Students are carrying considerable stress and trauma into learning spaces. Somewhere between 66% to 85% of college students have experienced trauma firsthand, in their own lives. Some of the sources of this trauma cut across all students—the stresses of college, for example, or the effects of the COVID pandemic, for example. Others, like systematic racial inequities and oppression, may affect some groups of students more than others. And some of those experiences may make students more susceptible to retraumatization specifically when the news is difficult. Finally, some sources of trauma and stress are entirely personal, tied to a student’s particular life experiences. Regardless of the source, research shows that, among other things, stress and trauma make it harder to learn.
It’s important to note that trauma-informed teaching doesn’t mean becoming a therapist. It doesn’t mean being responsible for resolving or healing students’ past experiences or trauma. What it does mean is creating a classroom environment where everyone has access to learning, no matter what past experiences they bring with them, and even as they encounter challenging material in the course.
In the classroom, it’s all about trust and relationships. Get to know your students as early as possible, and help them get to know one another, too. This can involve pre-course surveys; learning names whenever possible; holding wide-open, or even mandatory, office hours; checking in with individuals and the group regularly to see how they’re experiencing the course; and in-class bonding activities and group work. Create an explicitly collaborative environment where students work together and help each other succeed.
Trust is also fostered through transparency. Use your syllabus and class time to tell students what’s coming. Share your course policies, and explain your philosophy behind them. Give as much information as you can about the goals and parameters of upcoming assignments, including how they’ll be graded. As you move through the semester, tell students when they’re about to encounter particularly challenging material and let them know what escape valves exist if the student’s experience goes beyond challenging to traumatic.
It’s also helpful to give students agency and control wherever possible. Trauma often causes people to feel a lack of power, and a lack of power makes traumatization or retraumatization more possible. So, while keeping standards high, are there aspects of your class—deadlines? assignment requirements? attendance and participation?—that can be shaped by student interests or life circumstances? Where are there opportunities for students to choose what they’re learning and how, when, and where they’re learning it? Where are there opportunities for them to easily obtain accommodations—extra time, flexible deadlines, et cetera—when they need them? Can they choose their seating and other aspects of the classroom atmosphere?
You might take breaks before and after difficult material so students have time to decide if they will stay or go or if they need to release some physical tension. You can incorporate mindfulness or breathing practices, play music, or make time for body movement and stretches. The idea here is to take steps to attend to student emotions in the moment. Of course, even with our best efforts, some of our students may find themselves overwhelmed by past trauma. With that in mind, it’s important to recognize the signs. Students actively experiencing trauma might suddenly stop attending class or completing assignments. They might show a drop in performance. They may become emotionally volatile or, in fact, emotionally flat in class or in meetings with you. Again, it’s not your job to be a therapist, but it’s good to check in with students if you notice concerning signs. And be prepared to refer a student to mental health resources or to reach out to contact help yourself.
Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest.
Read, J. P., Ouimette, P., White, J., Colder, C., & Farrow, S. (2011). Rates of DSM–IV–TR trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder among newly matriculated college students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(2), 148–156.
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.