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Plataforma electrónica dedicada a la enseñanza para adultos en Europa



Trauma and learning

por Barbara Kuss
Idioma: EN
Document available also in: DE FR CS

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Barbara Kuss, Mats Mikiver

Migrants who decide - whether voluntarily or involuntarily – to leave their home-country are confronted with a change of their frame of reference that helps oneself in a social system to reduce the world to a calculable section in which one can find its own way and in which one can interact. They find themselves in an unknown territory where the world has been grasping, where all well-known rules of behavior, societal roles, structures, and conditions have changed (Han 2009, 205-209). The afflictions are particularly virulent when migration has happened for reasons of fled from war and persecution. The fled often starts unexpectedly, no adoption could take place, often family members or friends have disappeared, died, or killed already; people fleeing are in deep danger and suffering from a distressing fear.

While trying to settle, they often are attending integration-courses to learn the language of their host country or to learn “national and regional values and cultural habits”. Trainers of these integration-courses or tutors of integration-offers meet a certain number of participants who are not able to retrieve their learning-abilities; this can be a consequence of traumatic experiences many of them had.



A trauma is a sudden, intense, and painful happening that overwhelms a person's psychic processing capabilities, as if it would flood the psyche. This can occur after natural disasters like floods or earthquakes; after a tragedy like an accident or a fire; and this occurs after “man-made-disaster” (UNHCR 2018; Schwarz 2009).

According to Schouler-Ocak et al. (2010), 17% of patients in psychiatric and psychotherapeutic treatments were people with migration background; special influence on the pathological situations had traumas. These can be causative for the genesis of a post-traumatic stress disorder and/or be co-responsible for the development of other mental illnesses (Özkan/Hüther 2012). Man-made-disasters like mistreatment, sexual abuse, rape, war experience, or torture are reasons for especially substantial traumatization, the treatment is particularly complex and difficult (UNHCR 2018; Schwarz 2009). The reason is that here people deliberately damage other people in the most serious physically and emotionally destroying way. The health of those affected is impaired in many ways over the long term. Some suffer from physical deformities and disabilities; flashbacks make the experience come back repeatedly as a scaring experience. Concentration might decrease considerably, as does the ability to absorb and process information. Often, the work ability is reduced; social interaction capacity might heavily be burdened, which can lead to social withdrawal or complete isolation. The recovery process often is made even more difficult when refugees have been persecuted by the state and their trust in institutions is low (Braun et al., 2009).

Besides, migrants and refugees often are under a big acculturation-distress that might have an influence on their learning capabilities. Learning the language, finding a place to live, getting familiar with our social systems and structures like health, school, other supporting systems needs all attention; moreover, questions like how to deal with values that differ from mine are bothering many immigrants.

The project INTED and examples of handling insecurities in reacting on people with traumata

The project INTED - Integration through Education and Information (INTED) - had the aim to improve the work amongst refugees/immigrants. Funded within the Erasmus+ programme as ‘Exchange of Knowledge’- project, five countries – Austria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, and Sweden shared their approaches and activities in this affair.

One of the partners, the “Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT)” in Croatia, is especially focusing on trauma and introduced the “Solution focus approach on trauma”. RCT was accomplishing a workshop dealing with the following question: How should I as personnel ( a trainer) meet another person affected by a trauma in the best of ways despite the situation that I do not have a professional education in how to deal with a traumatized person? To feel insecure how to act when meeting or working with a traumatized person is nothing that is unusual. Trainers and tutors are often worried regarding situations like “What to talk about with a traumatized person besides talking about those things we are doing together (e.g. in a language course)?” “Should I ask about the traumatic event?” “Should I ask about the person’s feelings?” … and other thoughts might arise.

Solution focused approach on Trauma

The method “Solution focused approach on Trauma” can be useful in this case. The main idea is to focus on the future, about what is possible and what is working well for the person affected by a trauma. The causes of the problem are not mainly in focus in this method. The questions are: When is the person feeling better? What does the person do then? Can the person do more of that or develop another activity, which makes the person feeling better? It´s about to decrease the time the person’s mind is occupied by thoughts regarding the trauma and replace it with positive thoughts, talks or actions.

Good relations are of course important. Just by being a warm human fellow, the first step has been taken. One of the principles are "small steps forward in the person’s mental status can lead to large changes in real life". The method can be used both on group level and for individuals, but one has to be aware that persons can react different on the same situation. How much a person is affected by a traumatic event is depending on different parameters such as personality, age, grade of exposure, support from family, and social situation.

Family learning

If the traumatized person is a parent, “Family learning” (Fl) can be a useful method with the idea of doing something positive and future orientated. Fl is useful for all parents and much suitable for immigrants. In Fl, parents and children do activities together in five to ten group sessions with focus on positive learning experiences with embedded literacy and numeracy skills as a natural part of each session. Fl is designed to enable adults and children to learn together.

The main parts in Fl is to emphasize the important role parents have in the child´s intellectual and emotional development. Additionally, parents are the first teachers and one’s home is a learning environment. For immigrants, Fl is a good way to develop language skills for both parents and children. They can mostly do the same exercises as they normally are on the same language level as newly arrived people. The exercises should be both theoretical and practical and the skills should be learned in a funny and relaxed way e.g. by playing.

A Family learning course should focus on the needs of the participating group. Is it language skills, information about preschool and school, healthy eating, civic information or something similar that is most needed? The tutors create the curriculum in cooperation with the participants with that in mind.

Fl is a global method; it was created to support families in disadvantaged areas or people with low or no education at all. For some adults, Fl is the first step into education with the aim to start lifelong learning.

There is strong evidence of an intergenerational transfer of disadvantages from parents with poor literacy, language and numeracy skills to their children. Family learning can play a key role in helping to reverse this process.


Kuss, Barbara, MA, MSc: Pedagogue, project manager, main focus lies on the intersection of migration-health-education. Working for OMEGA – Transcultural center for psychic and physical health and integration, Graz, Austria.

Mikiver, Mats: Project manager in the municipality of Linköping, Department of Education, Sweden. The main mission is to organize different kinds of parenting support with focus on migrant families.



This article was published in the publication "Citizenship Education in Austria and Europe: objectives, methods and future prospects"

For more interesting articles click here: EPALE focus: Citizenship Education in Europe

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  • Imagen de Andrea Metzger
    Wenn man nicht direkt als Betreuer/in oder als Lernende/r direkt davon betroffen ist, macht man sich kaum Gedanken über die Einschränkung durch Traumata. Family learning ist dabei sicher hilfreich, vor allem weil man sich in einem bekannten Umfeld bewegt. Damit habe ich wieder etwas neues gelernt, danke!