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Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

  • Inclusive & Equitable Teaching
  • Teaching Strategies

Last modified: October 3, 2022

Trauma-informed teaching practices help all students to feel comfortable and part of a classroom community.

Trauma Impacts Learning

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “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.” Each individual experiences a traumatic event differently, and they may be triggered consciously or unconsciously after the event.

When we have a trauma response, we feel under threat and our brains are affected. Our stress response may be engaged, taking away from the brain’s ability to learn. This can impact our ability to make decisions, learn, and remember. It can also cause fatigue and a foggy-mind feeling. When the brain is under the influence of emotion, it connects to past events that also triggered the emotion, compounding the impact.

Six Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach

Students need to feel a sense of intellectual, emotional, physical, and interpersonal safety in the classroom. Some techniques for created a sense of safety are:

  • Use students’ names (and learn to pronounce them properly)
  • Spend the first few minutes of class checking in
    • Ask students how they are doing
    • What is something positive happening for them? Challenges?
    • Have students share something (favorite food, important object, significant place, etc.)
  • Communicate often
  • For online classes, allow students to have their cameras off & participate at a level that feels comfortable to them
  • Incorporate different modes of participation (chat, small group, whole class, think-pair-share, quick write before speaking, etc.)

Instructor presence is very important for building trustworthiness. This helps students see you as a real person. Transparency about policies, procedures, and assignments also helps students to build a sense of trust in your course. Some techniques to build trustworthiness and transparency are:

  • Consider sharing about yourself
    • Participate in icebreaker or sharing activities
    • Talk about course-relevant experiences
    • Make connections with students when possible
  • Believe students
    • A student may miss class or be late with an assignment for a personal reason that they would rather not disclose. If you push them to give a reason, they may give a false excuse instead that does not convey the real situation.
  • Offer flexibility & provide plenty of feedback
    • This doesn't mean to eliminate deadlines - many students benefit from deadlines - rather incorporate flexibility in case they can't meet deadlines every time
  • Spell out the steps for assignments and how they will be graded
    • There should be no surprises for students
  • Connect assignments to course objectives & real world applications

Students benefit from having good relationships with their peers. This can be a challenge for some students. To help facilitate peer support:

  • Provide structure and support for group projects and peer review activities
  • Allow for unstructured time for “hallway” chat (before or after class)
    • This is especially important for online classes, where this does not occur naturally
  • Consider forming (or having students choose) cohorts - small groups that will work together throughout the semester
  • Use break-out sessions for synchronous small group work
  • Provide tools or spaces for asynchronous small group work
  • Encourage students to check in and share about their experiences

If students feel invested in your class, they are more likely to be motivated to do their best. Giving students choice, when possible, will help them to feel invested. Consider:

  • Ask students what matters to them, what they want to learn, what they are interested in
    • Use what you learn to support your instruction and guide your choice of examples or readings
  • Seek student input about course content and procedures when possible
    • Develop rubrics, requirements, or class expectations as a group
    • Find out what students’ schedules are, and try to set your office hours to maximize students ability to attend (virtually or in person)
  • Ask for student feedback about the course and assignments
    • Acknowledge this feedback and use it to make changes

Increase students' self-confidence and help them to become good self-advocates:

  • Identify student strengths and build on them
  • Validate students’ concerns
  • Help students to have a voice and advocate for themselves
  • Allow the option to participate through active listening
  • Allow students to step away if needed

Trauma may be connected to cultural, historical, gender, or sexuality issues. Become informed about the issues that are most prevalent for your students. 

  • Think about challenges students may face and how you might provide support
  • Incorporate accessible and equitable teaching strategies and materials, including culturally responsive teaching strategies
  • Share your pronouns, and respect and use students' pronouns
  • Work toward understanding your own biases
  • Look out for microaggressions or harassment and address any incidents quickly
  • Take advantage of training:
    • Safe Zone training
    • Culturally-responsive teaching

Additional Resources