Addressing Social Unrest, Hate-Based and Traumatic Events

High-profile events that happen outside the classroom, including hate-based and traumatic events, are bound to make their way to classroom environments, even if they do not seem directly related to your course content. Research into the effect of trauma on learning informs us that trauma greatly decreases people’s ability to learn. Students may experience a lack of focus, become disengaged or withdrawn, or struggle to retain new information due to trauma. It’s also important to note that tragedies and disasters have a strong emotional and cognitive impact on students, even if the students are not directly affected by the catastrophe. 

In responding to these traumatic events, you might feel confused or concerned about your role. It can be difficult to determine which events to respond to, given that many traumatic events occur throughout the course of a semester. Below are a few factors to consider when deciding on what types of events to respond to, with some leading questions: 

  • Proximity – Did the event occur on campus, in DC, or in another space where most students would be aware of it? 
  • Magnitude – Is it a world-wide or national event? 
  • Direct impact – Are your students likely to be involved or know those who are involved? 
  • Identification with victims – Would your students identify with the victims, such as if an event happened at another university?  
  • Disciplinary context – Is this an event that’s related to your course context? For example, if you teach on a topic related to equity, politics, or identity, you have an opportunity to acknowledge the event with students using a disciplinary lens from the course. 

Research into instructor’s responses to traumatic events tells us that, generally, instructors feel confused about their role, and have difficulty deciding on an appropriate response. Some instructors feel a strong urge to do something but may feel ill equipped to determine what is appropriate and advisable. Others feel unprepared and are worried about saying the wrong thing and retraumatizing students or, simply want to move on with course content so that students can focus on their studies. We recognize and validate these concerns and offer strategies and guiding questions below to help instructors craft appropriate responses.  

Value of Responding 

Research into students’ perceptions of their instructor’s responses after catastrophic events indicates that students generally appreciate it when their instructors at least acknowledge traumatic events. Students convey frustration, disappointment, or apathy when faculty don’t respond, and few convey that “doing nothing” is helpful or even appropriate.  

Unfortunately, evidence-based guidance on how best to respond is limited, with much of the research focused on responses after national events, such as 9/11. Yet, students and instructors are all increasingly exposed to instances of police brutality, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, mass shootings, and other hate-based events, and it can be tiring and exhausting to our students to continually discuss them. This is especially true for our most marginalized students, and those who identify with the victims of these horrific events. In these cases, students may prefer to not discuss the event, but likely would appreciate recognition of what occurred, and some supports around it.  

In the strategies section below, we offer some options for instructors to remain cognizant of events and acknowledge them in class, but not force students to have a discussion. How you respond should be in discussion and consultation with your students.  

Guiding questions for constructing your response

Your response should be informed by you, your students, and your course context. As you grapple with crafting an appropriate response, we offer a preliminary, non-exhaustive list of questions to consider below.

  • How will you demonstrate compassion and care for all of your students? 
  • Whose experience are you centering with your response? What impact will your response have on your marginalized students?  
    • Depending on the context of the event, it is important to center the experience and perspectives of those who are a part of the most affected community. For example, when considering how to respond to the murders of George Floyd or Tyre Nichols, instructors should strongly consider the impact their response has on their Black students, or in the case of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, instructors should strongly consider the impact their response would have on their queer/LGBTQ+ students. 
  • Does your discipline have any valuable context or perspective? How can you incorporate this?  
  • Are you making connections within your course to systemic inequalities which are present in all our lives, including, but not limited to, anti-Blackness, police brutality, systemic racism, xenophobia, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and/or sexism? 
  • How will you actively demonstrate your commitment to equity?  
  • What response feels genuine to you, your identity, and your scholarly practice? What are you able to do? 
    • In responding to traumatic events, we typically consider the needs of our students first. However, it’s also important to think about what you as an individual feel capable of leading/facilitating/saying to your students. We recognize that people who identify with the impacted communities may need to prioritize taking their own space to process and protect themselves, outside of their role as an instructor. You should take your own mental health and emotional capacity into account when deciding on how in-depth of a response you would like to have. 
    • Also, depending on your rank, experience, departmental culture, and other factors, you may feel more or less empowered to have an in-depth conversation with your students. In this case, a moment of silence or acknowledgement (described below) may fit you and your students’ needs better than a longer discussion. 

General Strategies

  • Offer extensions on assignments, if possible, and consider repeating key content 
    • Due to the fact that trauma affects students’ ability to learn, focus, and retain information, students may require more time for assignments, or a review of important content. This is especially important with content was covered the day after the event in question.  
  • Advise students that they are allowed to step out of class, if needed, to avoid triggering content or if they need some space. 
  • Extend the offer to talk with students privately, outside of class time 
  • Offer students a moment of silence 
    • While to many a moment of silence feels inadequate, sometimes that is what we can offer, given our own expertise and our course context. We also may consider that some students don’t want to discuss or have a longer conversation about a traumatic event. Therefore, a moment of silence can do the work of acknowledging and showing students you are supportive, without requiring them to engage.  
    • If you do decide to hold a moment of silence, ensure you are explicitly naming what occurred during the event, and not talking around the situation. For example, in the case of Tyre Nichols’ murder, it was important to use the word “murder” and not “situation” or “circumstances” so as to not downplay the severity. 
  • Mention campus resources students may find helpful, such as AU’s Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services 
  • Share with students ways they can help 
    • Donation opportunities for the families/communities affected 
      • GoFundMes for families 
      • Local mutual aid organizations
    • Volunteer opportunities 
      • Such as blood donations, working for the Red Cross, or other organizations, depending on the event 
  • Ask your students what they need  
    • Students may not know what they need or may have difficulty deciding what they want to do during the moment. However, co-constructing a response that centers students is key to developing an anti-racist and equitable classroom environment. You may use an anonymous poll to gather information about what students need and whether they are open to an activity or conversation for processing a particular event. 

Facilitating Discussions

If you decide that discussing the event in class is the proper way forward, it’s okay if you don’t feel like an expert on the issue that you are addressing. You can refer to the lived experience of a group if you are not part of it, honoring their experiences by pointing to statements or anecdotes from those who have directly experienced the issue you are discussing. You may also model an empathetic approach to students: though you do not have the experience being discussed, you can use empathy to understand and humanize the experience on some level. 

During your discussion, emphasize respect, dialogue, reflection, and listening skills to your students. Understand that a resolution is not likely and be prepared to step in if things get heated, offensive, or even tense (HOT). See this resource on preparing for “HOT” moments from Columbia’s CTL to help you prepare. Remind students that respectful behavior is a scholarly expectation for the course, and that students are accountable not only to you for the impact of their statements, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to their classmates.  

If a student does make an ignorant or hurtful comment during the discussion, try ‘calling in’ before resorting to ‘calling out.’ By calling in, you try to pull the positive intentions of a student’s statement, and offer them more thoughtful wording or framing, which invites them to correct themselves and learn from the experience. You may use phrasing such as, “I think I hear what you’re saying, correct me if I’m wrong…” or “I would encourage you to use other wording,” and then offer more respectful language for their expression.  

Importantly, during discussions around traumatic events, ensure that you are not requiring students to participate or speak. Students need different supports, and while some may welcome the opportunity to process this event with their peers, others simply want to get back to course content. Offer students the option to participate in the discussion in a way that works for them, even if that means not participating or leaving the classroom for the duration of the discussion.  

There are a variety of ways to ensure a more equitable discussion, including incorporating writing moments and opportunities to talk in small groups, as described in the following lists. 

Activities to Support Discussions

Anonymous Activities

  • Write and toss (students write down what they are feeling on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and throw it into a pile in the center of the room; students then select a random crumpled-up paper and read the message aloud) 
  • Word cloud 
  • Google doc 
  • Polls 

Identifying, but doesn’t require commentary 

  • Students arrange themselves on a spectrum from ‘agree’ to ‘disagree’ depending on their perspective on an issue 
  • Students prepare and distribute resources to one another 
  • Free writing (though students do not have to turn this in) 

Identifying with commentary  

  • Open discussion 
  • Students submit a reflection on the issue 
  • Students express their reactions creatively (they can select the format that works for them: journal, drawing, poem, recording, etc.) 

Finally, if it aligns with your course objectives and you work with students to create guidelines that facilitate substantive discussion, discussing high-profile events in the classroom can improve engagement and allow students the opportunity to share their valuable perspectives. Check out this piece in CTRL’s publication The Beat where Sahil Mathur discusses how he incorporated real-time analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine into his course. However, you should also consider the effect that intellectualizing traumatic events can have on your most marginalized students. Check out Jane Palmer’s reflections on discussing racism as a white professor and how they center the experiences of their Black students.  

 References and Resources 

  • Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262–278. 
  • Honos-Webb, L., Sunwolf, Hart, S., & Scalise, J. T. (2006). How to help after national catastrophes: Findings following 9/11. The Humanistic Psychologist, 34(1), 75–97. 
  • Huston, T. A. ; D. (2007). 13 in the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 25. 
  • Navigating heated, offensive, and tense (Hot) moments in the classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from 
  • Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (2022). Building Resilient and Inclusive Communities of Knowledge [Pamphlet]. Access Here.  
  • Schuster, M. A., Stein, B. D., Jaycox, L. H., Collins, R. L., Marshall, G. N., Elliott, M. N., Zhou, A. J., Kanouse, D. E., Morrison, J. L., & Berry, S. H. (2001). A national survey of stress reactions after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. New England Journal of Medicine, 345(20), 1507–1512. 
  • Titsworth, S., Quinlan, M. M., & Mazer, J. P. (2010). Emotion in teaching and learning: Development and validation of the classroom emotions scale. Communication Education, 59(4), 431–452.