Trauma-informed Teaching During COVID-19

Trauma-informed teaching recognizes that students’ emotional and physical wellbeing, sense of security and belonging, and their past and current traumas influence their ability to learn. In other words, it responds to the reality that students are whole people with whole, complicated lives, in and out of the classroom. As such, faculty must prepare for how they will respond when personal crises (e.g., a family emergency, mental health concerns) or collective crises (e.g., environmental disaster, a mass shooting, racist or xenophobic events) occur. It is not the faculty member's responsibility to solve these crises. Rather, faculty are encouraged to understand that such experiences will impact students’ ability to learn and thus proactively consider how their pedagogical decisions, course structure, and expectations/policies might be responsive to such traumas and stressors.

Further, faculty should be aware that marginalized students face additional and unique traumas and stressors because of structural inequality. For example, some students will have limited access to educational resources such as computers or internet, some may experience food insecurity or unsafe living conditions, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are forced to navigate the daily traumas of surviving white supremacy culture. Therefore, part of trauma-informed teaching is also about addressing power and considering how one’s course and pedagogy might actively seek to resist oppression.

Although trauma-informed teaching is always relevant, fall 2020 presents a unique and unprecedented moment where students and faculty will be experiencing higher levels of trauma and stress, combined with a new set of norms and expectations for teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic. Below, we provide recommendations and considerations for faculty who aim to approach teaching from a trauma-informed perspective during hybrid and online learning and physical distancing measures, drawing on advice from experienced faculty.

Foster Connection and Belonging

Creating a sense of connection and belonging in the classroom is an essential trauma-informed teaching strategy. Establishing a personal connection with students includes communicating clearly and frequently that students’ wellbeing is important to you. Allison Leich Hilbun, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, puts it this way: “I feel that one of the most important factors in student connection and comfort in courses is the palpability of the instructor’s concern for emotional issues. Students are able to discern when an instructor truly feels strongly about mental health.” One important step faculty can take is including statements on a syllabus that communicate that student well-being and mental health are priorities. Additionally, faculty might build such messaging into the course elsewhere, such as in course announcements and video-based overviews of course expectations.

In order to build more in-depth relationships with students and demonstrate your care, you may want to hold one-on-one virtual meetings with students. This option is only possible as class size and personal capacity of the instructor permit.

It is also important to create a sense of connection and belonging across all members of the class community. Online classes provide unique and creative opportunities to reimagine community building. Look for opportunities for students to share snippets from their lives and bring their whole selves into the classroom. Some examples include sharing memes/Tiktok videos, thematic backgrounds in videos or webconferencing (e.g. favorite spot in their city of residence, a place they want to visit, a meme/facial expression that represents their current feelings about online classes), and sharing their photographs (for instance, throwback photographs).

Importantly, a sense of joy and pleasure are essential to cultivating connection in classes by building in elements of pleasure and connection to counteract social isolation. Neil Kelley, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University plans to use “light-hearted but honest course announcements, soothing music & videos at the start of lessons, and a Spotify playlist (with liner notes)” as ways of connecting with students and helping them feel at ease. The use of games, including improvisational theater techniques, are an excellent source of laughter and emotional release, and additionally emphasize being a good listener and staying in the present moment.

Commit to Flexibility

Commitment to flexible attendance policies, deadlines, and course expectations is another trauma-informed teaching strategy. Asynchronous course content allows for a lot of flexibility, as students are able to engage with content at their own pace. Additionally, flexibility with deadlines and including multiple, low-stakes assignments with options for students to drop some grades can help alleviate student stress. 

Faculty may want to communicate frequently with students to get a sense of their evolving needs throughout the semester via both structured (e.g., anonymous survey) and unstructured (e.g., asking a question during a synchronous meeting) mechanisms. This includes acknowledging that students are all facing challenges, but each person’s challenges are unique.

Further, some students may need guidance and support feeling empowered to acknowledge when they are feeling overwhelmed and need assistance. Faculty can normalize these emotions by periodically checking in with students or providing a script for requesting assistance or assignment extensions. 

Know Your Own Limits

Faculty must understand that in their teaching roles and responsibilities, they are not professionally trained or expected to respond directly to students’ traumas. It is really important to acknowledge your own limits and boundaries. This includes acknowledging that you can’t know about or solve all students’ stress, trauma, and difficulty. Further, faculty members are also navigating stress and trauma. Setting healthy boundaries and being willing to make mistakes are important elements of self-care.

What faculty can and should do, however, is check in on their students and be aware of university-wide support networks when such referrals are needed. There are many university resources available for helping students navigate trauma, such as Counseling and Consultation Services

Understanding and acting from trauma-informed perspectives is not only the responsibility of individual faculty, but is a responsibility of the entire University system. You are not in this alone.

Integrate Course Content with Justice and Equity Frameworks

In order to address the particular traumas and crises that arise from social inequities, some faculty may want to find ways to address justice and equity frameworks directly via their course content. Not only does this provide a direct message about one’s commitment to fostering equity and inclusion as course commitments, it also may deepen student learning by providing opportunities for students to connect their real-world experiences with course content. Reflect on the relevance of course content to the current social, political, economic, and health crises and consider whether or how you can incorporate social themes into your materials, activities, and assignments.

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Portions of this site were developed by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and adapted for NIU by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. They are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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