Trauma-Informed Teaching

Trauma-Informed Teaching

This page was contributed by John Keesler from the School of Social Work

For many of us, 2020 proved to be a year of infamy, from COVID-19 and political unrest, to social and racial injustice. Although the arrival of the vaccination and the new federal administration has brought hope for some, uncertainty and fear continue for others. The ongoing spread of the virus, enduring injustice, and political unrest compound the stress of past adversity and bring about the manifestation of new trauma. Amid this broader context, the University made a profound shift to online learning. This was no easy feat as we scrambled to respond and adjust to this new demand and reality. Although it was stressful for faculty, staff, and students, it is important to consider the potential increased vulnerability among students who may have fewer coping strategies and resources. (Although online learning will be the focus of this article, it is important to remember that this is within the broader context of complex issues and compounded stress. Further, the fundamental content and strategies subsequently discussed can be adapted and applied to in-person learning when the time comes.) 

Online learning can certainly be beneficial, particularly for distant learners or for those who need greater flexibility in course scheduling due to competing work schedules or familial commitments. Yet we know that a number of students prefer in-person learning and the on-campus experience.  However, the broad sweeping shift to online learning amid the pandemic removed a fundamental component to students’ learning experiences: choice. In addition, the isolation associated with physical distancing and online learning has decreased students’ opportunities for social interaction. Social interaction is instrumental for well-being and support to bolster coping and resilience amid stressful experiences. The collective impact of the pandemic on students has yet to be fully realized; however, we can be proactive in how we support them. Trauma-informed care presents a plausible foundation for doing what we do—teaching—even better. 

Trauma-informed care is an approach that grew out of an awareness that sometimes traditional approaches do not work (this first occurred in a psychiatric inpatient unit) and that many people have experienced adverse and traumatic experiences that often have a lasting impact. Trauma-informed care recognizes the pervasiveness and impact of adversity, and emphasizes the importance of interactions based on safety, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and trustworthiness, amid cultural sensitivity. It shifts from asking “what is wrong with you?” to “what has happened?”. Trauma-informed care has been linked to decreased burnout and increased satisfaction, particularly regarding professional quality of life. Despite its roots in behavioral health, trauma-informed care can be and has been applied to teaching and learning.

With trauma-informed care, it is important to begin with a recognition and understanding of adversity and trauma. More than half of the United States’ population has experienced at least one form of maltreatment or household dysfunction before the age of 18. This is true for lifetime exposure to traumatic events as well. More specifically, 60% of college students report being exposed to one or more traumatic events. Why does this matter? Childhood adversity has been linked to poorer outcomes in many domains of adulthood. How is trauma different from adversity? Adversity is a broad categorization of experiences that are stressful. However, trauma refers to not only an event but also the person’s experience of the event. More precisely, traumatic experiences are those that involve a perceived or real threat to one’s life or wellbeing, or that of a loved one, and changes the person physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and/or socially. Because traumatic events are emotionally overwhelming or difficult to make sense of, unexpected and uncontrollable, they are not processed and stored in the brain in the same way as other experiences. Further, traumatic events are often associated with heightened physical and psychological arousal (e.g. fight-flight-freeze response). This arousal is necessary in the immediacy of an event to keep the person alive. However, this arousal can be problematic outside such experiences and can be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. The degree to which trauma impacts the person and the duration of its impact depend on various factors including the person’s perception, their resilience, their genetics, their environment, etc. 

As noted, adversity and trauma can impact a person in varying ways. It is important for faculty and staff to be mindful of potential trauma responses among their students. Such responses can include:

  • poorer grades and falling behind in coursework;
  • increased distractibility and decreased ability to focus;
  • increased sensitivity or reactivity to criticism;
  • lengthy explanations or justifications to simple matters;
  • withdrawal from group activities and discussions;
  • struggling to understand or make sense of a situation;
  • increased negativity, pervasive sadness, or apathy;
  • onset of or increased substance use or risky behaviors; and,
  • poor hygiene and increased isolation.

In addition, it is important for faculty and staff to consider the power differential between them and their students. Instances of conflict with a student can leave the student feeling threatened, abandoned, or unfairly punished. While it is never expected that a faculty or staff member attempt to address these concerns, being aware of such changes in mood, behavior, and productivity, can be a critical step to reaching out to a student or connecting them with services such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Notably, periods of heightened stress combined with decreased social support can increase one’s vulnerability to stress as well as trigger memories and cause emotions tied to past events to erupt. This can often happen outside the person’s control or conscious awareness. Further, the impact of ongoing changes, particularly when COVID took hold, and implementation of new requirements, can lead a person to feeling uncertain and disempowered. Remember, these can be the very outcomes of traumatic experiences.  In addition, the use of computers and cameras can leave some feeling vulnerable and that their privacy is compromised. So, although faculty and staff have worked diligently to ensure a smooth semester, problems are inevitable—COVID has led us into unchartered territory.

Teaching from a trauma-informed perspective has the potential to promote faculty and student relationships as well as student success. With a focus on each principle of trauma-informed care, the following sections discuss various ways to integrate trauma-informed care with a teaching-learning situation.

Safety – When talking about safety, it is important to consider both physical and emotional safety.  The latter is something we don’t often think about. How do we create emotional safety? 

  • Provide students with a space that is confidential, re-assuring, non-judgmental, and free from fear of reprisal or retribution for those who need to talk about their learning and life experiences that are relevant to their academic success. This may mean scheduling an individual time outside of class to meet and being flexible in where/how you might meet with a student – faculty offices can be intimidating and emails lack the opportunity for voice inflection, and the expression of emotions. (Should a student bring up a potentially traumatic experience, help them to contain the experience by limiting the extent to which they get into the details. Going beyond identifying the experience and venturing into the details is not only inappropriate for the academic relationship but also increases the risk that the student may become overly distraught and warrant help beyond the scope of faculty expertise.)
  • Openly acknowledge with students your power as a faculty member or instructor. Remember, you can pass or fail a student.  Consider how you use your power.  Do you use your power to empower or do you use your power to control? (Examples of empowerment are presented a bit later in this discussion.)
  • Promote healthy boundaries in your relationships with students. Faculty and instructors are human beings – students need to know that, without knowing your whole personal history.  What do students know about you?  By sharing some of yourself from outside the educator or researcher role you can begin to personalize who you are.  This can make you more approachable to students.
  • Establish ground rules for online classes and discussion. Allow students, when and where possible, to help create the rules of the online class.  Ensure that everyone knows and understands the rules.
  • Be mindful of potential cultural and gender differences between you and the student and what those differences can communicate and historically have represented for students (e.g. cisgender white male faculty member and a transgender student of color). While you cannot change who you are, it is important to be mindful of how you might be received by a student.

Choice – Choice can lead a person to feel empowered and that their voice matters. With academic freedom, faculty can often get creative in developing different opportunities for students. How can choice be provided with learning?

  • When students work in groups, provide them with parameters but build in some opportunities for choice (e.g. rotation of roles in the group, selection of a particular topic from a list of topics, creation of a final product that demonstrates each student’s contribution, etc.).
  • Provide students with the opportunity to select from different assignments that accomplish the same learning objectives. Allow them to select from different case studies, doing a written paper or an oral presentation, having them write a paper or create an animated video, etc.
  • Be mindful that some topics might be triggering for a student (i.e. related to a student’s trauma and cause unnecessary distress) and forcing students to explore a topic might be contraindicated to their wellbeing and success.  Provide students with opportunities to select, or to discuss with you, other topics. 
  • Provide students with different opportunities to give their feedback on lectures, assignments, etc., if they so choose to share. One strategy could be to use a Qualtrics survey with anonymous response options. However, be sure to follow-up with students!  You can do this by sharing with them the main ideas of the feedback you received and the actions you will take to improve their experiences.  This increases transparency and promotes trust.

Collaboration – Collaboration, like choice, can give a person a sense of agency and a belief that what they contribute to a situation is valuable.

  • Group work provides an ideal opportunity for collaboration, yet many students dislike group work. Groups also have a developmental process (i.e., forming, storming, norming, and performing). Educate students on the effort that goes into creating a functional group.
  • Collaboration allows for peer teaching and learning. Create breakout rooms in Zoom for students to work in pairs or small groups. Identify common interests among students and group them together to work on a given project.
  • Think about creating collaborative opportunities through interprofessional learning with other disciplines. Develop opportunities for students to collaborate with community members (e.g. Sustaining Hoosier Communities).

Empowerment – Learning in and of itself is empowering.  It gives students new knowledge and skills. However, what other ways can the learning environment be empowering of students?

  • As noted earlier, providing students with choices and opportunities for feedback can also be empowering. Consider the type of feedback you give on student assignments.  Is the criticism constructive? Does your feedback identify strengths and provide praise and encouragement? Do you emphasize what a student did wrong or where they can place more energy to continue their growth? Provide strategies and resources to help the student get where they want to go in their learning.
  • Create the structure and expectations for an assignment but allow the student to fulfill that assignment by looking into their own area of interest.
  • Create opportunities for students to give back to others, to make contributions through their assignments to the community, to their peers, etc.
  • Give students the opportunities to provide anonymous peer feedback and opportunities to recognize each other’s strengths. Provide students with the opportunity to do a peer-review of an assignment.
  • Have reasonable workloads without compromising course quality. Be cognizant of the fact that students are taking more than your course. Be flexible but continue to have high expectations; instill in students a sense of confidence that they will meet course objectives and personal goals.

Trustworthiness – While many faculty members and instructors expect respect and trust, the fact is, trust is earned.  How do you earn the trust of your students?  How do you create an environment in which students can trust each other?

  • Be transparent and consistent with your policies, procedures, and expectations. Be sure to have your Canvas course and syllabus clearly laid out, aligned, and easily accessible. Provide students with frequent yet well-balanced communication—avoid overwhelming them with unnecessary emails. Consider sending video messages as an alternative.
  • Provide rubrics to assignments before the assignments are submitted so that students know how points will be allocated and how they will be graded.
  • Do what you say you will do and mean what you say. If you think you might not remember to do something, proactively let students know that what they need is important to you and that it can be helpful if they send you a reminder.
  • Be available so that students can reach out to you. Let them know how and when you will check your email. Respond in a timely manner.  Students need and want fast responses.  If you cannot respond in a given time frame, let them know.
  • Work alongside students; give them feedback early and often. Do not have them do something you yourself would not do. Let them know that what they do matters and is meaningful.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion or list of strategies. Rather, it is a place to begin or to enhance the strategies that you are already using in your teaching. By being trauma-informed in your teaching, you are helping to reduce the potential for recreating past dynamics or experiences for students and to create an environment that fosters resilience, growth, and learning.  When students are in a heightened state of arousal or significant distress, they focus on survival rather than on learning. By creating environments that promote safety, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and trustworthiness, you are bolstering your success as an educator and the student’s success as a learner. 

John Keesler is an Assistant Professor in the IU School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate in the Center for Rural Engagement.


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