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.
Example Content Warning: First-Year Seminar
Below is an example of a content warning 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 sensitive 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 warn you of potential difficulties in advance of a given text, and am happy to offer alternative texts to students who request them. 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
- 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