June 13 2024

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy of Courage, Connection, and Celebration: Using the Narrative Exercise of the “Tree of Life”

AHyun Lee, Indiana Wesley University

illustration of a group of masked people

In this article, I focus on the narrative exercise of the “tree of life,” which I facilitate in the course “Pastoral Care and Counseling in Intercultural Contexts.” This course is offered for students who seek their career as a pastoral caregiver, a pastoral counselor, or as a professional clinical counselor. This course has learning objectives that acknowledge human experiences cannot be separated from cultural, historical, and intergenerational trauma because of wars, colonialization, slavery, immigration, etc. At the same time, this classroom becomes the experimental space of self-awareness, where students acknowledge how they have been influenced by their trauma. Students develop an individual cultural competency to engage with empathic listening and a caring presence to the complexity of trauma of each human person's unique blend of race, class, gender, age, spirituality, religious belief, ability, sexual orientation, life experience, national/regional identity, and power differential.

Learning and teaching intercultural pastoral care and counseling is the ongoing reflective process of forming and reforming who a pastoral caregiver is with people in the time of crisis and trauma. My relationship with students often becomes a hypothetical therapeutic relationship where we both seek healing, growth, and transformation by realizing individual and collective trauma and resisting re-traumatization, and by responding and recognizing the presence of strength and resilience.

Teaching Strategy

I design my course of intercultural pastoral care and counseling based on a trauma-informed pedagogical approach with three key values: courage, connection, and celebration.

Creating a safe space is essential preparation. My teaching strategy begins with deconstructing the myth of the classroom as a safe space and promoting the safe space as a brave space. It involves a movement from being secure to vulnerable, protected or guarded to curious, and persuasive or intellectual to ambiguous and emotional. Students need to be open and decide to create a safe space with courage; the classroom becomes a brave space where they hold each other's scars and wounds while creating a safe learning community. It becomes the foundation where students can explore the prevalence of trauma individually and collectively and empower the presence of strength and resilience. I invite students to join in reading the poem "An Invitation to Brave Space," by Micky ScottBey Jones at the end of the first class.1 This activity helps students prepare to open themselves and increase their ability for self-regulation and self-efficacy.

Based on the shared commitment to creating a safe space with courage, I invite students to experience the connection in small- or whole-group discussions where students develop their listening skills. The discussions in this course include difficult topics such as racism, the objectification of women's bodies, intersectionality, whiteness, or interconnected oppression. For example, the discussion about race can allow students to share their experiences with race, racial identity, and ethnicity and understand why racism is a traumatic experience. Students can learn how to listen and to be listened to by sharing their experiences and appreciating the raw emotions of others. Rather than suppressing anger, listening practices in the discussion allow students to embrace raw emotions when they come up, address the psychological significance to be aware of those emotions, and to connect to each other by sharing unifying and liberating experiences.

Each listening practice becomes a powerful way to connect with the traumatic experiences of others and build up the learning community. It provides opportunities for students to form individual and collective wisdom to regulate stress by narrating their traumatic experiences and by recognizing different coping skills while fostering support systems with classmates. Students experience the acceptance with nonjudgement and without prejudice or bias by intentionally creating a safe space with courage. They increase the sense of community and relational connection. Listening practices in small and group discussions become a small trauma-informed care community where students practice collaboration and develop their resilience from trauma through relational connections and a sense of belonging toward inner and collective growth.

I have found students experience solidarity and bonding as a result of this exercise. Students begin to understand themselves as allies and advocates for each other. They learn to recognize how people bring their strength and resilience into the pastoral care relationship and not to pathologize people with the problem-based assessment. They also put knowledge and theoretical concepts of cultural studies into counseling practices by engaging in courageous cultural conversations. Further, they begin to resist problematic narratives of retraumatization by drawing from cultural resiliency and connecting to the collective healing wisdom of each other.  

Then, a trauma-informed pedagogy shouldn't dismiss the importance of celebration. A teacher and students need to affirm and appreciate that they have worked together to build the learning community. This leads students to increase their growth and capacity to understand themselves in positive ways. Also, their collaboration and empowerment within the learning community needs to be celebrated in the classroom. It is crucial to have visual documentation of celebrations for people who recovered from traumatic experiences and restored their sense of self by improving their health, wellness, and flourishing with their strengths and resilience. 

I use the narrative exercise of the “tree of life” to create the visual documents for celebration. This exercise is to honor students' collaborative works building up the learning community in the last class. This exercise reaffirms the student's voice, choice, and agency for resisting and responding to trauma in intercultural contexts. At the same time, students share their future accountability extending their works as a pastoral caregiver toward social justice for the community. They share the commitment of empowerment and collaboration.

Here is the guideline for this class activity with the “tree of life.” Imagine drawing a picture of a large tree. This visual metaphor of a tree represents the individual's life and the various elements that make it up—past, present, and future throughout this course. It includes the roots, the ground, tree trunk, branches, leaves, fruit or flowers, and storms or bugs. Each student draws their tree based on this guideline about where they have grown and transformed. 

  1. Roots are a metaphor for where you are from, who impacted your choice to take this course, when you decided to be a pastoral counselor, etc. 
  2. The ground is a metaphor for writing on the course topics and concepts for each lesson.
  3. The trunk symbolizes your skills and abilities as a pastoral caregiver. You write the values at the base of the trunk going up, transitioning into listing your skills with cultural competency learned through the course. This illustrates the growth as a pastoral caregiver in intercultural context during the course from roots to values to skills.
  4. Branches represent your hope. In the course introduction, you shared the reason you chose this course. At the end of this course, you list your learning outcomes, which give a glimpse of what you have learned and achieved.
  5. Leaves symbolize who helps you grow and what comments or feedback inspired your learning process.
  6. Fruits or flowers reflect the specific next step you are planning to take as a result of this course.
  7. Storms or bugs illustrate the moments you feel intense or uncomfortable and what have you taken and reflected on from those moments.

Each student draws their tree of life before the last class and brings it back to the class. There, students share their stories of the process of learning, the learning achievement, and the next steps they take from the course. Then, the trees the students drew are displayed on the board. After all the students have completed the exercise, there are many trees that illustrate a forest symbolizing the learning community.

In the virtual setting, a teacher can use different approaches. One way is to use a Prezi program. I ask to upload them to the online course systems. Then, I collect and use a Prezi program which is effective in visualizing each tree and all trees like a forest. The other is to use a Zoom setting. Each student shares their tree drawing on the screen, and all students show their trees on the screen and take a group picture with all trees.

This class exercise helps a teacher to offer trauma-informed care, which allows students to exercise and regain their strengths and agency to choose which story they like to share while creating a learning narrative in the present. This exercise provides the safe place with courage where they can talk about their struggles and pains, and where they are not retraumatized, but rather feel connected, healed, and empowered as the author of their stories for recovery and transformation.

Background and Theory

There are two reasons I chose the narrative exercise of the tree of life for trauma-informed teaching and learning in theological education and religious studies. First, this narrative exercise has proved useful and helpful to provide trauma-informed care and is used in a wide range of countries across Africa, and also in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Nepal, the United States, and elsewhere. The narrative exercise of the tree of life2 was co-created through a partnership between REPSSI in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Dulwich Centre Foundation in Adelaide, Australia.3 It is grounded on the narrative therapy theory developed by David Denborough and Michael White at Dulwich Centre Foundation. Ncazelo Ncube, a child psychologist, and David Denborough, one of the founders of narrative therapy theory, initially develop this tree of life exercise. The purpose of this exercise is to help colleagues who work with children who are affected by HIV/AIDS and experienced the traumatic loss of their parents.

This exercise has served various populations in many different contexts, including people with traumatic experiences of immigration or refugee status; children within Indigenous communities; communities that suffered natural disasters; young people who have been expelled from school; and children who have been subject to domestic violence, neglect, physical or emotional abuse within their families.

Secondly, narrative therapy theory places emphasis on strength and the agency of people's stories, not focusing on the problem. It underlines how people tell their stories and whose stories shape people's identity. Through making a choice which story a person likes to share, they experience a sense of agency to resist retraumatizing experiences. A narrative therapeutic approach helps students externalize their problems, not only their inner struggles but also the outside structural and cultural challenges. People seek to create their preferred stories about themselves and find the meaning and value of their stories. People are the experts of their own life stories and hae the agency to lead to positive change and transformation.

The narrative therapeutic approach emphasizes the process of meaning-making and creating alternative narratives with positive change. It relies on the value of who a person is and what a person wants to become. When a person experiences trauma and feels disempowered by the threat of trauma, they engage in emotional, behavioral, cognitive, developmental, and social/interpersonal survival psychological reactions. Traumatic stress and anxiety bring a sense of loss, including a loss of agency, a loss of relational intimacy, a loss of social functions, a loss of a profound sense of power, etc. Prolonged traumatic experiences increase the risk of mental health issues. It affects the sense of being, the sense of others, and the sense of the community and the world. The narrative exercise, a tree of life, is used to restore a more accurate and positive self-narrative. Students create a positive future picture of themselves and their relationship with others. Also, it affirms a communal narrative with collective wisdom as a support system in the learning community. It can be modified to any general education course, not only for PhD students who work at integrating theoretical research and cultural anthropology, but for an undergraduate who wants to improve their health and wellness, live their life with agency, and flourish with their full potentiality.

Conclusions and Extensions

In sum, a trauma-informed pedagogical approach with the tree of life exercise is about underlining three core values of courage, connection, and celebration. Creating a safe space with courage is the foundation for recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, regulating stress and anxiety and resisting retraumatization. So, students and a professor can navigate the process of recovery and healing by learning from and with each other. A trauma-informed pedagogical approach is about restoring and recovering relational connections. Having a sense of connection leads students to learn different coping skills from each other and establish support systems as the resources of the collective wisdom. Lastly, a trauma-informed pedagogy shouldn't dismiss the importance of celebration. A teacher and students need to affirm and appreciate that they have worked together to build the learning community. This leads students to increase their growth and capacity to understand themselves in positive ways. Also, celebration reveals their collaboration and empowerment.

A trauma-informed pedagogy helps students to extend their identity by becoming allies and advocates for each other, empowering people by enhancing an agency toward cultural and social transformation for social justice and collaborating to remove barriers and promoting accessibility to resources and power with choices. When a teacher and students appreciate a trauma-informed learning process, the classroom becomes sacred where students and I experience mutuality with a sense of dignity and equity as we engage each one’s trauma with the radical action of love through listening to and being listened to, and learning from and with each other for healing while transforming ourselves, others, and the community.



1 Micky ScottBey Jones & The People’s Supper Samily, Collective Care in the Face of Violent Trauma, June 2017, 6, https://episcopalchurch.org/files/documents/collective_care.pdf.

2 David Denborough, Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to Individuals, Groups, and Communities Who have Experienced Trauma (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 2008), 71–98.

3 Regional Psychosocial Support Initiatives (REPSSI), https://repssi.org/.

Select Recommended Resources

Brunzell, Tom, Helen Stokes, and Lea Waters. "Shifting Teacher Practice in Trauma-Affected Classrooms: Practice Pedagogy Strategies Within a Trauma-Informed Positive Education Model." School Mental Health 11 (2018): 600–614. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-018-09308-8

Minahan, Jessica. "Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies, Making School a Safe Place," Educational Leadership 77, no. 2 (October 2019): 30–35. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct19/vol77/num02/Trauma-Informed_Teaching_Strategies.aspx.

Morgan, Ann, Donna Pendergast, Raymond Brown, and Deborah Heck. "Relational Ways of Being an Educator: Trauma-Informed Practice Supporting Disenfranchised Young People." International Journal of Inclusive Education 19, no. 10 (2015): 1037–1051.

Fallot, Roger D., and Maxine Harris. Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care. Community Connections, Inc, 2009.

Whitington, Victoria, and Elspeth McInnes. "Developing a 'Classroom as Community' Approach to Supporting Young Children's Wellbeing." Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 42, no. 4 (December 2017): 21–29. https://doi.org/10.23965/AJEC.42.4.03.

AHyun LeeAHyun Lee is an assistant professor of pastoral care at Wesley Seminary in Indiana Wesleyan University. Her scholarly research, clinical and ministerial experiences, and teaching experiences are grounded in interdisciplinary studies in the psychology of religion, psychoanalysis, intercultural studies, feminist and womanist theories, Asian theology, and practical theology. Lee is an Elder in the United Methodist Church in Wisconsin and a licensed professional counselor, and she has completed numerous professional certifications. Her ongoing research is in interdisciplinary methods in transnational and multicultural counseling in global and postcolonial contexts. Her book Selves in Between: Offering Care and Forging Bonds with Difference is forthcoming and will be published by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She can be contacted at ahyun.lee@indwes.edu.