The students starting at FSU in Summer C will be attempting to make the already daunting transition to college at the most chaotic and uncertain moment of our lifetimes, so even the most fortunate of them will be under stress. Many students, new and returning, are experiencing or have experienced trauma, so we will best be able to support their learning if we follow some principles of trauma-informed pedagogy. In fact, since the practice is rooted in research on the brain, many of the principles of learner-centered teaching that we regularly recommend, and that many of you practice, are also important tenets of trauma-informed pedagogy.
Trauma affects learning in many ways. Stress floods our brains and bodies with adrenaline and cortisol; when our systems are focused on survival, we have less capacity for memory-making, and less for such luxuries as higher-order thinking. We are less able to focus. Practicing trauma-informed pedagogy will benefit all students, and helps us avoid piling additional weight upon those already carrying invisible burdens.
Here are a few strategies:
Relationships come first.
A trauma-informed approach focuses foremost on the people doing the learning. We can attempt to provide social and emotional safety in our virtual classrooms, beginning with building relationships with our students, and earning their trust. Even before the term begins, we can send students a welcome message or video. We can build a supportive community by providing regular opportunities (and guidelines) for students to connect with each other, beginning during the first week. Even if you have hundreds of students, you can survey them about their interests, backgrounds, etc. If you’re able, checking in often, about students’ simple well-being as well as their learning, makes an important point to them about how much you care. If you have too many students for this to be feasible, you can still project a warm and supportive tone, and implore them to reach out if they’re struggling.
Another essential part of earning students’ trust is making expectations clear, concrete, and fair. Explaining why you ask students to do each task, what they’re expected to do, and how they’ll be evaluated is always important for learning, and demystifying your course helps students to see that you’re not planning to trick them. Routines and patterns are also important, so that students can focus on learning the material rather than predicting what comes next.
Give students control and choice.
Feeling helpless is particularly problematic for people who have experienced trauma, so we can facilitate their learning best by offering them as much control over it as possible. We can give options for assignments, offer a range of ways to provide evidence of their learning, and build in other choices, sometimes even over the material we assign. Students learn better when they feel empowered in their learning. Even the frequent check-ins recommended above should allow students to opt out, and to comment only on their learning, and not their well-being, if they don’t wish to share.
We must never put students in a position of reliving trauma or making a spectacle of their experience. Some of our courses will address harsh realities about the pandemic, about war, violence, or injustice—and they should—but of course we must never expect anyone to educate the class with their experiences or speak for a whole category of people. As Elida Bautista explains, “There is a performative expectation especially of people of color, expectations of bringing your voice to the classroom to speak to traumas, but there are ways of doing that in which we perpetuate traumatic experiences.” Students may appreciate feeling heard, but it should always be their choice to speak. It’s a good idea to warn the class well in advance when potentially triggering discussions are coming up, so that students can opt out if necessary.
You can link to resources like counseling, case management, the victim advocate program, SAMHSA’s coping tips for traumatic events and disasters, etc., in your syllabus; if you talk about the resources in class, and remind students about them periodically, you can help normalize making use of this support.
If you’d like assistance with devising strategies for your courses, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you.