Shouldn’t it be the adult learners’ responsibility to handle their mental health needs so they can access learning? Why should an ID even take mental health into consideration? Alumni, Mandy Brown, shares her answer.
When you design for learners, how often do you consider burnout? How often do you consider trauma? What about your learners’ survival responses? These are all questions I had to consider on a daily basis when I worked for a restorative justice center.
I tend to use “trauma,” “burnout,” and the “survival response” interchangeably when I speak with mentees at IDOL courses Academy. And while there is a Venn diagram of the three, some quick definitions might help.
The survival response (also called the stress response) is that deeply rooted instinct when one responds to danger, the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses. We have no control over its appearance in our lives. It shows up when we’re in traffic, when our loved one texts “Hey, can we talk,” when a loud noise surprises us. It’s a natural human response meant to keep us safe from harm by giving us a burst of energy so we can make the life-saving, split-second decisions we need.
For many learners, the repeated activation of the survival response has led to burnout. Sometimes what repeatedly activates the survival response is traumatic. That trauma could be one moment or prolonged and complex. It can even be perpetrated by one’s community.
Trauma impacts child development in a multitude of negative ways. And trauma has the ability to create cognitive decline in adult brains. Think back on how the pandemic affected your cognitive ability. We’re going to be dealing with the effects of that collective trauma for a while.
How well does a brain in trauma or burnout learn? How receptive is that person to training or change?
I’m not talking about creating training around the survival response, burnout, and/or trauma, though that may help. I’m talking about all our designs.
How effective will onboarding be for a burned-out employee? Unless your company has new hires take vacation before they even start, you are onboarding burned-out employees.
Dunning-Kruger’s Valley of Despair isn’t just frustration. For learners in trauma and/or burnout, it’s their survival response kicking in to keep them safe. That person isn’t going to learn, which is why it’s important for instructional designers to be trauma-informed in their designs.
I anticipate pushback to this idea. After all, shouldn’t it be the adult learners’ responsibility to handle their mental health needs so they can access learning? Why should an ID take responsibility for that?
To these questions, I offer my own. Would you expect a learner to learn your language in order to access the learning experiences? Would you expect a deaf associate to get cochlear implants so they can participate? Does the company culture encourage taking all PTO? Does the leadership consider mental health days sick leave? Does your company even have any mental health benefits? Do all your learners make enough to pay for therapy? Does your company culture actively root out microaggressions, racism, and other sources of trauma in the workplace?
Trauma and burnout are community problems that manifest in an individual. Ignoring trauma in our designs creates inaccessibility and expands inequity within L&D.
Being trauma-informed means recognizing that events outside of our learners’ control have influenced their ability to access the content. It means choosing to bridge that gap.
And here are a few ways to start:
Above all, advocate cultural change within your organizations. We don’t want our organizations perpetuating the very thing we’re trying to alleviate. L&D has the potential to influence across the business and create real change, but only if we’re willing to step up.
💜Mandy Brown (she/her) is a fiercely neurodivergent, trauma-informed, all-boats-rise kind of person. You can see some of her work here, and she’d love to connect on LinkedIn. 😉