Teaching and Learning in the Age of COVID-19: Creating Trauma-Informed & Participatory Environments

I don’t think I will shock anyone reading this blog by saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a monumental impact on our education systems.  Many schools have had to shift to providing distance learning opportunities, which has led to significant concerns about accessibility, equity, and learners’ and educators’ readiness to adapt to these changes.  Other districts have returned to physical settings, but with completely new procedures that were developed in mere weeks (change does not typically happen this quickly in the education sector!).  More and more families have left traditional school systems entirely, and are now adapting to the brand-new world of homeschooling amidst a global pandemic.

Physical and mental health

Currently, one of the most prominent and consistent concerns, both in the media and on our minds, is our safety.  Virus transmission happens in physical settings, and so removing the physical setting from the equation is one response we have seen throughout the world.  The shift to distance learning, however, brings with it the concerns I mentioned previously.  Specifically, how can we ensure equitable access to learning opportunities, and are educators and students equipped with the skills they need to adapt to this new way of teaching and learning?

Another perhaps more insidious concern in the time of COVID-19 is our mental wellbeing.  The global pandemic has inarguably led to increased levels of stress for individuals in all walks of life, and prolonged stress takes its toll on our bodies and minds.  While children may or may not be directly impacted by pandemic-related stress, they assuredly pick up on the emotions that surround them.  Furthermore, as the adults surrounding them become increasingly fatigued, there are fewer and fewer cognitive resources available that can be devoted to helping children cope with their new and unpredictable reality.  What we can expect as a response are more frequent and severe stress behaviours from children, which include “heightened impulsivity, difficulty ignoring distractions, problems in mood,” “erratic mood swings,” and “trouble listening” (Terry Johanson Consulting, 2019).  Essentially, a range of unpleasant behaviours that make it exceedingly difficult for children to learn.

Reducing stress in learning environments

If you are reading this post, you might be an educator either teaching in a physical classroom, or you might be navigating the new challenge of providing distance learning opportunities.  Alternatively, you might be a parent who is trying to support your child as they adapt to distance learning, or you may have made the shift to homeschooling.  Regardless of your position, educating during this epidemic likely feels like an overwhelming task.  Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch; several pre-existing, research-informed, and highly applicable educational approaches exist, and can help us adapt to novel challenges.

Trauma-informed environments

One approach that I believe is tremendously valuable (during the pandemic, but also prior to the rise of the coronavirus) involves creating trauma-informed environments.  Adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction can disrupt neurodevelopment, leading to social, emotional, and cognitive impairments (Terry Johanson Consulting, 2019).  Minimizing the damage caused by extreme stress, and reducing the frequency and severity of the resulting stress behaviours involves far more than the traditional approach of implementing various rewards and consequences for a child’s behaviours (Terry Johanson Consulting, 2019).  When children have experienced intense and prolonged stress, Herriford (2019) suggests that one of the most helpful things we can do is create an environment where they feel a sense of safety, belonging, and competency.  In this same article, Herriford (2019) goes on to provide several specific approaches that can help establish a safe and supportive atmosphere:

  1. Regularly acknowledge and discuss students’ feelings
  2. Establish and communicate clear boundaries
  3. Give students a sense of predictability by ensuring consistency in procedures, routines, and boundaries

With stressful circumstances comes an overwhelming sense of unpredictability, so creating a trauma-informed environment involves cultivating a sense of safety by helping individuals understand what they can expect in this space.  In doing so, I have seen extremely dysregulated and distrusting children slowly come to understand that they are safe and supported in an environment. 

This is when meaningful learning can begin.  It cannot happen before.

The COVID-19 pandemic might not necessarily be a traumatic event for everyone, but I believe we can still learn and apply some of this knowledge about trauma-informed environments.  Specifically, children today are facing a great deal of uncertainty, which makes it very difficult to be in a state where they can learn effectively.  To help them reach a state where they can actually learn, we need to give them some sense of predictability in their immediate environments.

Participatory environments

Another approach that I believe can help us during this pandemic is to facilitate participatory learning.  A participatory learning environment “is one in which students make choices about what they learn and negotiate how they learn” (Jacobsen, Lock, & Friesen, 2013).  In addition to making choices for themselves, students in a participatory environment are connected to one another, and feel that their contributions are meaningful (Halverson, Kallio, Hackett, & Halverson, 2016). 

What might this look like you ask?

“Participatory learning designs require teachers to balance both structure and openness, to offer flexible boundaries that support and guide learners as they undertake meaningful, challenging and complex collaborative inquiries into enduring ideas and complex questions, problems and issues in a discipline” (Jacobsen et al., 2013)

Research suggests that participatory learning environments offer a range of benefits for their students. Firstly, providing students with choices helps them feel a sense of control in their environment, which can help reduce stress behaviours (Terry Johanson Consulting, 2019). Secondly, “today’s schools are focused on individual acquisition of knowledge, student by student, despite the fact that, increasingly, society, community, and work emphasize teaming, collaboration, and participatory learning” (Lemke, 2010, p. 264).  If we can encourage student autonomy and participation, we don’t just help them feel a sense of control and belonging in their learning environment: we are modeling an environment that more closely resembles the 21st century landscape they will one day be navigating independently.  Finally, a range of evidence suggests participatory learning empowers students, and increases their motivation, concentration, and engagement (Asselin & Moayeri, 2011; Könings, Brand-Gruwel, & van Merriënboer, 2011; Palaigeorgiou & Grammatikopoulou, 2016).

Putting it all together

Trauma-informed and participatory environments might seem quite different initially, and creating an environment that maximizes learner autonomy while also being predictable may seem contradictory.  These practices, however, can actually help support one another.  In my experience, they key is to balance freedom with boundaries; students need to feel trusted enough to act autonomously within clearly defined parameters.  Without freedom, they will not feel a sense of control that will help them relax and engage in their learning.  Without boundaries, they will not understand their limits, nor will they feel a sense of predictability.  My suggestion is to establish clear boundaries that help students understand what to expect, while also allowing them the freedom to make choices that fit within these boundaries.

Because of the worldwide pandemic, we are living in an exceedingly stressful time where many aspects of our lives are uncertain.  Our current context may be more extreme than usual, but the truth is that we never really stop having to find our way through difficult, complex, and unpredictable situations.  In educational settings where children are hovered over, denied freedom, and motivated only by rewards and consequences, they may fail to develop the skills that will help them navigate the uncertainty they are sure to face as adults in the 21st century.  I strongly believe that one of the best things we can do for today’s students is provide them with consistency, while also granting them autonomy, so that they are supported in developing these essential skills.  This approach will help not only cultivate a sense of safety in pandemic-era learning environments, but also develop resilient and independent human beings that are capable of overcoming the varied, complex, and unpredictable challenges of the 21st century.




References

Asselin, M., & Moayeri, M. (2011). The participatory classroom: Web 2.0 in the classroom. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 19(2), 1–7.

Halverson, R., Kallio, J., Hackett, S., & Halverson, E. (2016). Participatory culture as a model for how new media technologies can change public schools.

Herriford, W. (2019). What are the basics of a trauma-informed environment? Retrieved from https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/basics-trauma-informed-environment/

Jacobsen, M., Lock, J., & Friesen, S. (2013). Strategies for engagement: Knowledge building and intellectual engagement in participatory learning environments. Education Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/strategies-engagement

Könings, K. D., Brand-Gruwel, S., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2011). Participatory instructional redesign by students and teachers in secondary education: Effects on perceptions of instruction. Instructional Science, 39(5), 737–762. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-010-9152-3

Palaigeorgiou, G., & Grammatikopoulou, A. (2016). Benefits, barriers and prerequisites for Web 2.0 learning activities in the classroom: The view of Greek pioneer teachers. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 13(1), 2–18.

Terry Johanson Consulting. (2019). Discipline with dignity: Trauma-informed classroom management. Retrieved from https://johansonconsulting.ca/2019/02/03/discipline-with-dignity-trauma-informed-strategies/


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