Definitions and Background
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an “event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Trauma can have a serious impact on a student’s ability to learn, and a trauma-informed pedagogical approach is grounded first and foremost in an awareness of the signs of trauma among one’s students, including difficulty focusing, retaining, and recalling information; tendency to miss classes; anxiety about exams, public speaking, and assignments. While traumatic experiences are increasingly prevalent among students today, researchers have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected “African American, Latinx, Indigenous, Pell recipients, people with kids” (Hoover, 2021).
Like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), trauma-informed pedagogy aims to go beyond accommodations to plan ahead for the possibility—and indeed, likelihood—of teaching students who have experienced trauma (CAST, 2018). As Matthea Marquart and Johanna Creswell Báez write, such approaches aim to address “barriers resulting from the impacts of traumatic human experiences” in order to “create classroom communities that promote student wellbeing and learning” (2021, p. 64). Trauma-informed pedagogy, in short, is a key component of fostering an equitable classroom.
Trauma-informed pedagogy originally grew out of research on post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, and it has also been influenced by research on intergenerational trauma, sexual violence and assault, and more recently by the impact of COVID-19 on college students. “The coronavirus pandemic,” Marquart and Báez argue, “has served as a catalyst for faculty to adopt trauma-informed teaching and learning (TITL) practices, as educators across disciplines have shifted their teaching to be more compassionate, flexible, consistent, and predictable in response to the worldwide trauma and distress” (2021, 63). In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, many Barnard faculty adjusted their courses in ways that align with trauma-informed pedagogies, including compassion and flexibility (e.g., giving students more time to complete exams or replacing exams with alternative assignments, granting students grace periods on their work, offering students options in how they demonstrate learning). Faculty also made time for consistent check-ins with students, and considered the effects of the pandemic on students’ capacity to retain and process information. Many students reported these positive changes in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 Virtual Learning Surveys, and the CEP recommends continuing these practices both for navigating the ongoing pandemic and supporting students as they encounter distress, trauma, and anxiety in their daily lives. These principles would ideally be enacted at all times, and faculty may return to these principles with renewed attention during moments of international, national, or local crises, including acts of violence that impact our community members.
Recognizing Signs of Trauma in College Students
Trauma can be defined as events or circumstances that overwhelm our ability to cope. A large number of college students report some degree of exposure to a traumatic event and many report multiple exposures. These can include exposure to individual trauma, complex trauma, and historical, intergenerational, institutional persistent trauma. Given our present context of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and political and social upheaval, it is likely that students may be experiencing heightened levels of uncertainty, loss, and possible trauma.
For college students in particular, trauma can manifest in the following signs and symptoms, which include in-body, emotional, and cognitive responses. Recognizing these signs can help us act compassionately and take trauma-informed steps toward supporting the well-being of students. These signs include, but are not limited to:
- Difficulty focusing, attending, retaining, and recalling
- Tendency to miss a lot of classes
- Challenges with emotional regulation
- Fear of taking risks
- Anxiety about deadlines, exams, group work, or public speaking
- Anger, helplessness, or dissociation when stressed
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Involvement in unhealthy relationships
Applying a trauma-informed response in the classroom can help shape how you address students’ needs. You can find more guidance on the section addressing trauma-informed techniques and responses below. A trauma-informed response recognizes that students’ actions are a result of their life experiences. Furthermore, a trauma-informed response:
- Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery
- Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in individuals
- Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices
- Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization and secondary trauma (CAST, 2018)
Six Trauma-Informed Core Principles
Without understanding trauma, we may adopt behaviors and beliefs that are potentially negative and unhealthy. However, when we understand trauma and stress, we can act compassionately and take well-informed steps toward supporting the overall wellness of students.
Trauma is overwhelming and can impart feelings of isolation and betrayal, which may make it difficult to trust others and receive support. Compassionate and dependable relationships can help reestablish trusting connections with others that foster mutual wellness.
Keep in mind that students come from diverse social and cultural groups that may experience and react to trauma differently. Be open to understanding these differences and respond to them sensitively.
Because trauma can unpredictably violate students’ physical, social, and emotional safety, it is helpful to increase stability and minimize stress reactions in order to encourage focus on wellness.
Trauma involves a loss of power and control that can lead to feelings of helplessness. Reestablishing a sense of agency can help students feel empowered in and outside of the classroom.
Because trauma can have a long-lasting and broad impact that may create a feeling of hopelessness, utilizing a strengths-based approach encourages resiliency and recovery in students.
Trauma-Informed Techniques & Responses
This section covers how to apply trauma-informed responses in the classroom to support the well-being of students. More information on recognizing signs of trauma in college students can be found in the Trauma in the Classroom section above.
General guidelines for trauma-informed response:
- Be mindful of power dynamics
- Be empathic, open, and flexible
- Actively resist retraumatization (e.g., provide content/trigger warnings when applicable)
- Seek ways to promote empowerment, safety, and trust
- Remind students about on-campus resources
- Engage in your own self-care
Be an open and available resource within your personal boundaries
Present contact information for campus offices. Provide encouragement and follow-up to increase the likelihood that students will find and utilize resources on campus. Offer the opportunity for students to speak about the incident with them (if you feel comfortable doing so), while acknowledging available professional counseling resources as further options.
Consider offering a content warning
While there is no way to know in advance which content might be triggering or retraumatizing for students, giving students content warnings early in the semester (e.g., on your syllabus) can prepare them for potentially challenging content and empower them to make decisions for their own safety and learning. For an example of a content warning, please see the Example Content Warning section at the bottom of this webpage.
Acknowledge trauma and establish trust with students
Establish a positive and approachable demeanor by speaking with students about particular challenges after class or through email in the first week of class. Consider simply asking students: “Is there anything that I need to know in order to help you succeed in this class? Are there any challenges that you anticipate will impact your coursework that we need to address?”
Normalize and validate lived experience
Normalize and validate feelings which come from traumatic experience. Recognize that each individual is the expert on their own life, feelings, and response to trauma. Consider which topics in class are appropriate for class-wide debate (e.g., sexual violence) to create a climate that validates lived experience.
Maintain high expectations and clear pathways for communication
Maintain consistent expectations to provide structure. Make expectations explicit and clear for students. This might mean adding a purpose statement to the beginning of your assignment descriptions to demystify instructor expectations or sharing a grading rubric with students before they begin an assignment.
A traumatic event that impacts the entire campus can have a devastating impact on students and the campus community at large. Be flexible in terms of structuring the class, class attendance policy, or grading for the remainder of the semester after such an event. You may need to adjust academic assignments and examinations accordingly. It is possible to be flexible and accommodating without compromising high expectations for student participation and student work. For example, you may consider dropping students’ lowest score on an assessment. You can also build flexibility into your course from the beginning of the semester by giving students agency in when they turn in assignments late (e.g., giving students five total grace period days to use across all assignments in the semester).
Consider additional class-wide accommodations and/or Universal Design principles
In addition to the accommodations you might provide in connection with CARDS, consider designing your class in accordance with Universal Design for Learning and/or providing classroom accommodations to ensure that students have the best chance to succeed. Such adaptations could include: alternative testing arrangements, recording of lectures, use of note-takers, tutoring, and certain exceptions to regular class attendance.
Be mindful of compassion fatigue
If you work with even just one student who experienced trauma, you can experience vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Rely on a support system and make time to do things that contribute to your well-being.
Work with administration and other campus offices for additional assistance and support. Be mindful of your own limits, capabilities, and boundaries.
Refer students to Furman Counseling Center Services
Furman offers free short-term individual and group counseling. Groups include: Women of Color Support Group, Social Anxiety, Body Balance, Take Heart (Coping Skills), Managing a Parent’s Substance Use, Coping with the Loss of a Parent, Chronic Illness Support. Furman also offers psychiatric evaluation and short-term medication monitoring as well as referrals for longer-term therapy.
For crisis intervention: same day appointments are available and after hours emergency line (855) 622-1903.
Example Content Advisory: First-Year Seminar
Below is an example of a content advisory from a Spring 2022 First-Year Seminar course at Barnard:
"In this course, we will approach food from a variety of angles, including philosophy, theory, satire, film, memoir, fiction, and recipe. In addition to solution-oriented and potentially uplifting content, we will also discuss a variety of challenging topics, including hunger, starvation, eating disorders, poverty, slavery, and the climate crisis. It is important that we discuss these issues respectfully, validating the lived experiences of those in the class. I also ask that each of us refrain as best we can from making any judgments about reactions others may have to course content. All of us respond to distressing material in varied and, often, unpredictable ways. While I cannot know in advance which topics could be challenging for each of you, I will do my best to describe potentially difficult material in advance of a given text. If at any point, you have concerns about class content or want to discuss your personal reactions, I encourage you to email me, come to office hours, or schedule an appointment."
Bibliography & further reading
- Bedera, N. (2021). Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal. Teaching Sociology, 49(3), 267-277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X211022471
- Barnard Center for Engaged Pedagogy (2021), Transition to In-Person Teaching, https://cep.barnard.edu/transition-person-teaching
- CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines v. 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
- Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.), Teaching in Times of Stress, https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/teaching-in-times-of-stress/
- Brown, S. (2021, August 24). Did Covid Break Students’ Mental Health?, Chronicle of Higher Education, https://www.chronicle.com/article/did-covid-break-students-mental-health
- Hoover, E. (2021, August 3). Who’s Had Covid-19? A National Survey of Students Reveals Disparities. Chronicle of Higher Education, https://www.chronicle.com/article/whos-had-covid-19-a-national-survey-of-students-reveals-disparities
- Kubala, J. (2020). Of Trauma and Triggers: Pedagogy and Affective Circulations in Feminist Classrooms. Feminist Formations, 32(2), 183-206. https://doi.org/10.1353/ff.2020.0030
- Marquart, M. & Báez, J. (2021). Recommitting to Trauma-informed Teaching Principles to Support Student Learning: An Example of a Transformation in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Journal of Transformative Learning, 8(1), 63-74.
- Perry, B. D. (2006). Fear and Learning: Trauma-Related Factors in the Adult Education Process. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 110, 21-27. https://doi.org/10.1002/ace
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2019). Trauma and Violence. https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence
The image at the top of this resource was created by Brian D'Cruz Hypno Plus, https://www.briandcruzhypnoplus.com/.