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Teaching Strategies

Incorporating Trauma-Informed Pedagogy into Your Courses

By Misbah Hyder

Why use trauma-informed pedagogy in your course?

Trauma-informed pedagogies are increasingly at the forefront of latest conversations about equity-oriented teaching. The COVID-19 global pandemic’s lasting effects on health and poverty, along with the reckoning about racial justice in the US through Black Lives Matter movements, have been the impetus for important conversations on the impact of trauma in higher education.

Trauma-informed practices are not reserved for only instructors teaching potentially sensitive topics. Most students have experienced a traumatic event in their lives (this is often especially the case for students from minoritized groups) and these events, even if they occurred outside an educational setting and/or years prior to going to college, can impact how students perform and conduct themselves in any classroom. Trauma can have the following impacts within the classroom:

  • Difficulty focusing, attending, retaining, and recalling
  • Tendency to miss a lot of classes
  • Fear of taking risks
  • Anxiety about deadlines, exams, group work, or public speaking
  • Anger, helplessness, or dissociation when stressed
  • Withdrawal and isolation


What is trauma-informed pedagogy?

“The foundation for effective trauma-informed classroom practice is the educator’s grasp of how trauma impacts students’ behavior, development, relationships, and survival strategies. A trauma-informed educator never forgets that students bring their entire lives into the classroom every day, and that on some days, students will be actively responding to trauma” (quoted from Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide by Dr. Shannon Davidson).

A trauma-informed course can be developed using these general guiding principles: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. Dr. Janice Carello has been at the forefront of these conversations and has built out these principles further to incorporate support & connection, social justice, and resilience, growth, & change with some examples of how instructors can incorporate this framework into their courses. 


How can you incorporate trauma-informed strategies into your course?

Physical, Emotional, Social, and Academic Safety 

This entails cultivating an atmosphere in which students are comfortable to “de-escalate their physiological survival-response” with their instructor and peers. Such survival responses can occur, for example, when students are stressed about performing well in the course or if there are sensitive topics being discussed. How can you foster a sense of comfort within your course?

  • Formative assessments that encourage students to learn from mistakes and receive feedback from their instructors.
  • Acknowledge the importance of students asking questions without judgment, and build spaces for these questions such as an ungraded Canvas discussion board (students can answer each others’ questions as well).
  • Provide content warnings before discussing/viewing sensitive material; communicate the likelihood of such topics in the syllabus and first days of the course.


Trustworthiness and Transparency

Establishing trust between instructors and students is vital. Students need to trust their instructors that they are being taught and assessed effectively, and instructors should build trust with their students to engage professionally.

  • Using Transparent Assignment Design, instructors can “reflect on how and why they are teaching specific subjects and, more importantly, to communicate these choices to their students.”
  • Transparency builds trust when course expectations are communicated consistently through clear policies and grading rubrics.
  • Avoid all-or-nothing policies on lateness, absences, and technology that are difficult to enforce consistently. 
  • Incorporate student voices by co-creating certain elements of the course, including assignment policies or rubrics.


Support & Connection

You, as the instructor, do not have to be alone in addressing student fears, anxieties, and/or traumas (we’d argue that you shouldn’t be). Connect students with appropriate peer and professional resources to help them succeed!

  • Set aside 5-minutes to go over one campus resource that you think students should know about (they may or may not be relevant to your course); you can also post information about these resources on your Canvas page and just refer students there. (See this page for some examples of resources)


Collaboration & Mutuality 

Safety and trust are reinforced throughout the course through student-student collaboration as well as instructor-student collaboration.

  • Student-student collaboration: Interactive learning and group work are important ways for students to build community. 
  • Instructor-student collaboration: Receiving feedback from students about the course and share some parts of the results – let them know what you will and/or won’t be applying to the rest of the course.


Empowerment, Voice,  & Choice

Because trauma often triggers feelings of helplessness, it is important to instill a sense of student empowerment in your courses – let students know that you are listening to them and care about their input.

  • Allow students to vote on one lesson topic – you can provide 2-3 choices and allow them to vote in the first or second week of class.
  • Provide students with options for exam prompts or modalities through which they can submit their assignments (e.g. written assignments, video/audio)


Social Justice

Communicate to students that you are committed to inclusivity and hearing the perspectives of all your students and that you are further willing to be self-reflective about your own bias. You want to hear from them and are willing to adjust to their needs.

  • Even if your course is not about topics relevant to social justice, acknowledge the systematic biases within your field – what impact does this have on your field today? 
  • Use an inclusivity statement in your syllabus


Resilience, Growth, & Change

Many of us teach because we truly enjoy seeing the growth of students over our courses and over the span of their time at ND! How can you cultivate a classroom that not just encourages student growth but actively creates ways for students to see it in themselves as well?

  • Formative assessments, as mentioned earlier, are a great way for instructors and students to observe how students have learned over the course of the semester.
  • Allow students to revise their papers and exams (especially when our own time commitments are a concern, you might couple this with peer feedback).
  • Create a grading policy that will weigh final exams/assignments more than those in the early & mid parts of the semester.



Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for the Religious and Theological Higher Education Classroom

Annotated syllabus that incorporates trauma-informed principles

Lessons from the Pandemic: Trauma-Informed Approaches to College, Crisis, Change

Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Educatio