At its core, trauma-informed pedagogy is an approach to teaching that helps students learn amid adverse conditions. While some of our students will have experienced an identifiable single traumatic event (e.g., an assault), many more have been exposed to chronic stressors that have disrupted their sense of safety, stability, and purpose, especially in recent years. Trauma-informed pedagogical practices recognize the effects of chronic stress, repeated crises, and individual and collective trauma on the learning process, for students and educators alike. Rather than asking instructors to step in as therapists, trauma-informed principles allow educators to design environments that help students learn, grow, and flourish, while supporting their own boundaries.
Trauma-informed approaches follow a common set of principles:
They help restore students’ sense of safety and empowerment within their learning community
They foster students’ sense of connection to others and give them access to support systems
They build students’ sense of meaning and purpose and
They encourage educators to set appropriate boundaries and care for themselves as part of their care for others.
Build stability and clarity into your course plans. Familiar practices such as Transparency in Learning and Teaching and inclusive/”warm” syllabus designs help students know what to expect from your class.
Shift your approach to students:
Treat students as allies in the learning process, rather than adversaries, even when their actions don’t square with your expectations
Avoid deficit frames as explanations for student behavior or perceived shortcomings. Instead of asking “what is wrong with this student?”, ask “what has happened to this student?” (Carello)
Take a stance of “realistic optimism” about students’ ability to succeed in your course (Carello). Tell students about these expectations.
Anticipate and prepare for discussions and course readings that may be difficult for students who have experienced or are experiencing trauma or chronic traumatic stressors (e.g., systematic racism and other forms of discrimination). Consider how you will support these students and prevent or respond to harmful comments made by other students.
Make one change to your course design to increase students’ sense of connection, autonomy and voice. For instance, you might experiment with a flexible deadline policy; assign students to consistent small groups over the semester; try specifications grading or an “ungrading” practice on a single assignment; or allow students to choose between options to demonstrate learning in one unit, etc.
Build flexibility and grace into your course design where possible. For instance, blocking a course session or two as “flex days” or “catch-up days” provides space for you and your students to metabolize material and catch up if behind.
Janice Carello, Creating Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Environments: Self-Assessment Questions for Educators (checklist) and Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning in Times of Crisis (YouTube presentation)
Carello, J., & Thompson, P. (2022). Trauma-informed pedagogies: A guide for responding to crisis and inequality in higher education. Palgrave Macmillan (to be released August 2022).
Alex Shevrin-Venet, Equity-centered trauma-informed education (Norton, 2021). While Shevrin-Venet is a K-12 educator, this volume offers suggestions that can be translated to the college classroom.
Imad, M. (2020, June 3). Leveraging the neuroscience of now: Seven recommendations for helping students thrive in times of trauma. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma