Trauma Informed Pedagogy Series

What is Trauma?

Individual trauma, according to the U.S. Department of Public Health, “results from 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, 2014). Many students have experienced the emotional, social, physical, and spiritual impact of COVID19 as traumatic, especially if they have a history of previous traumatic experiences. Many students indeed have a history of experiencing violence: physical abuse, sexual assault, interpersonal/domestic violence, community violence, etc. Other traumatic experiences include the impact of racism or other discrimination, traumatic grief, and other adverse childhood experiences. All these experiences may have significant impact on learning and emotion regulation (CDC, 2020; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015).

Nationwide, over 60% of adults experience at least one adverse childhood experience and one in six individuals noted they have endured four or more adverse childhood experiences (CDC, 2020). Traumas such as these impact a student’s entire development--impacting self-esteem, attachment, emotion regulation, changing brain development and brain structure--and alter one’s view of others and the world (Van Der Kolk, 2015).

What is Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP)?

Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) is a teaching methodology that works to understand students’ unique experiences and validates the variety of traumatic experiences that can impact a student’s learning (Imad, 2021). Students thrive in the classroom through TIP when they feel safe, welcomed, and supported. “Trauma-informed educators recognize students’ actions are a direct result of their life experiences. When their students act out or disengage, they don’t ask them, ‘What is wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What happened to you?’” (SAMHSA, 2014). Professors utilizing TIP seek to understand why students respond the way they do, so that they might effectively engage students in learning processes that respect student positionalities.

Trauma informed teaching practices are based on SAMHSA’s trauma-informed principles of safety, trustworthiness, peer support, collaboration, empowerment and cultural, historical and gender issues (SAMHSA, 2014). Faculty can consider ways to allow students to experience emotional safety as they create their curriculum, with honesty and transparency in the class expectations, choice in how students can engage with others, and opportunities to explore their strengths (Davidson, 2017). Implementing these principles allows a campus to recognize the impact of trauma in the community, understand pathways for recovery, and allows faculty to actively resist re-traumatization to best care for students (SAMHSA, 2014).

Why Implement TIP?

Students may enter the fall semester with significant traumatic experiences, from the impacts of racism and political stress, grief and loss, adjustment to in-person learning or on-campus living, navigating re-establishing friendships after significant social isolation, and likely holding feelings of uncertainty and fear about their future. These impacts can have significant influence on a student’s ability to learn, retain information, and to hold typical levels of motivation due to the added layers of stress, anxiety, and depression that may result from these factors (Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015).

In the classroom, students may exhibit difficulty concentrating, challenges staying cognitively present in class, apprehension around connecting with others, low motivation, racing thoughts, or feelings of fear or anxiety (Hoch, Stewart, Webb, & Wyandt-Hiebert, 2015; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015). These experiences are often the brain’s way of trying to protect the student, a way to cope with the distressing situation by implementing a fight, flight, or freeze survival response that originates in the limbic system (Hoch et al., 2015; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015). This once protective emotional response, however, can make it challenging for students to absorb and consolidate information, to reason, remember, and reproduce learning, all of which are a product of more developed brain structures in the neocortex (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). In some cases, a history of trauma is correlated with lower academic performance, poor adjustment to college, lower GPA, and higher rates of attrition (Carello & Butler, 2014).

Implementing TIP allows students the opportunity to thrive. TIP helps faculty to skillfully present material in a way that is considerate of students’ emotional needs, challenging them to use their community and internal resources for growth, while still allowing them to engage meaningfully with curriculum content (Davidson, 2017). Rather than having students disengage or want to avoid class due to activating classroom experiences, students will feel cared for and supported to address challenging subjects in an intentional environment that avoids re-traumatization.

What TIP Practices Work in a Syllabus?

Consider syllabus adaptations based on these key principles and your own self assessment:

  • Clearly articulate class policies, deadlines, and expectations
  • Create consistency and structure with required assignments and class facilitation
  • Increase limits to accepting late work to provide flexibility for those who may need it, using restorative practices rather than zero tolerance practices.
  • Consider student accountability handled in a way that conveys “What’s happened to the student?” versus “What’s wrong with the student?”
  • Place disclaimers in your syllabus when addressing potentially activating topics, “Some content discussed in this section may be activating for some students. Please notice how you are responding to the discussion/assignment and be intentional to care for yourself and communicate to others if you need support.”
  • Build self-reflection and self-care into assignments; journaling, mindfulness, grounding, or deep breathing breaks to build in opportunities for emotion regulation
  • Facilitate peer activities that help students connect with classmates to provide mutual support
  • Offer “live” office hours via video conferencing/in person for student connection and support
  • Contemplate how each student’s strengths and resilience are recognized and mobilized

What Syllabus Resources Are Available?

Counseling and other Campus Resources:

Where can I learn more about TIP and student mental health?

References

Carello, J. and Butler, L. (2014). Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching trauma is not the same as trauma-informed teaching. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, (15) p.153-168.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, April 3). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html.

Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest. https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf

Hoch, A., Stewart, D., Webb, K., & Wyandt-Hiebert, M. (2015, May). Trauma-informed care on a college campus. Presentation at the annual meeting of the American College Health Association, Orlando, FL.

Imad, Mays. (2020, June). Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma

Imad, Mays. (2021) Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development. To Improve the Academy, (39), 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/tia.17063888.0039.301

Immordino-Yang, M.H., & Damasio, A. (2007) We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain and Education, (1) p. 3-10. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.