Trauma-Informed Teaching

Among college students, 64-94% have experienced at least one traumatic event, events they struggle to make sense of, feel they are unable to escape, and may even undermine their sanity or threaten their lives. As college professors, being trauma-informed teachers includes understanding the effects of trauma on student learning and behavior, as well as designing teaching policies and practices that will minimize the impact of trauma on learning and help students thrive. (See paragraph 1 citations here.)

In addition to increasing the risk of depression, substance abuse, and other mental health struggles, exposure to trauma is correlated with lower GPAs and higher likelihood of dropping out, and directly impacts the learning process. Neurobiological effects of trauma or retraumatization inhibit students’ ability to remember or recall, think logically, and process information. Fortunately, decades of research on trauma-informed practice in other fields, including K-12 education, provides guidance and direction on how we can develop trauma-informed higher education courses, departments and programs, and universities. (See paragraph 2 citations here.)

Principles for Trauma-Informed Practice

Trauma-informed teaching practices go beyond accessibility by tapping into the definition of trauma and helping students “re-establish a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (Carello, 2020). Importantly, trauma-informed teaching practice does not position us as counselors or suggest that we should help a student process their personal experience of past traumatic events. Instead, we can leverage general principles of trauma-informed teaching to design courses that will reinforce these qualities in the student learning experience. The chart below by Dr. Janice Carello (2020) offers seven principles of trauma-informed teaching and learning principles for higher education.

seven principles of trauma-informed teaching and learning principles for higher education by Dr. Janice Carello (2020)

Each of these principles can be enacted in a variety of ways, depending on the dynamics, population, and content of your course. Aligned practices can be found on the How do we teach?, Using Structure for Inclusive Teaching, Creating a Classroom Climate to Support Learning and Supporting Student Mental Wellness in Our Faculty Roles CATL website pages.

During Times of Collective Trauma

Events such as terrorist attacks, school shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic, acts of racial violence, climate change and its attendant natural disasters, and political division and animosity can cause collective trauma that weighs on us and our students and inhibits learning. Regardless of the course or discipline, one major survey suggested that many students appreciate when faculty meaningfully acknowledge these events in class (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). This can range from pausing class for a moment of silence and checking in with students to learn how they are individually affected (immediately), to bringing the event into conversation with class content and discussing it in that context (after the initial shock passes).

Since students would be less capable of learning new material in the initial wake of a collective tragedy, providing them with extensions or excusing them from class reduces their stress and allows them to produce work later that better reflects their normal abilities and study habits.

– Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p.218

Systematic self-reflection can play a key role in encouraging students to make meaning of these experiences in ways that foster greater resilience, including skills and mindsets to lean on in difficult times in the future (Crane et al., 2019). Crane and colleagues (2019) gather up much research on resilience and reflection to posit a Systematic Self-Reflection model that we might apply to the design of reflective activities to help students process their experiences:

  • Cultivate self-awareness: An essential first step to developing resilience is honing our awareness of our own experiences and behaviors, including our reactions to a stressful event or experience.
    • Beginning class with a few minutes of mindful breathing can help students to arrive in the classroom, become aware of their internal experience, and reset their attention for learning.
    • After some practice, this might include asking students to freewrite about:
      • their emotional and physiological experiences related to academic stressors such as an upcoming exam or a “hot” moment in the classroom,
      • the assumptions they might have about what that stressor means (based on beliefs such as growth or fixed mindsets, locus of control, or even whether that event represents a threat to their safety or success),
      • and what they did in response to that stressor, or common approaches they have to responding to or coping with similar stressors.
  • Identify triggering events: Being able to pinpoint, with as great a degree of accuracy as possible, the types of events associated with our stress is a critical antecedent to identifying effective coping mechanisms.
    • As faculty, we might prompt students to consider or keep track of specific events or situations they experience as stressors, both inside our courses and beyond.
  • Reappraisal: Revising our initial interpretations of and assumptions about a stressful event or situation allow us to adapt. Specifically, the Systematic Self-Reflection model focuses on what we might learn from that event and how that learning might be of use or benefit in the context of our values and goals. This step might also be associated with making meaning of an event for ourselves or letting go of an outcome or experience in order to move on.
    • Asking students to identify opportunities for developing transferrable life skills out of classroom challenges can help facilitate the reappraisal process.
    • We might also prompt students to make explicit the story they are telling themselves about the meaning of a stressful or upsetting event (such as receiving a low grade), what alternative stories might be possible, and which story would be most beneficial for their future success.
  • Evaluation and future focus: This reflective process finally invites us to consider which elements of our stress response moved us closer to enacting our own values or achieving our goals. For those that have not been effective by this metric, we might then brainstorm alternative approaches or coping mechanisms to try in the future.
    • In the classroom, for example, students might respond to stress by disengaging, even though they enjoy and benefit from interaction with their peers and professors. Reflecting on which of their classroom behaviors are coping mechanisms for stress, whether those behaviors are helping or hindering their learning and well-being, and which behaviors they might want to change might prime them to increase their participation in discussion and activities.
    • Prompting students to consider campus resources such as tutoring, counseling support groups, identity centers, and chaplains associated with different faiths can normalize help-seeking and increase students’ likelihood of reaching out.

Depending on how much time we have, how acute or widespread we believe the experience of trauma is among our students at any given moment, and the ways in which that trauma is impacting the learning environment, we might prompt students to reflect on all or just a few of the components described above, and to include reflective activities frequently or only on occasion. It can be helpful to remember that your role in this reflective process is not to help students make sense of their experience, as a mental health professional might, but simply to create space and structure within the course for that processing. For that reason, grading or giving feedback on, or even collecting these reflections may be inappropriate in this context.

Since these reflections may be deeply personal or involve substantial vulnerability, it can be helpful to let students know ahead of time whether or not you will collect and read their reflections and explicitly encourage them to share as much or as little as they choose in pairs or small groups in any debrief. These practices allow each student to make decisions about how much disclosure they are comfortable with in that context. Finally, allowing students to opt out of the reflection or any subsequent discussion respects their agency and allows them to avoid experiences they are not comfortable with at that time.

Works Cited

Paragraph 1 Citations:

Bernat, J. A., Ronfeldt, H. M., Calhoun, K. S., & Arias, I. (1998). Prevalence of traumatic events and peritraumatic predictors of posttraumatic stress symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(4), 645-664.

Butler, L. D., Carello, J., & Maguin, E. (2017). Trauma, stress, and self-care in clinical training: Predictors of burnout, decline in health status, secondary traumatic stress symptoms, and compassion satisfaction. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(4), 416.

Carello, J. (2020, Apr. 6). Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning in Times of Crisis. Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from https://traumainformedteaching.blog/.

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2014). Potentially perilous pedagogies: Teaching trauma is not the same as trauma-informed teaching. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15(2), 153-168.

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278.

Frazier, P., Anders, S., Perera, S., Tomich, P., Tennen, H., Park, C., & Tashiro, T. (2009). Traumatic events among undergraduate students: Prevalence and associated symptoms. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(3), 450.

Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (Eds.) (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Read, J. P., Wardell, J. D., Vermont, L. N., Colder, C. R., Ouimette, P., & White, J. (2013). Transition and change: Prospective effects of posttraumatic stress on smoking trajectories in the first year of college. Health Psychology, 32(7), 757.

Smyth, J. M., Hockemeyer, J. R., Heron, K. E., Wonderlich, S. A., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2008). Prevalence, type, disclosure, and severity of adverse life events in college students. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 69-76.

Paragraph 2 Citations:

Carello, J. (2020, Apr. 6). Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning in Times of Crisis. Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from https://traumainformedteaching.blog/.

DeBerard, M. S., Spielmans, G. I., & Julka, D. L. (2004). Predictors of academic achievement and retention among college freshmen: A longitudinal study. College student journal, 38(1), 66-81.

Duncan, R. D. (2000). Childhood maltreatment and college drop-out rates: Implications for child abuse researchers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15(9), 987-995.

Groner, M.R., Blackburn, J., Hoffstetter, C., & Ferrante, D. (n.d.). Trauma-informed care and practices in school-based settings. [Presentation slides]. Retrieved from https://slideplayer.com/slide/6875536/.

Remaining Citations:

Crane, M. F., Searle, B. J., Kangas, M., & Nwiran, Y. (2019). How resilience is strengthened by exposure to stressors: The systematic self-reflection model of resilience strengthening. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 32(1), 1-17.

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To improve the academy, 25(1), 207-224.