanding Trauma

Various trauma scholars and researchers welcome open-ended definitions of trauma. Green (1990) defines trauma according to any of three criteria that include: (1) an event that would objectively be labeled as traumatic, (2) an individual’s subjective interpretation of the meaning of an event as traumatic, and/or (3) an individual’s emotional reaction to an event as traumatic. Trauma is not exclusively connected to immigrants and refugees’ experiences in their country of origin, but it can relate to the reality that immigrants and refugees are traumatized or retraumatized through the immigration process and/or through challenges and barriers faced living in a new country (Wilbur, 2016). Wilbur (2016) discusses how trauma-informed practice considers experiences of trauma that can impact one’s ability and capacity to learn. It is important to note that not all immigrants and refugees who exhibit challenging behaviour in the classroom may suffer from trauma and may experience other issues such as disability, temperament or health conditions that may make their learning experience difficult (Downey, 2007).

Exploring Identity Post-Trauma

Berman (2016) discusses how a traumatic event(s) becomes central to one’s identity or sense of self. The journey of migration involves one’s ability to create and recreate various forms of social identities, negotiating elements from their country of origin and their new country while re-adjusting and aspiring their futures. The journey of migration for many newcomers may include the loss of familiarity, comfort, social networks and it is met with isolation, loss, depression, and difficulty in adjusting to a new culture (Wilbur, 2016). Therefore, the migration process should be viewed as a courageous, complicated and traumatic act. For individuals experiencing trauma, the experience becomes closely related to how a person defines themselves. Traumatic events can disrupt and alter the lives of those experiencing it in unpredictable and permanent ways (Wilbur, 2016). Trauma can profoundly alter an individual’s life course and diminish innate resilience.

Newcomer learners who experienced traumas can develop behaviours, such as lack of self-worth, struggle to control emotion and inability to connect with others and their own identity. The experience of trauma may attach to their identity which can cause a blur between who they think they are and how others may perceive their behaviour. In turn, this may lead to others to believe their behaviour reflects whom they are rather than understanding what they have experienced (Carello and Butler, 2014). By introducing a new model of Trauma-Informed Education, it will teach educators to focus on understanding aspects of trauma-informed practice (i.e., healing) in learning spaces for newcomers which in turn will promote a form of therapeutic/flexible learning for persons experiencing or dealing with trauma in classroom spaces (Carello and Butler, 2014).

Shifting to Trauma-Informed Education (TIE)

Trauma-informed education models (Downey, 2007; Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016b, 2019, Morgan et al, 2015) comprised of evidence-informed pedagogical designed to assist educators with understanding and teaching students who are trauma affected. Trauma-informed education aims to investigate how teachers learned about, then implemented a new practice pedagogy model, trauma-informed education (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016b). TIE better-equipped educators to meet the challenges posed in the current teacher practice pedagogy literature (Kennedy, 2015). TIE explains that students benefit from the feelings of connectedness and belonging in the classroom. TIE positions three developmentally sequenced domains for teacher practice to engage students who struggle in classrooms due to the negative impacts of trauma, abuse, and neglect. When educating students dealing with trauma, teachers are encouraged to envision their practice as one that (first) increases self-regulatory abilities of their students, (second) increases relational capacities within their students to make strong peer and teacher relationships for safe and supportive relational bonds and (third) increases psychological resources for student wellbeing (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2019).


Framing Trauma-Informed Education in The Classroom

Freire (1995) provides a great starting point for introducing TIE into learning context for educators. His model of praxis and problem-posing education preserves that problem-posing education looks at lived experiences of students to see them as a source of critical consciousness (Wilbur, 2016). Freire mentions that it is crucial for educators to not only focus solely on teaching a technique or content but should also implement ways of understanding the reality of their students (Freire, 1995).  By using conscientização, educators are engaging in dialogue which demands reflections and in turn, produces action or praxis. He viewed that developing critical consciousness requires—that action (making a change to society) is necessary and, following requires serious reflection. By welcoming this praxis in learning, it means that educators must be open to explore their own realities and experiences while reciprocally sharing their knowledge and experience through dialogue and co-learning (Freire, 1995). The educator’s identity is equally as important to explore as the learners since it explores the way their identity shapes and influences practice – both consciously and unconsciously.  It means that educators must be open to explore their own realities and experiences while reciprocally sharing their knowledge and experience through dialogue and co-learning (Freire, 1995).

Method for Reviewing the Literature

My research focuses mostly on the resources available from the EBSCO Collection, ProQuest Databases, Google Scholars, and online publications. My main search terms included, “trauma-informed practice and newcomers,” “trauma-informed care and settlement,” and “trauma-informed teaching and newcomers.” I decided to use search keywords “trauma-informed care in schools” to help me explore ways of thinking of adaptations of the curriculum to ensure people with traumatic experiences feel more comfortable while amplifying support systems within the classroom to help people with traumatic experiences. Based on each article or journal, I summarized the main arguments made by the authors and related it to the context of trauma-informed teaching as well as its impact on educating educators relating to trauma-informed practice. I looked for literature that concentrated on culturally responsive pedagogy to provide ideas on how to build inclusive classrooms that allow educators to set boundaries, frame the value and pursue diversity to promote an equitable learning environment for newcomers. Finally, I looked for literature that identifies how critical responsive pedagogy, reflexive inquiry, and intersectionality devise a learning space that nurtures a sense of safety for any educator working with adults who are experiencing high-stress levels or are traumatized.

Method for Applying Literature Results

When attempting to explore how educators can implement practices to address trauma-affected newcomers, it is important to first start by understanding the identities of the learners, followed by learning productive ways to introduce TIE in their learning and lastly addressing changing the overall practice of educators. In changing the practice of educators, various articles have emerged in support of flexible learning programs as the best practice in alternative education settings. When implementing trauma-informed practice into learning spaces, it is essential that educators reinforce developing an authentic relationship by restoring their connection to the learners in creating a safe and supportive learning environment. TIE promotes experiential learning that encourages and promotes active listening to newcomer’s voice. It recognizes their agency and respects their capacity to choose and navigate their own learning trajectories.

Ethical Considerations

The utilization of qualitative method helps describe, clarify and elaborate on the implications of various aspects of the human life experience. It is argued that qualitative research deals with sensitive topics in depth which can pose emotional and other risks to researchers. Since this paper will be exploring trauma-informed practice, it would be an essential component of ethical consideration to set clear protocols for dealing with distress. It is not usually easy to foretell what topics could lead to distress, and researchers should, therefore, be mindful regarding reflexive exploration when dealing with traumatic situations. Therefore, it is vital that researchers aim to implement psychological fitness throughout the capstone writing process. Such measures include taking opportunities to practice self-care and facilitating the process of self-reflection.


Title: Proposed Timeline for Completion of the Major Academic Report

Dates Activity Completed
Phase 1

March 4th – March 10th, 2019

Submit an acceptable revised proposal to supervisor
Phase 2

March 10th – March 24th, 2019

Continue to conduct the literature review, write the literature summary, critique of the literature, and apply the literature to solve problems.
Phase 3

March 24th – March 31st, 2019

I will have resubmitted the first section of the major academic report after completing any changes or editing suggested by the supervisor
Phase 4

April 7th – April 14th, 2019

I will have resubmitted the second section of the major academic

report after completing any changes or editing suggested by the supervisor.

Phase 5

April 14th – April 21st, 2019

I will submit first full draft of major academic report to supervisor.
Phase 6

April 21st – April 28th, 2019

I will have resubmitted the full draft of the major academic report

after completing any changes or editing suggested by the supervisor to the

second reader.

*Activity is due at 12:00am of each respective date


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