Teach to Heal: Explore Limiting Learner Beliefs


As I work on making the transition in a new curriculum from creating safety and building rapport with trauma-impacted adult learners to moving them to action and change, I know that once I have successfully found out what my learners already know,  I'm responsible for taking them some place new. Because my work is primarily centered on behavior change, this some place new will likely require a move from "comforting the afflicted" to "afflicting the comfortable," (Resnicow & McMaster, 2012, pg. 4).

Use a secure attachment to move learners beyond their starting place.

As I ponder this recommendation to harness the trust and safety nurtured in the early sessions to engage learners in critically reflecting upon the beliefs and behaviors that are causing them so much pain and suffering in later sessions, I realize that my challenge is to build the pathway between comfort and affliction without damaging the relationship that makes this opportunity possible.

My task is to design a teaching bridge that starts with the lived reality of my learners, (their COBS), but then moves to extend their consciousness by facilitating their removal of the “blinders of prior experience,” (Sheckley & Bell, 2006, pg. 48).

Plan a series of activities to explore limiting attitudes, beliefs and assumptions.

Cranton (2002) in her article, Teaching for Transformation outlines teaching principles to move learners to more sophisticated ways of thinking. I've used these same strategies to support my trauma-impacted adult learners in moving beyond the no-longer-helpful attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of their prior experience to more fruitful and satisfying strategies for achieving their goals. Cranton's principles are as follows.

  • Start with an attention gaining activity to reveal a conflict between what learners may assume and what they are experiencing.
  • Elicit student assumptions.
  • Support critical exploration of these assumptions, their origins, and the impact of believing them.
  • Ask about willingness to explore alternatives.
  • Explore alternatives, discuss and evaluate evidence supporting alternatives, constructing new knowledge together as a learning community.
  • Support reflection and revision of assumptions so that revised beliefs are more flexible and better supported by the evidence.
  • Act on the revised assumptions using thinking, behavior and language that reflect the more flexible and better justified beliefs.

Accept that you must afflict the comfortable to create a learning opportunity.

With two introductory modules focused on creating a safe environment and secure relationship my goal now is to create learning experiences that help reshape attitudes and behaviors that are survival strategies for trauma-impacted learners but not necessarily useful in helping them achieve their current goals. In other words, I want to put a safe environment and growing relationship to work to take learners some place new, some place that is closer to their goals, hopes and dreams.

While I want to start with learners’ lives to activate their COBS (change-of-body states) and create a “Velcro strip” (Sheckley & Bell, 2006, p. 47) on which to attach new learning, I must create an activity that simultaneously offers a new way of seeing and thinking that challenges limiting beliefs and assumptions. The goal of a trauma-informed curriculum is that learners will get what they need to build increasingly nuanced and justified COBS that will free them from fight, flight and freeze reactions and support them in pursuing and achieving their life goals.

Start with a conflict creating activity and elicit their assumptions.

One way to take this next step from comfort to challenge is to use a conflict creating activity (Cranton, 2002) in which learners experience cognitive dissonance when they compare what they believe to the learning experience you just facilitated. This is very similar to the gain buy-in activity I’ve written about before. These activities can involve a hair-raising story or movie clip that brings them face-to-face with the risks involved with a particular set of limiting assumptions, an inspiring story about someone who has overcome their limiting beliefs and behavior and achieved their goals, a concrete experience that flies in the face of what they may believe, or a cartoon or quote that challenges the validity of what you suspect may be some of their limiting attitudes and beliefs.

Once you have provided this stimulating and focusing wake-up activity and created internal conflict or some level of doubt about the usefulness of their existing beliefs and attitudes, you are ready to help students explore their assumptions further. It is even okay at this point if learners go along for the ride just to prove you wrong. The goal is engagement and motivation. If learners want to prove you wrong that's a win because they can't do that without being engaged!

Support critical exploration of assumptions, their origins and impacts.

Here are questions from Cranton (2002) I have used and can build into my next modules to stimulate discussions that effectively “afflict the comfortable” while protecting the teacher-student relationship and preserving student autonomy and control.

  • What assumptions support your position or belief?
  • What are the consequences of holding those assumptions?
  • Which of these consequences are you experiencing?
  • How well is this position, attitude, belief, or behavior working for you? Is it helping you reach the goals you said were important to you?

Ask about their willingness to explore alternatives.

Once learners have had an opportunity to explore the deep waters of the origins and impacts of potentially limiting beliefs and behaviors, I want to point them towards a new shore by moving the discussion in the direction of alternatives. Some questions I’ve used and can build into this new curriculum include:

  • Are you looking for a different result?
  • What does a desirable result look like to you?
  • Are you interested in looking at some alternatives to help you have the result that’s important to you?

Discussions and activities around all of the above questions are where my most rewarding and nail-biting teaching experiences live.

Trusting the process and sitting with the results of conversations like these takes nerves of steel on the part of a teacher. It helps me to remember that change is a process not a magic moment, and many times my students will come back to class a day or more later to reveal the epiphanies that emerged from the seeds we planted through challenging discussions like those above. I've had this happen over and over again, with adult students in prison classrooms as well as with highly educated professionals involuntary attending a training I was facilitating.

The down time between exploring limiting beliefs and exploring alternatives is a great time for sleep.

The biology of learning science shows that time away; time when learners can sleep on new ideas actually enhances learning by consolidating their memories (Peigneux, Delbeuck & Maquet, 2001). The way I've seen this play out is that when students return to the next class session they are often more motivated to explore alternatives than when they left the previous session. They frequently and voluntarily point out what they thought during the last session, what they are thinking now, and sometimes they even come back with stories of having tried something different as a result of the previous discussion, even before we get to alternatives. This makes the last session's nail-biting discomfort for me worth it! 

This is your learners’ process – you are the wise guide on the side.

Please notice that I’m not advocating lecturing, telling, leading or dragging your students anywhere. The goal is not to tell them what to think. Instead we are facilitating their own self-discovery process. Through our secure relationship and structured classroom processes, we are simply holding a safe space and guiding them in an exploration of what isn’t working in their beliefs and behaviors, without judgment.

Create plans for managing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

When I’ve done this, I’ve also made sure to help students manage the anxiety or grief that can come up when they tread into these waters. I’ve already taught some mindfulness based stress reduction activities BEFORE we explore limiting beliefs and behaviors. We have already practiced these activities as a group when we aren’t upset – usually at the start of each session. We’ve also had opportunity to use them when we are, as I will stop class and lead these activities if we need them.  For especially challenging discussions, I also make sure we do some post-class planning for self-care. I might ask:

  • What are you going to do after class?
  • Who will you see and spend some down time with?
  • What are your plans for eating, relaxing, exercising and rest?
  • Who is a safe, supportive person with whom you can spend time today or this evening?

Finally, I offer affirmations and reminders about their ability to grow their own brains and that change often comes with discomfort and disequilibrium but that upcoming sessions and activities will help them build new skills and strategies that will help them reach the goals they say are important to them.

With your safe classroom and the ongoing nurture of your safe teaching relationship, your students can do this.

With attention to classroom safety and the teacher-student relationship,  trauma-impacted learners can endure the chaos and discomfort of having their worldview challenged. Held in the safety of a nurturing teacher-student relationship and a predictable, ordered learning environment, they not only survive the challenge but also create their own readiness for exploring and testing out more adaptive, nuanced responses to life within and around them. Here are some evidence based findings from curricula I've written in which these strategies helped trauma-impacted adult learners achieve their goals.


Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. New directions for adult and continuing education, (93), 63-72.

Peigneux, P. , Laureys, S., Delbeuck, X., & Maquet, P. (2001). Sleeping brain, learning brain. The role of sleep for memory Systems. Neuroreport, 12(18). Retrieved 12-6-16 from http://www.coma.ulg.ac.be/papers/sleep/Sleep%26Memory_NeuroReport2001.pdf     

 Resnicow, K. & McMaster, F. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Moving from why to how. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9:19. Retrieved 12-5-16 from http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/9/1/19

Schroeder, C. M. (2005) Summary of CHAPTER 4: Evidence of the transformational dimensions of the scholarship of teaching and learning: Faculty development through the eyes of SoTL scholars, In S. Chadwick-Blossey & D. R. Robertson (Eds.), To improve the academy, resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development. Retrieved 12-5-16 from http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Tomprof/postings/621.html

Sheckley, B. G., & Bell, S. (2006). Experience, consciousness, and learning: Implications for instruction. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 53-61). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.