woman looking stressed

Maybe you have already experienced this in your classroom; students are exhausted, struggling personally or academically, while others aren’t responding altogether. It is no surprise that the current transition to remote learning formats has intensified the stress and anxiety experienced by all students. According to a 2020 study by Active Minds, 80% of college students reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health. Some examples of the challenges that contribute to trauma are mental health status, isolation, uncertainty, poverty, and racism. Traumatized students, who are grieving the loss of in-person experiences, familiar routines, and campus social life, may find it challenging to balance the psychological impact with their schoolwork. Of course, while some students may be academically thriving in this new format, others may struggle to be good students while processing all the changes happening around them. As professors, we can alleviate the stress and anxiety our students are experiencing by employing Trauma-Informed Pedagogy practices.

Why Trauma-Informed Pedagogy?

The term trauma refers to “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” (SAMHSA, 2019). Trauma differs from normal stress in that it persists and causes more serious negative effects. As we are living in a time where multiple traumatic events are happening one after the other, our capacity to process all the trauma our bodies are experiencing is severely compromised.

In our Fall 2020 Teaching and Learning survey, our students expressed the sense of being overwhelmed, some of them said:

  • “I think that this mode of learning is working well, especially since this is the first run, but more emphasis must be put on mental health. Many people have had to deal with increased stress from the pandemic, whether it be family getting sick or financial struggles, and I do not feel like it is getting the attention and action it warrants.”
  • “Honestly, this sucked. It was awful. It’s not Wake’s fault. It’s not the faculty’s fault. But this was absolutely terrible. The amount of anxiety that I faced daily just being a student was overwhelming. I love Wake. I love my professors. I feel like I got robbed of everything I actually enjoy about being a student. Sitting in the same room all day every day staring at the same screen was unbearable. I’m upset that I have to do this all over again next semester.”
  • “Obviously I never signed up for this, and no one wanted it to be like this. I just wanted someone to know how difficult this has truly been for us students.”

So there is trauma in your classroom. What should you do?

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy refers to using the knowledge of trauma to adapt our pedagogy to best support the well-being and success of both teachers and learners. It is not about trying to become counselors for our students, but becoming more empathetic and effective teachers. The following practices can help you in cultivating a learning environment that is mindful of the role trauma plays in students’ lives (Imad, 2020; Renda, 2020).

Welcome students radically

  • Welcome the students with an intentional invitation in the syllabus rather than a contract. (e.g. “Know that in this course, you are more than a number. I see you and you matter. I ask you to bring your own experiences to enrich one another. Let us begin this journey of learning together.”)
  • Provide concrete options for how students can “take care of themselves” if they feel triggered by a topic or conversations (mute your video, send me a private chat, take a break, do a breathing exercise, get a drink of water, take a walk outside, etc.).
  • Remind the students that you want them in your class and care about their wellbeing.

Foster building connections

  • Explicitly talk about the importance of community building, learning from each other, and supporting each other within your class.
  • Begin class with asking students about how they are doing, how their week has been going, or with a temperature check about their mood (discussion question, anonymous poll, etc.).
  • Approach questions or concerns from a class/community perspective. For example, “How do we as a class want to address this?”, “What does this mean for us as a community?”, or “How can we all support each other through this?”
  • Encourage students to build connections with each other through forming study groups, sharing support resources, and checking in on each other.

Impart purpose

  • As an assignment, ask students to describe a better world for them and their fellow human beings. Ask them to consider what role they play in moving toward that future. This helps them imagine and enact the future.
  • Invite students to identify/reconnect with their sense of purpose.
  • Foster metacognition and encourage students to make connections between the course and life.

Empower and co-create

  • Explicitly state the value of students’ knowledge, insights, and expertise within the course.
  • Ask students about their preferences around topics, participation, and assignments through an individual form and/or through a class discussion.
  • Encourage students to notice what they need in order to take care of themselves and be successful in their learning, expressing their needs, and meeting their needs.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for student feedback about how the class is going and students’ experiences with the material and the course structure.

I invite you that while you reflect on these recommendations and how you can incorporate them in your teaching to also consider how you are taking care of yourself first and foremost.



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