English-Language Learners

Strategies for Easing Transition Shock

English language learners in particular may be impacted by this form of stress, but simple strategies can help—and they benefit all students.

August 31, 2018
A classroom full of diverse students writing at their desks
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Transition shock—an umbrella term that incorporates culture shock, chronic distress, traumatic upset, and post-traumatic stress disorder—can impact student success in a number of behavioral, emotional, and physiological ways. It can also impair students’ ability to acquire and make sense of a language, meaning that it creates unique challenges for America’s fastest-growing student population, English language learners (ELLs), especially those students who have come from areas experiencing war or large-scale resettlement.

Understanding transition shock begins with an awareness of stress. All children endure stress—it’s a healthy, normal function. For some individuals, however, stress—originating from a singular traumatic event, a series of adverse experiences, or a period of prolonged anxiety—becomes acute, meaning that the state of stress lasts well after the inciting incident or incidents have ended.

How Are My Students Affected?

Transition shock can negatively influence academic and social learning. This occurs when stress levels become so unhealthy that they trigger detectable behavioral, emotional, hormonal, and neurological changes. These shifts can disrupt a student’s ability to effectively manage their stress and return to their typical emotional and behavioral state.

In the classroom, transition shock may produce a range of manifestations. Observable traits include symptoms of physical distress (such as tummy aches, headaches, or asthma), speech impediments, or compulsive behaviors. Strained peer relationships, concentration difficulties, self-regulation obstacles, and compromised executive functioning skills can be indicators of transition shock, too.

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How Are ELLs in Particular Impacted?

Transition shock has the capacity to overwrite existing neural networks, essentially restructuring a young person’s developing brain. In fact, it can alter the way the brain interprets and processes new information, which can deeply interfere with language development. This is true for two key reasons.

First, most transition shock is processed and retained within the brain stem, the hippocampus, and the amygdala—the body’s “fight-or-flight” center. These are all subconscious, nonverbal parts of the brain. Experiences stored in these regions are not readily accessible on a conscious level, making them difficult to manage and overcome. Stress embedded in this way can interfere with a learner’s ability to engage in the social and academic aspects of the school day.

Second, transition shock can hinder communication between the brain’s hemispheres. Specifically, developments within the right brain can be suspended, stopped, or even reversed. These so-called stalls in the right brain can cause a domino effect that hinders language acquisition: Episodes of transition shock can overwhelm an individual, causing the brain to become stuck in elemental right brain functioning. When this occurs, the right brain is challenged to communicate with the left brain. This is problematic for our ELLs because language learning occurs primarily as a left-brain function. When access to the left brain is blocked, language acquisition is compromised.

From an instructional perspective, this is significant. Even with the best curriculum and learning strategies at our disposal, we cannot wholly meet the needs of our students unless we can address underlying issues related to transition shock.

How Can I Be Part of a Solution?

It’s important to note that students’ mental health is a serious and complex issue. As teachers, it’s not our role to diagnose or treat such conditions. However, there is a lot that we can do to mitigate the negative effects of transition shock in the school setting.

Here are some important goals to aim for when creating a learning space that is sensitive to those impacted by significant stress. The good news is that these are beneficial for all students.

A calm, organized environment: For trauma-impacted students, safety and trust are essential foundations of learning. Environment is a large predictor of safety, so order, routine, and predictability are important to students with a history of transition shock.

Tips: Post and make an effort to adhere to class schedules. Prepare students for schedule changes when possible. Organize classroom tools and supplies in labeled bins. Be sure that expectations (and corresponding consequences) are clear and consistent.

Crossing midline activities: Take short breaks for kinesthetic movements that traverse imaginary lines that divide the human body into quadrants, such as touching the right elbow to the left knee. These activities encourage communication between the brain’s hemispheres and aid with emotional regulation.

Tips: Take brain breaks: Have students practice drawing figure eights in the air or stretching the body in ways that cross the midline.

Expressive therapy: Art, drama, and music therapy are among the most promising tools for trauma mitigation. In fact, research points to expressive therapy in the classroom as a way to lessen anxiety, encourage self-regulation, enhance cognition, practice mindfulness, and promote healthy integration. ELLs may especially benefit, as this encourages expression in the new language. These strategies can be embedded into lessons across grade levels and content areas.

Tips: Engage students in creating a class mural related to a topic of study, using math blocks to create patterns, taking photos for a report, designing a webpage or music video related to a topic of study, or designing a building using only certain mathematical angles.

Seek out strengths: All students come to school with knowledge or wisdom based on their life experiences and prior schooling. As teachers, we’re experts at recognizing and building upon students’ unique interests, skill sets, and background knowledge. Learners with trauma backgrounds especially benefit from this intentionality, as it can increase both confidence in self and trust in others.

Tips: Take time to honestly celebrate individual students’ abilities. Offer consistent feedback and provide ongoing structured support. Provide opportunities for students to showcase their skills in ways that benefit others, such as problem-solving design challenges.

Children, regardless of circumstance, native language, or nationality, are remarkably resilient. Many who encounter adverse experiences are able to overcome them or learn to successfully manage their effects. As educators, we can create safe learning spaces and introduce strategies that mitigate the negative impacts of transition shock. In doing so, we become champions for the success of all students.