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Trauma-informed Pedagogy

What is trauma?  

“Individual trauma 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” (SAMSA, 2022, March). As Carello and Butler remind us, “[n]ot only do students arrive at college with a trauma exposure history, but some also experience trauma while there” ( 2014, p. 157). The effects of these experiences on students’ well-being, approaches to learning, and engagement in our courses may be bleak.  To counter these effects, we must recognize trauma in ourselves and our students and ensure that we help them feel safe, empowered, and connected

Signs of Trauma in Classes

  • Difficulty learning, being attentive, retaining information, synthesizing ideas
  • Not attending class or not attending class attentively
  • Difficulty with emotional regulation
  • Increased anxiety about school tasks that normally students have found manageable (tests, group work, speaking)
  • Withdrawal and isolation (Hoch et al., 2015, as cited in Davidson, 2017)

What is Trauma-informed Pedagogy?

Instructors who are hesitant to implement trauma-informed teaching may believe that doing so entails diluting the curriculum, lowering standards, or being mental health experts. These are all myths.  

Trauma-informed pedagogy recognizes that we and our students have past and present experiences that may negatively affect both teaching and learning. ‘‘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?’” (Huang et al., 2014).

Trauma-informed pedagogy displays empathy. Meyers et al. (2019) explain that teachers display empathy when they “work[] to deeply understand students’ personal and social situations, to feel care and concern in response to students’ positive and negative emotions, and to respond compassionately without losing the focus on student learning. Teacher empathy is communicated to students through course policies as well as the instructor’s behavior toward students.”

A Trauma-informed Approach

In using a trauma-informed approach, instructors maintain consistent and high expectations while helping students build competency and confidence to counter negativity with positive experiences. As Carello and Butler suggest, instructors should recognize “student emotional safety” as essential to learning, realize that “a trauma history may impact your students’ academic performance, even without trauma being a topic in the classroom,” and refer students to counseling when needed (2014, pp. 163-164).

Reasonable Goals for Instructors

  • Maximize the possibilities for educational success
  • Raise awareness of long-term pandemic stress and trauma
  • Destigmatize trauma and seeking help
  • Direct students to resources (see below)
  • Practice and model empathy

Course design
  • Optimize the atmosphere: Make class a place for relationship building, experiencing success, and practicing the behaviors of resiliency.
  • Be clear and consistent: Make expectations and daily class experience clear, predictable, and comfortable. Include choice, control, and opportunities for students to share their concerns and experiences. 
  • Create opportunities for student empowerment: Emphasize strengths and resilience, and encourage choice making. Build community and connections in your classroom by encouraging peer contact and by supporting networks and campus community involvement.
  • Open the door to articulation of fears: Use a quick writing assignment or survey to help students work through their fears in a logical and rational way. Learn where the fear originates in order to support the fear. 
  • Foreground the relevance of cultural differences: Support different perspectives and interpretations on trauma and be prepared to acknowledge mistaken assumptions based on your own cultural window. Ask questions and listen to your students 
  • Support growth and resilience: Empower students by giving supportive feedback to reduce negative thinking. Acknowledge the wide range of situations that individuals come from and offer support in identifying concerns and resources. Share your own experience of educational and other struggles – failing builds resiliency.
  • Recognize and mitigate the possibility of retraumatization: Consider whether your assignments or class materials have the potential to trigger certain students, and develop strategies to mitigate this risk (trigger warnings, options).
COVID-era Particulars
  • Make room for talk about COVID-19 and its effects
  • Acknowledge painful feelings — helplessness, being overwhelmed
  • Create opportunities/outlets for COVID-19 expression (small moments, exercises)
  • Check-in when students check out
  • Provide referrals 
  • Solicit and use student feedback — surveys, anonymous notes
  • Put students in charge –– lead discussions, activities
  • Practice re-focusing exercises — writing, stretching, moving
  • Acknowledge that the pandemic has not been equal in its effects, following both random patterns and structured patterns of inequity
  • Be joyful & optimistic, conveying warmth and enthusiasm, laughter, Laughter Yoga demonstration and how-to, “reflective minute” exercise
Make Referrals

The Montclair Syllabus lists the major resources — review with students and also directly refer individuals

Connect Students with Academic Help


It’s important to acknowledge that not only students can be affected by trauma, but instructors as well. What can instructors do to manage their own anxiety? 

  • Consider and acknowledge if you have experienced or are experiencing trauma
  • Seek help
  • Try TAO (Therapy Assistance Online) [link], a CAPS resource for online support and activities that support self-care. MSU license for all employees and students.
  • Seek community among colleagues and friends
  • Practice kindness to colleagues so it comes back to you
  • Box teaching work — it has its time and place
  • Box university work — it too has its time and place
  • Practice self-congratulation for accomplishments and good work
  • Share experiences with trauma and feelings with colleagues, gaining the capacity to empathize.
  • Name, own, and talk about our own trauma with others, in meetings and one-on-one’s.
  • Recognize that sharing and caring enables academic growth.

Resources and References

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2014). Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15(2), 153–168. 

Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest.

Huang, L. N., Flatow, R., Biggs, T., Afayee, S., Smith, K., Clark, T., & Blake, M. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach (SMA No. 14-4884). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Imad, M. (2020, March). Hope Matters: Ten Teaching Strategies to Support Students and Help Them Continue to Learn in this Time of Uncertainty. Inside Higher Ed

Imad, M. (2020, June). Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now: Seven ways professors can help students thrive in class in times of trauma. Inside Higher Ed.

Meyers, S., Rowells, M. W. , and Smith, B. C. (2019). Teacher Empathy: A Model of Empathy for Teaching for Student Success. College Teaching, 67(3), 160-168.

Minahan, J. (2019, October). Trauma Informed Teaching Strategies.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, March). Trauma and Violence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

03.27.23 CK

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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