Purpose of the Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Guide
The purpose of this guide is to equip you with tools and best practices for incorporating trauma-informed pedagogy into your 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.
How Trauma Challenges Learning
Principles of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy
Implementing a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy
Recognizing and Addressing Cultural 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 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.”
How Trauma Challenges Learning
In order to learn, students must be open to taking in new information, collaborating, and reflecting. Research shows that trauma interferes with this learning process, leaving students unable to take in new information, or apply new information to previously learned concepts. Trauma can also have a severe impact on students’ physical and mental health, affecting memory and making it more difficult to remember concepts. A person dealing with trauma may feel stuck in crisis mode even when they are not actively in danger; for example, when a past trauma is triggered, or when they are dealing with flashbacks.
In these situations, people will often revert to survival instincts such as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Their instincts tell them that they need to focus solely on surviving the crisis, leaving them utterly unable to be present in a classroom learning environment. They are more focused on surviving in this state and will be closed-off from a learning mindset.
Studies show that students who have faced trauma in their lives struggle to self-regulate, to communicate their emotional state, maintain concentration, stay organized, and 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 instructors are unable to recognize these signs, their students might miss out on valuable learning time and possibly experience re-traumatization.
A trauma-informed approach to teaching recognizes that many students and instructors are dealing with different traumas in their everyday lives and creates supportive learning environments in order to validate those experiences and responses.
Principles of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy
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 or alter our content in a way that is not conducive to learning or the field. 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.
There are five principles to consider in a trauma-informed approach to teaching:
- Ensure safety
- Understand and acknowledge trauma
- Maximize choice
- Maximize collaboration
- Prioritize empowerment
These principles are scaffolded, meaning that students need to feel safe and trusting before faculty can offer them choice and collaboration. However, all of the strategies are broadly applicable and important to implement. It may feel most approachable and manageable to integrate the strategies that you think will be most effective and useful to your students and your classroom, however we do suggest starting with ensuring safety if you are unsure of where to start.
Implementing a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy
Principle 1: Ensure Safety
Faculty can increase student sense of belonging and safety in the classroom by building a predictable and respectful learning environment.
Strategies for Predictability:
- Practice transparency
- Students may struggle to engage in a class if they do not understand what is expected of them, or if they are unsure of their stance or grade in class. Practicing transparency can help decrease these concerns and promote student engagement and excitement. If students have a clear idea of how to succeed, why they are performing certain tasks or assessments, and how to improve their performance, they are more able to focus on learning and engaging, rather than anxieties around grades and expectations.
- Bring routine to your class
- Even minor routines can help students focus and engage. Consider starting or ending every class with a reliable practice, such as a check-in on how students are feeling, or a lingering question they have after reviewing that session’s material. Students appreciate consistent deadlines and predictable class routines, such as always scheduling lecture on one day and discussion on the next day or posting weekly announcements so that students know what to expect.
- Incorporate mindfulness techniques
- Consider using class time for mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing exercises. Invite students (and yourself) to engage in this practice outside of class time. Albeit simple, studies have shown the benefits of this mindfulness technique and it has received positive responses from both student and faculty groups. Be sure to guide students through the mindfulness process, as many will be unfamiliar with how to be ‘mindful’ if they are not given questions or suggestions to consider.
- 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. (Brunzell et al., 2016).
- Clarify your availability to students
- Let students know how and under what circumstances to get in touch with you outside of class time. What kinds of questions or concerns should they approach you with? How should they contact you (email, phone, Canvas)? How quickly can they expect a response? When are your office hours and what can students expect when attending? This type of information can be shared both on your syllabus, as well as verbally during class.
Strategies for Respectfulness:
- Include a respectful behavior statement in your syllabus
- This establishes to students that respectful behavior is a component of their scholarly performance in class, which they are practicing as a skill to prepare for professional settings. Student grades will be impacted by how well they demonstrate respectful conduct. Include explicit examples of respectful behavior to help students succeed in this (see transparency, above). View a sample respectful behavior statement here.
- 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; Brunzell et al., 2016). One way to do this is to work with students to establish guidelines for classroom conduct. You may prompt students to share guidelines that they think of, and then add your own. You can post these guidelines somewhere accessible to them, like on Canvas. As part of the process, you might also ask students to brainstorm strategies for responding when the guidelines are violated. How can students compassionately correct one another in such situations? Read more about collaboratively building classroom guidelines here.
- Explicitly share with students that you are 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. It will also signal to students that you are open to, willing to, and available to help, should a mental health situation arise where they need support.
Trauma-Informed Framing of Content
We may sometimes feel compelled to share imagery or content with students which could traumatize or trigger them. Before doing so, consider these questions:
- What are your goals in bringing this content to students?
- How does the content relate to the course learning goals and field at large?
- Why are students interacting with this content? What will they gain from it?
- How can students who are unable to engage with this content (for example, those who opt out of the lesson after being given a warning) still engage with the major takeaway of that lesson?
- What about this content might trigger or traumatize students, and how can you transmit that information to them with enough time and information to decide whether they should opt in or out?
When offering warnings to students, we encourage you to:
- Do so on at least two occasions, through at least two methods (in-person, email, on Canvas), so that students who miss one warning or one class are not surprised.
- Share enough detail that students have a good idea of the content and can make an informed decision about whether to participate.
- Rather than a vague warning such as “we will discuss sensitive content,” name the matter which might be triggering: “we will watch a video that shows graphic images of police brutality”
- Offer students the opportunity to ask you questions about the content in order to make a more informed decision. For example, they may ask you what kind of graphic imagery is shown, what aspects of a topic you will be discussing, etc.
- Offer an alternative assignment or option for all students that can allow them to engage with the primary lesson of that class session without requiring them to view traumatizing content.
Principle 2: Understand and Acknowledge Trauma
- You may explain to students that traumatic reactions are normal in the face of abnormal circumstances. You can also share one or two strategies that you use to deal with trauma to validate that students are not alone in what they are experiencing.
- You can offer students opportunities to check in or share what they’re experiencing, perhaps anonymously. This could be an anonymous Canvas survey or a reminder that they can visit your office hours if they are struggling with something in class.
- Make resources available to students in a place like your syllabus and/or the course Canvas page. These could include resources such as AU’s Counseling Services, this list of hotlines or the SAMHSA website.
Principle 3: Maximize choice
Offering even small choices to students, and allowing flexibility for their circumstances and needs, can help students re-gain some sense of control over their learning experience.
- Build choices into coursework (read more about this on our page about Universal Design for Learning)
- Offer choice in format or topic of assessments, so students can feel empowered to research topics of interest and relevance to their lives
- Offer students the ability to select their partners, if using group work
- Implement equitable late assignment policies
- These policies should not require students to reach out to you or penalize them with reduced grades. 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).
- You can consider offering students a few free late work tokens to use at any point in the semester for any reason
- Provide the option of flexible deadlines to accommodate different students’ schedules and needs.
- Offer students opportunities for review and resubmission
- Offer opportunities to re-submit an assignment with instructor and/or peer feedback integrated. This rewards students for recognizing previous errors and improving over time, rather than leaving them ‘stuck’ with that past error and unable to learn from it. This technique operationalizes the learning process.
- Provide time in class for students to receive peer feedback.
Principle 4: Maximize collaboration
Faculty should move away from the “sage on the stage” and embody 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.
You can encourage connection in your class by offering students low-stakes opportunities to work together. Students can engage in peer feedback before turning in an assignment, for example, or regularly check in with a small group to discuss course content and share questions that they can then discuss with the entire class or instructor. Try not to only allow students to work together under high-stakes circumstances, such as group projects for a major grade. When a grade is on the line, especially a big one, students are likely to be on-edge and focus more on protecting their course grade than on collaborating and learning from one another.
Principle 5: Prioritize Empowerment
If students are struggling to find motivation and understand where they are headed with their education, you can prompt students to imagine a future with themselves in it. Why does it matter that they are a part of that future? Ask them to construct a better future and imagine how they will contribute to it.
If students seem disengaged or unsure of what to do in the course, you can ask them to reflect on one or more of these prompts from trauma researcher Mays Imad, who uses them to help students regain a sense of control:
- What do you feel you can do right now?
- What can you control in your environment right now?
- What matters to you now?
- What is the one thing in this course that you are excited about learning, and are still excited about?
- Can you remind yourself why you started a task and why it mattered to you?
- What is something that is exciting to you that you can hold onto?
- What are some beautiful moments in your life, or things for which you are grateful, that you can document or hold onto?
Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Trauma
Many people are familiar with trauma when it is the result of a direct, personal experience, such as abuse, accidents, illness, and so forth. However, there are types of trauma which pervade marginalized communities as a result of historical and contemporary oppression. For example, many Native and Indigenous communities grapple with trauma in response to centuries of disenfranchisement and colonialism [link], and the Holocaust continues to impact Jewish communities today. Such cultural traumas may be exacerbated for students who have been historically excluded from higher education opportunities (e.g., Black, Indigenous and Native American, Hispanic, and Latinx/o/a students).
Experiences with discrimination and microaggressions do not only negatively impact mental and emotional health but they also have a deleterious effect on academic outcomes and overall educational attainment for students. Writing on racial trauma in particular, 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, expressions of cultural trauma could also look like disengagement or withdrawal from the course, lowered self-esteem, and poor attendance, among other indicators. While these might be similar to non-racial trauma responses, it is important to note that cultural trauma does differ because the causes are systemic, affect the individual and the community, and re-exposure is common.
Research shows that building resilience and self-efficacy is key to helping students succeed (especially students of color), and it is associated with positive outcomes among youths. However, educators should remember that building resilience is only one step in the process of supporting marginalized 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). Additionally, solely focusing on individual resilience can take the ownness away from the very real systemic issues and trauma that people may experience and put it on the individual who has been impacted by the system. We should continue to challenge these unjust systems, while helping our students manage in the current world.
References and Resources
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
Carello, J., Butler, L.D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278. http://www.doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059
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
Frothingham, M.B. (2021). Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn: what this response means. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/fight-flight-freeze-fawn.html. 2021.
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
Harrison, N., Burke, J., & Clarke, I. (2020). Risky teaching: developing a trauma-informed pedagogy for higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. http://www.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1786046
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
Imad, M. (2021). Transcending adversity: Trauma-informed educational development. To Improve the Academy, 39(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/tia.17063888.0039.301
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