The purpose of this guide is to equip you with tools and best practices for a trauma-informed pedagogy and classroom. Given the events of the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially important for faculty to recognize how they can support themselves and their students who might be struggling, due to trauma.
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, “70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.” We acknowledge that there are a variety of ways to define trauma, but the most commonly referred definition of trauma is from SAMHSA, or the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration: “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Trauma influences the way we think, feel, act, and react (read: fight, flight, or freeze). Many students are forced to cope without the proper tools in a traditional school setting; and teachers have been ill-equipped to aid these students, which can make the classroom an unsafe, unhealthy learning environment. Studies show that studentswho have faced trauma in their lives struggle to self-regulate, to communicate their emotional state, maintain concentration, stay organized, and they can become distrustful of others. Disorganization and memory loss are also trauma-related responses. Consequently, students’ grades and overall engagement in their courses are at stake, along with important relationships needed for their careers (as students and beyond). If faculty are unable to recognize these signs, their students might miss out on valuable learning time and possibly experience re-traumatization. (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016; Carello & Butler, 2015; Crosby, Howell, & Thomas, 2018; Harrison, Burke, & Clarke, 2020; Patterson, DiBella, Williams, Gray, & Culver, 2020).
The Aspects of a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Related to Higher Education
SAMHSA provides its own tenets, known as the four Rs: Realize, Recognize, Respond, and Resist. A trauma-informed approach realizes the prevalence of trauma, the effects it has on students and faculty, and “the potential paths for recovery;” it recognizes how trauma manifests in student/faculty behaviors; and it responds to and resists re-traumatization by “fully integrating knowledge about trauma” into consistent classroom practices and policies (Honsinger & Brown, 2019).
As faculty members, it is not our job to therapize our students, and a trauma-informed pedagogy does not ask you to become an instructor-therapist. Rather, “a trauma-informed approach recognizes that the environment in which we ask trauma survivors to function is often [the] problem. The goal is to remove possible barriers to learning, not to remove traumatic, sensitive, or difficult material from the curriculum” ((Carello & Butler, 2015, p.265)). We should never expect ourselves to heal our students’ trauma. Instead, we can model for our students a way to mitigate the effects of trauma on their social-emotional health to ensure academic success and prevent further re-traumatization or new traumatization.
In addition to the four R’s, there are five principles to consider in a trauma-informed approach:
Across the board, studies that cover trauma-informed approaches in education emphasize safety and trustworthiness in the classroom. A safe learning environment allows for productive learning and the opportunity for students to engage in healthy self-regulative behaviors when they feel triggered. In one study, “when prompted to specifically link their examples to the five principles, students linked most back to safety or trustworthiness, even when they thought their example also related to choice, collaboration, or empowerment” (Carello, Butler, 2015, p.273). It might be a given, but the impact of a safe learning environment is key and has a profound impact on students’ ability to engage with/in a course. Without it, a trauma-informed pedagogy can fall apart. With it, students are better off managing stress, forming healthier relationships with each other and their instructors. Additionally, it can “help bring the brain back into regulation, allowing [them] to access higher-level thinking;” and it ultimately fosters a sense of connectedness and belonging (Brunzell et al., 2016; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Patterson et al., 2020).
Recognizing Racial Trauma
Atrauma-informed pedagogy can lead an educator to incorporate social justice aspects in their curriculum and classroom. However, a trauma-informed practice is still susceptible to colorblind ideologies if educators and other practitioners are not critical about the effects of racism and racial trauma on students of color, especially students who have been historically excluded from higher education opportunities (e.g., Black, African American, Indigenous and Native American, Hispanic, and Latinx/o/a students). Experiences with racism and microaggressions do not only negatively impact mental and emotional health (Dutil, 2020; Grier-Reed, Said, & Quinones, 2021; Imad 2021), but they also have a deleterious effect on academic outcomes and overall educational attainment for students (Joseph et al., 2020). Grier-Reed et al. (2021) concluded that,
“Resulting from the experience or witnessing of racism, race-based stressors, and/or discrimination, racial trauma is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in symptomology, including symptoms such as flashbacks, helplessness, avoidance, difficulty concentrating, and hypervigilance” (p.12).
In the classroom, this could also look like disengagement or withdrawal from the course, lowered self-esteem, and poor attendance among other indicators (Coleman-King et al., 2021). While these might be similar to non-racial trauma responses, it is important to note that racial trauma does differ because the causes are systemic, affect the individual and the community, and re-exposure is common (Grier-Reed et al., 2021; Harper & Neubauer, 2021).
To learn more about combatting racism, racial implicit bias, and discrimination in the classroom, please refer to our DEI resources.
CTRL’s Starter-Kit for a Trauma-Informed Course and Pedagogical Techniques to Implement
In connection to the first two principles of a trauma-informed approach, ensuring safety and trustworthiness, you’ll want to build relationships with your students, model best practices, and ultimately empower them toward self-efficacy. Research shows that building resilience and self-efficacy is key to helping students affected by trauma succeed (especially students of color), and it is associated with positive outcomes among youths (Ijadi-Maghsoodi et al., 2017). However, educators should remember that building resilience is only one step in the process of supporting students of color who are affected by trauma. A sole focus on resilience without proper foundations and interventions, especially for Black students, can result in a disregard for students’ needs for wraparound or mental-emotional supports (Coleman-King et al., 2021; Dutil, 2020; Imad, 2021).
Faculty should move away from the “sage on the stage” andembody a “guide on the side” mentality to allow for student agency over learning. By collaborating with students on what works best in the classroom or in the course, they regain their sense of control over their own academic growth (Carello & Butler, 2015). Below you will find CTRL’s recommendations to begin your journey into a trauma-informed pedagogy.
We recommend adding a statement to your syllabus and telling your students at the beginning of each semester that you will be implementing a trauma-informed approach. Showing your students how you plan to incorporate trauma-informed practices into the course, along with providing opportunities for them to give you formative feedback on those practices, will set the foundation for safety, trust and collaboration with your students. (Carello & Butler, 2015).
When appropriate, preview and ensure that course content will not trigger students’ trauma responses. If it does, provide a warning, and if necessary, remove content that will discourage student engagement (Carello & Butler, 2015; Crosby et al., 2018).
Dedicate time in class to talk about safety and establish a health-and-safety plan for when stressful or traumatizing events happen in the classroom. Not only will this help you and others in the classroom, but it will also give students a sense of agency over their bodies and emotional responses (Crosby et al., 2018; Brunzellet al., 2016).
Implement late assignment or early feedback policies that do not require a full explanation nor come with a reduced grade. This will help reduce the risk of re-traumatization and feelings of shame around academic excellence, focusing more on growth and learning (Carello & Butler, 2015).
“Conducting regular verbal check-ins with students during the class can help determine how students are doing emotionally and whether adjustments are needed” (Carello & Butler, 2015, p.270).
Respect students’ desire or need to spectate instead of participating during class time. Sometimes a lack of participation is less about being unprepared and more about stress outside of class (Carello & Butler, 2015).
Establish consistent class routines that students can come to depend on (Crosby et al., 2018).
Embed “opportunities into the class routine for students to have some measure of control (e.g., allowing students to choose from a prescribed list of readings, arranging peer tutoring opportunities or partner/group activities that allow students to take leadership in helping their classmates to learn, etc.)” (Crosby et al., 2018, p. 21).
Incorporate mindfulness techniques throughout class time such as deep breathing exercises, and invite students (and yourself) to engage in this practice on an individual-basis. Albeit simple, studies have shown the benefits of this mindfulness technique and a positive response from both student and faculty groups (Anderson, Blitz, & Saastamoinen, 2015;Brunzellet al., 2016).
Implement “brain-breaks” into class time. This can look like having a 5-minute break in the middle of class or splitting students into groups to discuss a lighter topic. (Brunzellet al., 2016).
Anderson, E.M., Blitz, L.V., & Saastamoinen, M. (2015). Exploring a school-university model for professional development with classroom staff. School Community Journal, 25(2), 113-134. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1085667
Barros-Lane, L., Smith, D., McCarty, D., Perez, S., & Sirrianni, L. (2021). Assessing a trauma-informed approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education: A mixed methods study. Journal of Social Work Education, 57(1), p.566-581. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2021.1939825
Brunzell, T., Stokes, H., Waters, L. (2016). Trauma-informed flexible learning: Classrooms that strengthen regulatory abilities. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 7(2), 218-239. http://www.doi.org10.18357/ijcyfs72201615719
Coleman-King, Adams-Bass, Bentley-Edwards, Thomas, Thompson, Michael, Miller, Charity-Parker, and Stevenson. (2021). Got skillz? Recasting and negotiating racial tension in teacher-student relationships amidst shifting demographics. Social Sciences, 10(99). https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10030099
Crosby, S.D., Howell, P., Thomas, S. (2018). Social justice education though trauma-informed teaching. Middle School Journal, 49(4), 15-23. DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2018.1488470
Dutil, S. (2020). Dismantling the school to prison pipeline: A trauma-informed, critical race perspective on school discipline. Children & Schools, 42(3), p.171-178. http://www.doi.org/ 10.1093/cs/cdaa016
Grier-Reed, Said, & Quinones, (2021). From anti-Blackness to cultural health in higher education. Cultural Health in Higher Education, 11(57). https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci11020057
Harper, G. & Neubauer, L. (2021). Teaching during a pandemic: A model for trauma-informed education and administration. Pedagogy in Health Promotion: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1), p.14-24. http://www.doi.org/ 10.1177/2373379920965596
Honsinger, C., & Brown, M.H. (2019). Preparing trauma-sensitive teachers: Strategies for teacher educators. Teacher Educators’ Journal, 12, 129-152. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1209431
Ijadi-Maghsoodi, R., Marlotte, L. Garcia, E., Aralis, H., Lester, P. Escudero, P. & Kataoka, S. (2017). Adapting & implementing a school-based resilience-building curriculum among low-income racial and ethnic minority students. Contemporary School Psychology, 21(3), p. 223-239. http://www.doi.org /10.1007/s40688-017-0134-1
Joseph, A., Wilcox, S., Hnilica, R. & Hansen, M. (2020) Keeping race at the center of school discipline practices and trauma-informed care: An interprofessional framework. Children & Schools, 42(3), p. 161-170. http://www.doi.org /10.1093/cs/cdaa013
Patterson, T.T., DiBella, K.S., Williams, K.G., Gray, K., & Culver, T. (2020). Redesigning educator preparation programs to integrate trauma-informed teaching practices. Journal of Education & Social Policy, 7(3), 108- 113. http://www.doi.org/10.30845/jesp.v7n3p9