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Every Learner Everywhere

Bringing Trauma-Informed Teaching Into the Online College Classroom

Trauma-informed teaching, also sometimes called trauma-informed pedagogy, creates awareness of how students’ past experience with trauma affects their current experience in the classroom. The ultimate goal of that awareness is to support students’ academic success by avoiding practices that may re-traumatize students.

Janice Carello and Lisa Butler of the University of Buffalo School of Social Work have written extensively on trauma-informed teaching, and they offer several valuable resources on the subject. Among the examples of trauma-informed teaching practices they recommend are:

  • Low-stakes assignments that give students a chance to learn from mistakes
  • Content warnings
  • Facilitating peer groups
  • Grading policies that reward success rather than punishing failure
  • Integrating student self-evaluation
  • Using multiple discussion modes so every student finds an opportunity to contribute
  • Well-defined grading rubrics
  • Using both formative and summative assignments

Trauma-informed teaching can be a powerful tool for achieving equity in higher education, since research shows that minoritized students are more at risk for experiencing trauma and that the persistent experience of racism in the form of violence, micgroaggressions, discrimination, and media messages can result in PTSD. By applying the principles of trauma-informed teaching, educators can help every student feel safe, heard, and empowered so they can succeed in college without a fear response interfering with learning.

However, much of the work on trauma-informed teaching describes traditional face-to-face classroom environments. How can college and university instructors apply this practice in a distance-learning context?

This is an important question not just because online education has been growing steadily in recent years and not just because it has grown suddenly in the last year as a way to manage the threat of COVID-19. It’s important because, as neuroscientist and educator Mays Imad explains, the human brain is wired to interpret isolation and ambiguity — hallmarks of the pandemic — as threats. The emergence of the novel coronavirus, and how it has been managed, has itself been traumatic or re-traumatizing for many students.

Identifying trauma in the distance classroom

A trauma response in post-secondary learners may be difficult to identify because stress responses can vary based on the trauma that’s causing the stress. One student who feels out of control may object angrily when a syllabus or schedule is changed, and another may withdraw. A student distracted by social friction in the class may not react in a noticeable way but could be having trouble absorbing and remembering information.

In a distance course, a trauma response can be especially hard to spot, but a 2015 presentation by Dr. Amy Hoch for the American College Health Association provides some signs of struggling students that also apply to an online environment:

  • Trouble focusing on, retaining, or recalling information
  • Missing classes or deadlines
  • Meeting deadlines or speaking up in class appearing more stressful than usual
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Trouble with emotional regulation; may become angry or feel helpless when stressed
  • Extremely stressed when things change; if a class deviates from the syllabus, for example

Applying trauma-informed teaching practices online

Many recommended practices in trauma-informed teaching emphasize clarity and consistency, since uncertainty is a common stressor for a student with past experiences of trauma. The core of trauma informed teaching is to create a safe place for students, where they are free to learn and can avoid re-traumatization. As Carello and Butler write in Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice, “Safety is a necessary precondition to a learning-conducive environment, and this is especially true when teaching content that includes trauma.”

This doesn’t mean avoiding difficult material, but it does mean providing content warnings and promptly addressing potential triggers such as microaggressions during class discussions. It also means opening lines of communication with students.

Begin with a personal check-in

Professors Johanna Creswell Báez, PhD, LCSW, Manager of Course Development for the Columbia University’s School of Social Work, and Matthea Marquart, Director of Administration, suggested in a webinar conducted near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that instructors begin their online class by checking in with their students.

That check-in can look different, depending on the format of the class or the group of students. Instructors might, for example, ask students at the start of each class to state something they’re grateful for, either sharing that in a live class via video, or by posting to an online message board at the start of each session.

Use a mindfulness tool in class

It can be helpful to offer a mindfulness practice during a class meeting, particularly in long or stressful sessions. This can include check-ins like mentioned above, breaks, or a video that guides the class through a short breathing exercise. A breathing exercise can help center students, get everyone on the same page, and break up long lectures (whether live in a synchronous class format or recorded).

Structured breaks can become a class ritual that students expect and use to inform their own self-care. It’s also helpful to remind students that they can take a quick break — look away from the screen, for example, or turn off their camera — whenever they need one.

Consider what’s going on where students live

When students live on campus, they have many everyday experiences in common and therefore share some of the same challenges. In a distance- learning context, students are dealing with challenges specific to their individual homes and communities.

During check-ins, therefore, it may be useful to ask each student how things are in their communities, so that instructors can understand where each student is coming from, both literally and figuratively.

Offer privacy with virtual office hours and the chat function.

Not every student feels comfortable revealing details about their life to classmates. Some don’t control what’s happening in the room where they’re working, and they may be sharing that space with relatives, small children, or other distractions they don’t want to show the world.

Virtual office hours allow students to share more freely and to connect one on one with an instructor, while the chat function allows students who can’t be on camera an opportunity to be in class without showcasing their living situation or surroundings. By offering different ways to connect, instructors can be more inclusive, and allow more students to comfortably participate in learning.

Be as flexible as possible

In times of crisis, it’s important for institutions to re-examine policies that might make class difficult or impossible for some students. Well-intentioned grading or attendance policies may drive traumatized students away or make it impossible for students to pass a course. Disciplinary rules, advises Karen Gross, author of Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, should “allow for ample personalization and explanation rather than rigid punishment retained in the name of consistency and fairness.”

Prioritize self-care for instructors

It’s as difficult to teach in times of stress as it is to learn. Instructors may be struggling with health or financial stressors. They may be lonely, or feel overwhelmed by their course loads. They may also have secondary trauma as a result of helping traumatized students, says Gross.

Before instructors can take care of the emotional needs of their students, Báez and Marquart of Columbia University’s School of Social Work suggest instructors make sure they put on their own oxygen masks first by taking care of their emotional needs. In the webinar referenced above, they recommend that instructors put together an emergency self-care plan to prepare for their own difficult days.

Trauma is different for every student

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about or exacerbated traumas for many people, it’s important for educators to remember that every student experiences trauma differently, and some may not be feeling consequences from it at all. A report from Mind/Shift points out that while the pandemic is stressful, not every student may be stressed by distance learning.

Some students may even experience distance learning as a relief from bullying, systemic racism, or sexism they were experiencing on campus. In those cases it may be more important to recognize the causes of in-person trauma and use this time of distance learning to step in and change the systems that are causing trauma to students.