OFA Group

Trauma-informed strategies for instructors

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.”

SAMHSA, 2014. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

Signs of trauma in classes

  • Difficulty learning: being attentive, retaining information, synthesizing ideas
  • Attending class, attending class attentively
  • Challenges with emotional regulation
  • Increased anxiety about school tasks that normally students have found manageable (tests, group work, speaking)
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Reluctance to reach out for help

(Hoch et al, 2015)

Myths about trauma-informed teaching practices

  • Instructors:
    • have a direct role in helping people manage trauma or trauma recovery
    • need to dilute the curriculum
    • need to remove traumatic, sensitive, or difficult material (Carello & Butler, 2015)
    • need to change student learning objectives or lower standards
    • need formal training in trauma, psychology, social work, counseling, or the like to become more effective instructors with traumatized and stressed populations

Reasonable goals for instructors

  • Minimize the likelihood of retraumatization
  • Maximize the possibilities for educational success
  • Big picture steps
    • Make class a place for relationship building, experiencing success, practicing the behaviors of resiliency
    • Raise awareness of long-term pandemic stress and trauma
    • Destigmatize trauma and seeking help
    • Direct students to resources
    • Make class a safe place — for risk-taking, for mistakes, for personal expression

Practice empathy

  • Empathy

“Understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Empathy does not, of itself, entail motivation to be of assistance…APA Dictionary of Psychology

  • Teacher empathy

When “an instructor works 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.” (Meyer et al, 2019). 

Course design

  • Optimize the atmosphere: Create a respectful, accepting, open-to-mistakes, and risk-taking environment.
  • Clear and consistent: Make expectations and daily class experience clear and predictable (comfortable).
  • Create opportunities for student empowerment: emphasize strengths and resilience, encourage choice making.
  • Foreground the relevance of cultural differences: support different perspectives, interpretations, be prepared to acknowledge mistaken assumptions you have made based on your own cultural window.
  • Support growth and resilience: Provide and ask for feedback that begins with acknowledging strengths.

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 (see sample email from Liz Martin)
  • Provide referrals (see Montclair Syllabus. particularly section on Student Resources)
  • Solicit and use student feedback — surveys, anonymous writing notes
  • Put students in charge – lead discussions, activities
  • Practice re-focusing exercises — writing, stretching, moving, (screaming?),
  • 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

Address in-person attendance anxieties

  • Engage the Issue with the class: Discuss the matter as a whole, and even assign readings about the virus on college campuses.
  • Use the issue to practice evidence-based reasoning: what is the evidence? what is their journey?  What is their individual situation?  How do you measure risk?
  • One-on-one: Ask students who do not want to come to campus for class to meet with you one-on-one so you can review what their concerns are and help them imagine and manage the details of the on-campus experience

As the best reader and most educated person in the room, you need to lead the way toward evidence-based decision-making.

Make referrals

Right in your Montclair Syllabus are all the major resources — review with students and also directly refer individuals


Direct students to academic help

Sample Outreach Email from Liz Martin

Hi [Name],

As I hope I made clear at the start of the semester, my goal is to support you as best I can so you can do as well as you hope to in this class. I’m sure you know that [ex., you’re missing a number of major/minor assignments at this point: [include list]; you have several absences; you did poorly on X; etc.] 

Now that we’re at the midpoint of the semester, I just want to check in with you. First, to ensure that I am as aware of the challenges you are dealing with and where you need help as you are comfortable sharing. And second, to let you know that there is still time to do well in the class. So, please let me know how you’re doing! Is there anything I can do to support you this semester?

We’re all living in this uniquely challenging time together. I can absolutely be flexible with you regarding deadlines–there will be no penalties for submitting late work–I just would like to hear from you since it’s been a while. 

I hope all is well, but please let me know if it’s not. [Personalize & add something positive! i.e., You started off the semester so strong, [Name]! I’d like to help you finish that way.]  


Prof. Martin


  • Consider if you have experienced or are experiencing trauma
  • Seek help
  • Give TAO a try — an MSU resource for all faculty and staff, providing online behavioral health resources
  • 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

Ideas from MSU faculty

  • Encourage students to observe and understand what is happening in their minds and to temper feelings with thinking — that is, to see that just because you feel something (that college is useless), doesn’t mean it’s also a reality (college isn’t useful). — Buddhist teaching
  • Share your own experience of educational and other struggles — failing builds resiliency
  • Resist assumptions about the “why” of non-attendance, performance, etc.
  • Share experiences with trauma and feelings with colleagues, gaining the capacity to empathize by experience empathy with colleagues.
  • Name, own, and talk about our own trauma with others, in meetings, in 1-1s.
  • Recognize that sharing & caring enables academic growth.
  • Point out the ironic value of shared trauma — the potential for growth in empathy
  • Activate students’ awareness of their own control, decision-making.  You can control what you put in your body, whether you study, your class attendance, etc.

Sources and Resources

  • Anderson, E. M., Blitz, L. V., & Saastamoinen, M. (2015). Exploring a School-University Model for Professional Development with Classroom Staff: Teaching Trauma-Informed Approaches. School Community Journal, 25(2), 113–134.
  • Boyraz, G., Horne, S. G., Owens, A. C., & Armstrong, A. P. (2013). Academic achievement and college persistence of African American students with trauma exposure. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(4), 582–592.
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2014.867571
  • Carello, J. and L. D. Butler (2015). “Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice.” Journal of Teaching in Social Work 35(3): 262-278.
  • Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (2001). Envisioning a Trauma-Informed Service System: A Vital Paradigm Shift. New Directions for Mental Health Services, 89, 3–22.
  • Hitchcock, L. I., et al. (2021). “Social Work Educators’ Opportunities During COVID-19: A Roadmap for Trauma-Informed Teaching During Crisis.” Journal of Social Work Education: 1-17.
  • Marquart, M., Harris, J., Creswell Báez, J., & Shedrick, D. (2021, May 19). Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning, and Self-Care for Higher Ed Faculty and Staff. Webinar for UPCEA. Online via Zoom.
  • Ohio University’s website: https://www.ohio.edu/diversity/trauma-informed-teaching
  • SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. 2014. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rockville, MD, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Sapiro, B. (2020). “Teaching Social Work Practice in the Shared Trauma of a Global Pandemic.” Shared Trauma, Shared Resilience During a Pandemic: Social Work in the Time of COVID-19: 323-329.
  • VanLeeuwen, C. A., et al. (2021). “Never‐ending repetitiveness, sadness, loss, and “juggling with a blindfold on:” Lived experiences of Canadian college and university faculty members during the COVID‐19 pandemic.” British Journal of Educational Technology 52(4): 1306-1322.