SIP 13.5 Trauma-Responsive Teaching

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student walking on snowy sidewalk.

A traumatic experience is any event in life that causes a threat to our safety and well-being. More than two-thirds of the population report experiencing at least one Adverse Childhood Experience. ACEs are common among all populations, and nearly a quarter of people have experienced three or more in their youth. This translates to two of every three students in your classes having had a traumatic experience at some point in their childhood. 2020 brought us the dual trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic and race-related social unrest, which continue to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color into 2021. While there is much to be hopeful for with vaccines and a return to in-person activities, the sustained trauma of 2020 (compounded with any previously experienced trauma) will be with us and our students for a long time. Working to integrate trauma-informed and trauma-responsive teaching strategies (See SIP 12.5), especially as we navigate one unprecedented event after another, can aid in creating inclusive learning spaces that center students’ well-being.

Take a SIP of This: Trauma-Responsive Teaching

Becoming a trauma-responsive teacher means building on consciousness of what trauma is and how the effects of trauma can manifest in behavior even years later. Generally, you will not have knowledge of what students have experienced prior to their enrollment in your classes. Have you ever had a student completely break down over a video you’ve shown? Worked with a student who engaged in significant self-doubt about what they can accomplish? Taught a student who is always present and on time but deeply unengaged? These can be the long-term effects of trauma. There can be strong emotional responses or disassociation to concepts covered or belief instilled in students that they will never be able to be successful because of identities they hold. Faculty can also create trauma-responsive spaces by:

  • Working to check in and provide space for students, especially in virtual learning environments. This can be done by allowing time at the beginning of class for students to answer a grounding question, playing music while students do a three-minute writing prompt or holding time for open reflection in small groups. Grounding questions might include how they are responding to a current event that has taken place or asking them how they have previously responded to challenges they have faced. Hearing ideas and reflections from peers can often be reassuring that they are not alone.
  • Fostering a feeling of belonging and value for students who have not seen themselves or their experiences represented in curriculum or pedagogy. Seek additional resources outside of your typical methods. What perspectives, identities or sources could you bring into your class?
  • Remember that all students benefit from trauma-informed and trauma-responsive practices. By trying on some of these approaches, you are serving all students and normalizing that everyone can show up as their full selves. This work is ongoing as research continues to explore the full extent of adults who have experienced trauma.

Personal self-care is also pivotal to trauma-responsive work. Awareness of how you need to recharge after working through challenging content or teaching the day after a crisis is paramount to sustainability. Time with loved ones, a call with a friend or a long run may be ways for you to feel refreshed. Knowing personal triggers and how they may impact your teaching and work with students is necessary as we navigate crises and the sustained trauma of the pandemic. You won’t always “get it right” or have all the answers, so it is important to be aware of resources on campus and in the community. Be gentle with yourself and your needs and extend that gentleness to your students.

Still thirsty? Take a SIP of this:  

  1. Want to learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences? Take the ACE quiz.
  2. Into podcasts? Check out Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., on Armchair Expert: Burke Harris is the surgeon general of California and has been a leading researcher in the connections among ACEs, toxic stress and lifelong illness.
  3. Consider working through the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center’s Trauma-Responsive Practices in the Classroom virtual course.
  4. Learning for Justice’s Trauma-Responsive Education
  5. Utilize MSU Denver’s School of Education Trauma-Informed Practices resource page.

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