Resources on Trauma Informed Pedagogy

Adapted with permission from Azuza Pacific's Trauma Informed Pedagogy Series

What is Trauma?

Individual trauma, according to the U.S. Department of Public Health, “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). Many students have experienced the emotional, social, physical, and spiritual impact of COVID19 as traumatic, especially if they have a history of previous traumatic experiences. Many students indeed have a history of experiencing violence: physical abuse, sexual assault, interpersonal/domestic violence, community violence, etc. Other traumatic experiences include the impact of racism or other discrimination, traumatic grief, and other adverse childhood experiences. All these experiences may have significant impact on learning and emotion regulation (CDC, 2020; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015).

How are College Students?

The pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles, and one in four (25%) of 18-24 year olds contemplated suicide in June, 2020 (CDC, 2020). At the same time, 60% of students reported that the pandemic has made access to mental health care more difficult (Healthy Minds Network, 2020). Finally, 53% of incoming first year students have substantial increases in mental exhaustion and suffered increased depression, hopelessness, and loneliness (Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, 2021).

Faculty have an important role in supporting student mental health and designing classroom environments conducive to mental health. In many cases students might need extra academic help - and, perhaps, a little leeway in the classroom.That doesn't mean reducing academic rigor (Brown, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2021). 

What is Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP)?

Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) is a teaching methodology that works to understand students’ unique experiences and validates the variety of traumatic experiences that can impact a student’s learning (Imad, 2021). Students thrive in the classroom through TIP when they feel safe, welcomed, and supported. “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?’” (SAMHSA, 2014). Professors utilizing TIP seek to understand why students respond the way they do, so that they might effectively engage students in learning processes that respect student positionalities.

Trauma informed teaching practices are based on SAMHSA’s trauma-informed principles of safety, trustworthiness, peer support, collaboration, empowerment and cultural, historical and gender issues (SAMHSA, 2014). Faculty can consider ways to allow students to experience emotional safety as they create their curriculum, with honesty and transparency in the class expectations, choice in how students can engage with others, and opportunities to explore their strengths (Davidson, 2017). Implementing these principles allows a campus to recognize the impact of trauma in the community, understand pathways for recovery, and allows faculty to actively resist re-traumatization to best care for students (SAMHSA, 2014).

Why Implement TIP?

Students may enter the fall semester with significant traumatic experiences, from the impacts of racism and political stress, grief and loss, adjustment to in-person learning or on-campus living, navigating re-establishing friendships after significant social isolation, and likely holding feelings of uncertainty and fear about their future. These impacts can have significant influence on a student’s ability to learn, retain information, and to hold typical levels of motivation due to the added layers of stress, anxiety, and depression that may result from these factors (Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015).

In the classroom, students may exhibit difficulty concentrating, challenges staying cognitively present in class, apprehension around connecting with others, low motivation, racing thoughts, or feelings of fear or anxiety (Hoch, Stewart, Webb, & Wyandt-Hiebert, 2015; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015). These experiences are often the brain’s way of trying to protect the student, a way to cope with the distressing situation by implementing a fight, flight, or freeze survival response that originates in the limbic system (Hoch et al., 2015; Imad, 2020; Van Der Kolk, 2015). This once protective emotional response, however, can make it challenging for students to absorb and consolidate information, to reason, remember, and reproduce learning, all of which are a product of more developed brain structures in the neocortex (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). In some cases, a history of trauma is correlated with lower academic performance, poor adjustment to college, lower GPA, and higher rates of attrition (Carello & Butler, 2014).

Implementing TIP allows students the opportunity to thrive. TIP helps faculty to skillfully present material in a way that is considerate of students’ emotional needs, challenging them to use their community and internal resources for growth, while still allowing them to engage meaningfully with curriculum content (Davidson, 2017). Rather than having students disengage or want to avoid class due to activating classroom experiences, students will feel cared for and supported to address challenging subjects in an intentional environment that avoids re-traumatization.

What TIP Practices Work in a Syllabus?

Consider syllabus adaptations based on these key principles and your own self assessment:

  • Clearly articulate class policies, deadlines, and expectations.
  • Create consistency and structure with required assignments and class facilitation.
  • Increase limits to accepting late work to provide flexibility for those who may need it, using restorative practices rather than zero tolerance practices.
  • Consider student accountability handled in a way that conveys “What’s happened to the student?” versus “What’s wrong with the student?”
  • Place disclaimers in your syllabus when addressing potentially activating topics, “Some content discussed in this section may be activating for some students.
  • Please notice how you are responding to the discussion/assignment and be intentional to care for yourself and communicate to others if you need support.”
  • Build self-reflection and self-care into assignments and the classroom such as journaling, mindfulness, grounding, or deep breathing breaks to build in opportunities for emotion regulation. Start each class with a Mindful Minute
  • Facilitate peer activities that help students connect with classmates to provide mutual support.
  • Offer “live” office hours via video conferencing/in person for student connection and support.
  • Contemplate how each student’s strengths and resilience are recognized and mobilized.
What Syllabus Resources are Available?

Student Success Resources: As you prepare syllabi and electronic resources for the spring semester, the Provost’s Office has collected common information that you may wish to include about student success resources at the college. At the link below you will find descriptions of frequently-accessed services such as accessibility accommodations, tutoring and learning centers, research and technology assistance, and general information about well-being. Please feel free to incorporate these materials into your course syllabi and/or modify them as needed for your specific classes: student success resources.

Counseling and Other Campus Resources: Students face many challenges in college, and there are many resources to support them. First of all, If you or someone you know need immediate help, call University Police at 585-245-5222, or call 911 or 211. For other immediate assistance, text "GOT5" to 741-741 for Crisis Text Line (or call 1-800-273-TALK) or use the NY State Office of Mental Health COVID-19 Emotional Support Helpline 1-844-863-9314 (8am - 10pm, 7 days/week). Our colleagues at Health & Counseling have created a Coping with College page with a number of resources that students (or faculty & staff) may find useful. 

Where can I learn more about TIP and student mental health?