Trauma-Informed Teaching

Teaching in Distressing and Uncertain Times

Ideas for Implementing Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices

Adapted with permission from the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department (original authors: Theresa Hice Johnson, Michelle Parra, and Rebecca London) and in collaboration with the Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) office.

what is different about right now?

  • We are in a pandemic that has affected just about everything in our society.

  • Black, Latinx and Native people have been disproportionately affected in health outcomes from the pandemic.

  • People of color, as well as low-wage workers and undocumented people, have been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

  • Ongoing police violence and anti-Black racism have come to new light and have created additional trauma and stress among Black people.

  • Students, TAs, and Instructors alike may be experiencing challenges in their home environments (e.g., challenges with internet connectivity, lack of quiet study or work space, family responsibilities, work responsibilities, family conflict, lack of privacy, domestic violence, anti-LGBTQ+ bias, depression, anxiety, isolation, and other serious challenges).

  • Students, like TAs and Instructors, may be maintaining additional responsibilities when parenting or caring for dependents in the remote environment while trying to focus on learning and working.

  • Recent climate disasters, including wildfires in Santa Cruz county, have displaced members of our community (some of whom have lost their homes), caused stress and anxiety, and impacted people’s respiratory health.

  • We are living, teaching, and learning remotely with less ability to connect with our school and home communities, with less opportunity to heal amongst our networks, with disruptions to our safety and care plans, and with greater social isolation.

All of these things affect how people learn.

Why does this matter for my “classroom”?

Trauma refers to the embodied and psychological impact of a stressful event or set of circumstances that is experienced as emotionally harmful or threatening. Trauma affects brain function and learning, including higher-order thinking skills and executive functioning skills. Students, TAs, and Instructors alike may find it more difficult to focus, manage their time, make decisions, concentrate, cope with stressors, and perform academically and professionally.

All people have been exposed to some level of stress and trauma since the start of the pandemic. The conditions of our current moment are more likely to impact students and colleagues of color, first-generation college students, and low-income students. Students deserve a rigorous learning experience, but they also cannot be expected to learn as if it’s business as usual. Instructors can make adaptations to their teaching in order to better support student learning and prioritize students’ emotional safety under these conditions.

What can I do to support the students in my course?

There are a number of ways to support students during this heightened time, and these strategies apply to teaching and learning at any time. There will always be students in our classes who have experienced trauma, stress, and marginalization, and the following are important methods for creating more equitable conditions for learning.

Course Design

  • Create a culturally-inclusive course syllabus that includes a variety of perspectives. Students should be able to see people like themselves and topics they care about represented on the syllabus.

  • When selecting course topics, be sensitive to the ways that some topics and conversations may require more psychological and emotional preparation to engage with, particularly during a collectively traumatic time. Content advisories are encouraged for topics such as: racism, racialized violence, sexual and domestic violence, death and dying, illness, and mental illness. Talking transparently about your pedagogical choices to include important, but sensitive, topics can also prepare students for their engagement. For more information about, and samples of, content advisories, review CITL’s Sample Syllabus Language for Accessibility & Inclusivity.

  • Especially when converting existing in-person courses to online and remote environments, consider where you can reduce workload while maintaining rigor in order to account for the additional cognitive load, stressors, and trauma that students are experiencing.

  • Ensure that course texts are accessible to remote learners, such as by using digital texts whenever possible. If possible, make all course readings free. If this is not a possibility, then allow students to use an older version of course texts.

  • Organize your course materials. Utilize a central place for all course materials (like Canvas), make them easy to navigate, post course assignments and explanations well in advance, and provide examples where possible.

  • Create course policies that allow students to have flexibility without having to ask special permission. Do not expect students who are feeling vulnerable, upset, behind on their work, or missing class to seek help or ask for special accommodations. View the Accessible Syllabus website to get ideas for effectively implementing flexible deadlines and grading policies.

  • When communicating with students about course policies and the purpose of assignments, use positive (rather than punitive) and inviting (rather than commanding) language. Doing so is shown to promote accessibility and student engagement. Read more about using accessible rhetoric and student-centered grading policies at the Accessible Syllabus website.

  • Assign both smaller and larger course assignments (formative and summative assessments) so that students can earn points, and get feedback on their learning, throughout the quarter and not just on a midterm and final.

  • Create assignments that build on each other (“scaffolded”) so that students can progress in developing and strengthening their skills and knowledge throughout the quarter.

  • Monitor and check in regularly with your students about workload. Be prepared to amend your syllabus if you find students simply cannot get the work done. Another spike in cases, more economic fallout, further instances of political and social upheaval, another climate disaster, etc. can derail any of our plans. What assignments can you make optional, and what assignments can you drop or revise, while still maintaining your learning objectives?

  • Anticipate the accessibility needs of students with disabilities. If your course uses videos, make sure they are captioned. If you provide reading material, ensure that the files are accessible or ask for support from the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to meet accommodations requests.

  • Prepare for alternatives to group work. Group work and collaboration are important parts of learning, but they can be more difficult in a remote class during this uncertain time. Consider including options for students whose groups are not able to meet due to schedule conflicts or who would be more comfortable doing an individual assignment. (Further ideas for making group work accessible below.)

  • Reconsider whether timed exams and test surveillance mechanisms like ProctorU are necessary to achieving the learning objectives of your course. Timed and monitored tests can increase student anxiety, present challenges for students who do not have access to strong internet connectivity, and raise serious privacy concerns. To address academic integrity concerns, visit promoting a culture of academic integrity during remote instruction on the Keep Teaching website.

Course Expectations

  • Attendance: For a variety of reasons, students may not be able to attend class live at its scheduled time. If you are doing synchronous (live) learning, offer an asynchronous option (e.g., recorded presentation + discussion assignment). Taking attendance and providing points for attending live lectures may further disadvantage students who are already experiencing disproportionate challenges. Post class materials for students to access at any time. Consider setting up a collaborative class note-taking system so students can support each other to learn.

  • Participation: Students experiencing trauma or distress may be less able to participate in conversation in the remote classroom environment. Students attending live lectures may not have a private space or feel comfortable turning on video or speaking out loud. Additionally, there are gendered and class-based differences in expectations for what it means to be camera-ready on Zoom. Consider flexibility in allowing students to leave video off and to demonstrate their engagement in additional ways.

  • Community agreements: The remote environment has created the conditions for students to experience extended forms of harassment, microaggressions, or other safety and equity challenges in breakout rooms or course chats. Consider establishing shared agreements for how students will approach the learning space. Collaboratively crafting agreements may help students feel invested in maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment.

  • Due dates: Students experiencing trauma and stress are unlikely to work as fast and efficiently as they might normally, or as you might expect them to. Set due dates but allow students to turn in their work late without penalty.

  • Flexibility: Students who were planning a project on one topic might decide midway through the quarter that the topic is not going to work for them. Meet students where they are; your flexibility will show them that you care about their learning.

  • More learning opportunities: Involve students in ungraded learning activities instead of grading all assignments, in order to prioritize learning over grades and points. These opportunities can include co-designing an activity in class or keeping a regular journal for writing reflections.

  • Plan for the unexpected: Have a plan for what you will do if a student is in crisis at the time of a crucial course deadline (e.g., midterm or final). What will your policy be for students who cannot complete key assignments? Excusing students from assignments, providing alternative assignments, and providing extensions are all options. View the Accessible Syllabus website to get ideas for effectively designing and implementing flexible deadlines and grading policies.

Class Environment

  • Create a supportive and caring learning environment for all students, but especially right now for Black students and all students who experience minoritization and marginalization. Consider the following:

    • Create course content that reflects students’ lived experiences.

    • Involve students in creating the course content (e.g., through their project topics or formats, leading discussions, picking from among a list of readings, doing presentations, editing Wikipedia pages, doing research, etc.).

    • Be sensitive to students’ existing traumas when addressing potentially triggering topics. Review CITL’s Inclusive Syllabus Language document for examples of content advisories.

  • Support students to set up peer networks of care and support, so that students can check in on each other throughout the term. When setting up these networks, be sensitive to different students’ privacy needs and preferences. Set clear expectations for which kinds of contact are appropriate and which are not, and always allow students to opt in or out of sharing personal information—no questions asked.

  • Be available to students to support their learning, such as by consistently responding to online discussion threads, hosting regular office hours or “coffee breaks”, and being clear about how and when students can reach you. Research shows that students learn better when they believe their instructor cares about their learning; establishing clear boundaries and expectations for your availability can also protect your workload and mental health during this challenging time. Recognize that not all students will be able to take extra time to meet with you even if they could use the support, so try to make notes available or provide opportunities for email or asynchronous support.

  • Be attentive to classroom dynamics, especially during group work activities. Zoom break-out rooms can make it harder for instructors to observe and intervene in student-to-student dynamics. Invite students to co-create community norms or agreements for how to interact during group work so everyone has access to learning without harassment or discrimination. Make it explicit that students can leave a break-out room at any time should they need to, and share instructions for how to do so. When using breakout rooms, it may be helpful for the instructor or a TA to remain in the main room should a student need to leave or be reassigned to another break-out room.

  • Remember that, like instructors, students may be sheltering in place in spaces where they do not want to share their personal environments with others. When hosting synchronous (live) sessions on Zoom, have an open conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of using the camera, and support students to figure out how to best maintain their privacy while fully engaging in the course. It is not recommended to make camera use mandatory.

  • Aim to avoid lecturing for a long time without breaks, and intersperse presentations with activities or reflection questions. Especially in digital learning environments such as on Zoom, it can be difficult to maintain attention.

  • If you are comfortable, lead students in a breathing (or other somatic) exercise to start class. Or have a regular check-in on zoom chat—anything that creates connection and helps them to see that they are not alone.

  • Share on- and off-campus resources with students that might help support their well-being. Some organizations like Slug Support can economically assist students during difficult times. The Resource Centers host online programs to help students socialize and/or come together to discuss difficult situations they are experiencing. Make sure students know about the confidential, trauma-informed resources available at CARE.

For Teaching Assistants

  • Communicating with your instructor: Read through this document with your course instructor and the rest of the teaching team. If you have concerns about any of the course assignments, reach out to the course instructor as soon as possible. Stress affects memory and may inhibit students from completing large projects. If you notice a student struggling to attend class or to complete coursework, notify the instructor and reach out to that student immediately.

  • Accessibility: Student schedules are particularly erratic right now. Checking for student emails with consistency and responding within an expected time frame (e.g., within 24 hours on weekdays, or as otherwise noted in your communications with students) lets students know that you are attentive to their needs. Discuss office hour requirements with the instructor and consider offering flexible office hours throughout the week rather than establishing a single set hour. It is important that students know that the TA is available to support their learning.

  • Responding to students: Students are probably more likely to open up to TAs about their personal experiences, stressors, and traumas. Be prepared to respond to students in a trauma-informed manner. TAs can validate student feelings and concerns, amplify campus resources that can support them and, depending on the context, offer to help create time-management schedules and adjust assignments and deadlines accordingly.

    • If you have any reporting obligations to Title IX, be transparent about what information you are obligated to report, without shutting down conversation.

    • You may want to take time to ask students who meet with you for office hours about how they are feeling and guide them through a short, meditation breathing activity (or other activity to help them feel grounded).

    • You can always refer students to the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) office, Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) office, and Resource Centers (such as the African American Resource Center and Cantú Center) in addition to (rather than instead of) offering your attention and support.

    • You can also connect with CARE if you need more support around how to respond to student concerns in a trauma-informed manner.

  • Ask for further guidance: TAs are encouraged to reach out to the course instructor or trusted departmental staff to discuss these points in greater detail if you have a concern about a specific student. CITL’s Remote Instruction: A Guide for TAs may also be a useful resource as you navigate pedagogical choices during remote instruction.

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