Trauma-Informed Teaching

In these times of crisis, we are more aware than ever before of the kinds of traumas students are regularly experiencing outside of the classroom: community violence, domestic violence, sex trafficking, serious and chronic medical conditions, natural disasters, neglect, physical abuse, displacement and refugee trauma, school violence, sexual abuse, terrorism, loss of a loved one/traumatic grief, etc. The model of trauma-informed care is rooted in the principles of safe environment, belief, resilience, and support. This guide explores the application of trauma-informed care to teaching and learning, underscoring how trauma-informed principles support all students and help to de-stigmatize mental health concerns like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, among other related conditions.

The Prevalence of Trauma 

By the time they reach college, 66 to 85 percent of youth report lifetime traumatic event exposure, with many reporting multiple exposures (Davidson, 2017; Read, Ouimette, White, Colder, & Farrow, 2011; Smyth, Hockemeyer, Heron, Wonderlich, & Pennebaker, 2008) 

College students are particularly vulnerable to experiencing a new potentially traumatizing event (PTE); as many as 50 percent of college students are exposed to a PTE in the first year of college (Davidson, 2017; Galatzer-Levy et al., 2012). 

Recognizing the Signs of Trauma

Trauma manifests in many ways. It could look like a survivor seeming detached and calm; sensitive, with hurt feelings; suspicious and untrusting; or unable to ‘read’ or trust warmth and caring from others. When someone is experiencing a trauma response, they may: 

  • Not be able to talk to you about what is happening 
  • Not notice what is happening 
  • Not know what will help or think that nothing will 
  • Need some time alone or be comforted by having you near 
  • Feel too upset or overwhelmed to interact with you 
  • Not want to say what they need because they do not feel safe enough, they want to protect you, or they may believe that it’s not worth the risk to say 

(Source: National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health, December 2011) 

15 Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

  1. Give trigger warnings for content that may affect student feelings of safety.
  2. Make referrals to appropriate campus or local support services  
  3. Give choices for participation in class activities. 
  4. Give alternative assignments for students who need accommodations. 
  5. Check in with students who are exhibiting signs of trauma. 
  6. Acknowledge current events that could be triggering or affect feelings of safety for students. 
  7. Be inclusive when discussing topics related to identity, relationships, family, and home.
  8. Avoid romanticizing--or problematize the romanticization of--trauma narratives. 
  9. Model positive relationships.  
  10. Ask questions and listen to students instead of making assumptions (don’t assume students experiencing trauma are bad students).  
  11. Normalize and validate feelings that come from experiencing trauma. Normalize help-seeking.  
  12. Maintain high, consistent expectations even when making accommodations (make clear where there is and is not flexibility; acknowledge limits and hard lines). 
  13. Be transparent about your role and what you can/cannot do by maintaining appropriate boundaries (Teachers are not counselors; we are not experts on students’ feelings). 
  14. Be trustworthy and reliable to help build trust with students over time (but don’t expect instant trust). 
  15. Think about the cultural references and examples you use in class and how they may be triggering to students. 

Reviewing Classroom Policies

Trauma-informed pedagogy requires you to be transparentflexibleconsistent, and compassionate in your relationships with students (and in the policies that inform those relationships). In light of the readings completed for this unit, please review either your course syllabus or one of your "high-stakes" assignments, completing the following steps in order:

  • What policies (including grading rubrics, etc.) are in place here? What kinds of relationships do these build with learners?
  • What kinds of external, institutional and/or internal, personal limits are in place? What are you free to redefine or renegotiate?
  • How can I clearly, compassionately, and consistently communicate the expectations of my "firm" policies? 
  • How can I further develop or adjust (or revise altogether) one or two of my flexible policies to better support all learners, including those who have been traumatized?

Key Steps for Postsecondary Educators

Educators seeking to meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma can take steps to

  1. connect students to the school community (available campus and community resources & supports); 
  2. provide students with opportunities to practice their skills (for example, in self-reflection or in growth mindset); 
  3. embrace teamwork and shared leadership (empower and encourage all students to contribute); 
  4. anticipate and adapt to the changing needs of the students and the community (practice responsive pedagogy; be flexible with content and policies and build alternative learning experiences into the lesson plan). 

(Source: Hoch et al., 2015) 

A Note on Mandatory Reporting at UWL

Instructors should be upfront throughout the semester (and remind students often) of their mandatory reporting status. Give students an alternative to indicate a need for resources: for example, remind them to them tell you that they need to speak to a confidential reporter rather than having to disclose specifics of an assault. If a student does disclose specific information regarding an assault, be open and transparent about the need to share the report with the Violence Prevention Office and remind them that simply reporting the incident does not necessitate that they pursue legal or disciplinary action. It simply means that the Violence Prevention Office will follow up with them directly and confidentially. 

Recommended Reading

© 2020 Kate Parker, Lindsay Steiner & Bryan Kopp