Trauma-informed Teaching: Resources and Tips from the Field

By Angie Smith, Associate Teaching Professor, Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development & Erik Messinger, Ph.D Candidate, Online Graduate Teaching Assistant

Online teaching has become the new normal for many of us. With a new semester upon us, educators are encouraged to teach from a trauma-informed approach during COVID-19. But what exactly does this mean? Angela Watson, author, board certified teacher, and instructional coach, encourages instructors to “think of trauma informed teaching not as a curriculum, a set of prescribed strategies, or something you need to ‘add to your plate.’ It’s more like a lens through which you choose to view your students which will help you build better relationships, prevent conflict, and teach them effectively.” We are not suggesting instructors serve as counselors or mental health professionals, but rather develop an awareness of our students, and even our own, experiences related to various levels of trauma.

It is important to consider trauma when teaching from a trauma-informed approach. Trauma can have many meanings to many different people. SAMHSA (2014), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, views trauma through three E’s: events, experiences, and effects.

  • Event(s) is related to physical or psychological harm or the threat of harm. This threat can occur once or over a period of time and is applied to all types of harms such as physical violence or natural disasters.
  • Experience of event(s) is related to how an individual conceptualizes what is happening around them. One event may be traumatic for one person but may have no effect on another person who witnessed or was a part of the same event. The way individuals experience an event and assign meaning to that incident is oftentimes determined by their age, experiences, social supports, and cultural beliefs. For many, guilt, shame, and humiliation often shape the experience.
  • Effects are the most critical component of trauma and gain the most attention. The effects of a trauma vary greatly between individuals. For some, the effects of the trauma can occur immediately after the event or may have a delayed onset and not appear for a long time. The effects of a trauma can also be short term or long term in duration (SAMHSA, 2014).

Creating a trauma-informed online class can be challenging and overwhelming to think about. To help with this process, we suggest some approaches to help meet students where they are during these times while also helping instructors juggle the demanding roles now placed upon us.

Before Class

  • Breathe and reflect: Take a moment for you to reflect on how you are feeling and what you need as you start the semester and class, including sleep, rest, water, connection with a colleague/friend, silence, movement, etc.
  • Welcome letter: Think about creating a welcome letter and Google form to gauge difficulties students may have before the semester begins.
  • Syllabus: Consider your syllabus design/structure: organization of material and ease in locating content, topics, deadlines, and important information.
  • Calendar: Create a master calendar with all the main assignments, due dates, and important info as a quick reference.
  • Assignment creation: due to the nature of students’ individual living situations, it may be important to consider offering students a few different ways to share knowledge with you, the instructor and each other. Incorporating assignments that can be submitted via video, such as FlipGrid or Voicethread submissions can provide alternate ways for students to engage with each other and the material, while building community with each other as well.
  • Logistics/structure/organization of our space: consider adding resources that extend beyond on the class (i.e. COVID, counseling center, advocacy).
  • Time for Connection: Consider making online learning spaces available before class begins to connect with each other much like on-campus classes where students can arrive before the faculty enters the room. Oftentimes authentic connections and conversations may ensue from these opportunities in between times or spaces.
  • Encourage mindfulness moments: incorporate time for calm, rest, and gratitude in both the synchronous and asynchronous classroom spaces. Taking a few moments at the beginning of your Zoom session to pause and breathe or adding adult coloring pages related to your content area on your LMS (Learning Management System) can be an optional way for students to reduce stress.
  • Consistent pace: Opening the class each week in a fairly regular schedule and not all at once in the LMS (i.e. Moodle) to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by massive amounts of content. Keep the pace, amount of information, and structure manageable.
  • Content availability: Access to material earlier (opening up modules in advance in case students can engage in different times).

During Class

  • Safety: Creating a safe environment is paramount, both in our LMS and Zoom “live” classroom spaces. Inviting students to engage and understand students may be “showing up” with various emotions and stress levels each day.
  • Setting the tone (asynchronously): Each week, start the week with a quick phone recorded video with encouragement (or use whatever technology you feel most comfortable using to record a less than 3 minute video).
  • Setting the tone (synchronously): Starting the class with a grounding exercise, including to exude a warm, welcoming, and calm inviting space, include relaxing music or music related to the topic for the day/week. Consider asking students for good news happening in their lives.
  • Check-in: The check-in can take many forms, poll questions, mental health check-in on a quick likert scale, a thumbs up and body language to ensure students are physically and socially engaged.
  • Opt-in or Opt-out: We all have difficult days. Some content and topics in our classes may be challenging to discuss for students. Giving options for “opting-in” by engaging or “opting out” (i.e. turning off their camera in Zoom) can create agency and provide students with choices in the session.
  • Trauma-sensitive teaching approach: Acknowledging the trauma and naming it: sharing with students from the beginning of the class and throughout that you recognize we are living in challenging and uncertain times due to the pandemic and racial inequities and tension in our community and world.
  • Collaboration: Utilize breakout rooms for students to engage in small groups, feel connected, and to support one another.
  • Private chat box in Zoom: Reach out to students who may appear to be struggling during the session.
  • Intersectionality: Recognizing and teaching through the lens that not all students are the same. Consider the multiple identities of students related to gender, race, culture, historical context, background, and more.
  • Grounding yourself: Encourage water, food, or even stress balls, etc. to place in your hands to keep you grounded for stress-release and kinesthetic learners (make sure your mute button is off and use discretion).
  • Encourage self care: Consider a self care assignment to encourage wellness and better connect with your students.
  • Intentionality: When you grade and respond to students, use their name and engage in a way that is personalized and demonstrate that they are “seen”.

Tips, Resources and Best Practices

  • Remain flexible with yourself and your students and give grace always.
  • Consider your tone and how you are showing up. What do you want to convey and how do you want to show up in the virtual classroom? How can we demonstrate empathy and embrace our own humanity?
  • Reach out to colleagues and link arms with other faculty who are navigating online learning during these uncertain times as well. We can learn so much from each other and together.
  • Recognize (or be cognizant of) students’ stories and situations with regard to their capacity and level of motivation in our current context to engage in learning. Be kind, gentle, and understanding.
  • Remain connected: physical distancing does not mean “socially” distancing from each other. Intentionally create and invite “informal” spaces in various multiple platforms for students to engage, share, and connect.
  • Think about your own bandwidth as you create assignments. Take into account the size of your class and the types of assignments you are offering to assess students’ learning.
  • As you are able, be willing to stay after or find alternative times to meet with students if they are asking for extra support or connection – their lives and schedules are different too.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind we cannot pour from an empty cup. Today and always, it is essential that we take care of ourselves and each other. Our students are watching as we model through our teaching and actions how to care for one another.

Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness. – Desmond Tutu