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Trauma-Informed Teaching During COVID-19

Posted by on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in News, Resource.

By Leah Marion Roberts, Senior Graduate Teaching Fellow, 2020-2021

Student using laptop computer in comfy chairTrauma-informed teaching recognizes that students’ emotional and physical wellbeing, sense of security and belonging, and their past and current traumas influence their ability to learn. In other words, it responds to the reality that students are whole people with whole, complicated lives, in and out of the classroom. As such, classroom instructors must prepare for how they will respond when personal crises (e.g., a family emergency, mental health concerns) or collective crises (e.g., environmental disaster, a mass shooting, racist or xenophobic events) occur. It is not the instructors’ responsibility to solve these crises. Rather, instructors are encouraged to understand that such experiences will impact students’ ability to learn and thus proactively consider how their pedagogical decisions, course structure, and expectations/policies might be responsive to such traumas and stressors. Further, instructors should be aware that marginalized students face additional and unique traumas and stressors because of structural inequality. For example, some students will have limited access to educational resources such as computers or internet, some may experience food insecurity or unsafe living conditions, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are forced to navigate the daily traumas of surviving white supremacy culture. Therefore, part of trauma-informed teaching is also about addressing power and considering how one’s course and pedagogy might actively seek to resist oppression.

Although trauma-informed teaching is always relevant, fall 2020 presents a unique and unprecedented moment where students and instructors will be experiencing higher levels of trauma and stress, combined with a new set of norms and expectations for teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic. Below, I provide recommendations and considerations for instructors who aim to approach teaching from a trauma-informed perspective during hybrid and online instruction and physical distancing measures, drawing on advice from several Vanderbilt instructors.

Foster Connection & Belonging

Creating a sense of connection and belonging in the classroom is an essential trauma-informed teaching strategy. Establishing a personal connection with students includes communicating clearly and frequently that students’ wellbeing is important to you as an instructor. Allison Leich Hilbun, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, puts it this way: “I feel that one of the most important factors in student connection and comfort in courses is the palpability of the instructor’s concern for emotional issues. Students are able to discern when an instructor truly feels strongly about mental health.” Multiple Vanderbilt professors highlight the importance of including statements on a syllabus that communicates the instructor’s priority for student well-being and mental health. Additionally, instructors might build such messaging into the course elsewhere, such as in Brightspace announcements and video-based overviews of course expectations.

In order to build more in-depth relationships between the instructor and students, multiple Vanderbilt instructors plan to offer one-on-one Zoom meetings with students. This option is only possible as class size and personal capacity of the instructor permit.

It is also important to create a sense of connection and belonging across all members of the classroom community. Online classes provide unique and creative opportunities to reimagine community building. Divya Chaudhry, Lecturer in Hindi-Urdu in the Department of Asian Studies plans “to offer various opportunities where students can share snippets from their lives and bring their whole selves into the classroom. Some examples include sharing memes/Tiktok videos, thematic Zoom backgrounds (e.g. favorite spot in their city of residence, a place they want to visit, a meme/facial expression that represents their current feelings about online classes), sharing their photographs (for instance, throwback photographs during a unit on Hindi-Urdu past habitual tense), and renaming themselves during Zoom meetings (e.g. to the lyrics of their favorite song/a favorite quote from a book or movie).”

Importantly, a sense of joy and pleasure are essential to cultivating connection in classes. In their comprehensive guide on Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19, Aimi Hamraie, Associate Professor of Medicine Health & Society and American Studies suggests that instructors “build in elements of pleasure and connection to counteract social isolation.” Neil Kelley, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences plans to use “light-hearted but honest Brightspace announcements, soothing music & videos at the start of lessons, and a Spotify playlist (with liner notes)” as ways of connecting with students and helping them feel at ease. Professor Chaudhry also says that the use of games, including improvisational theater techniques, are “an excellent source of laughter and emotional release, and additionally emphasize being a good listener and staying in the present moment.”

Commit to Flexibility

Commitment to flexible attendance policies, deadlines, and course expectations is another trauma-informed teaching strategy. Asynchronous course content allows for a lot of flexibility, as students are able to engage with content at their own pace, a strategy that multiple Vanderbilt professors who will be teaching online plan to use. Additionally, flexibility with deadlines and including multiple, low-stakes assignments with options for students to drop some grades can help alleviate student stress. Jesse Blocher, Assistant Professor of Finance, notes that flexible policies around attendance and deadlines have always been part of his classes; however, this semester he acknowledges he must “change expectations around the frequency of these requests.”

Instructors may want to communicate frequently with students to get a sense of their evolving needs throughout the semester via both structured (e.g., anonymous survey) and unstructured (e.g., asking a question during a synchronous meeting) mechanisms. This includes acknowledging, as Abby Luck Parish, Associate Professor of Nursing, does that “students are all facing challenges, but each person’s challenges are unique.”

Further, some students may need guidance and support feeling empowered to ask for an extension, or even acknowledging that they are overwhelmed. To address this, Professor Parish plans to distribute “a ‘script’ for requesting assignment extensions.” Additionally, she plans to periodically “send emails encouraging them to check in with themselves and normalizing asking for extensions when needed.”

Know Your Own Limits

Instructors must understand that in their teaching roles and responsibilities, they are not professionally trained or expected to respond directly to students’ traumas. As one anonymous Vanderbilt professor reminds us “I am not trained in trauma-informed teaching or therapy, so for me, it is really important to acknowledge my limits and boundaries.” Such limits and boundaries include acknowledging that you can’t know about or solve all students’ stress, trauma, and difficulty. Further, instructors are also navigating stress and trauma. Setting healthy boundaries and being willing to make mistakes as an instructor are important elements of self-care.

What instructors can and should do, however, is check in on their students and be aware of university-wide support networks when such referrals are needed. Instructors may benefit from participating in Kognito, an online interactive program that helps build awareness and develop skills on identifying and referring students in mental distress. Instructors should be aware of university resources for helping students navigate access to educational resources such as stable internet and laptops. Professor Leich Hilbun plans to emphasize to students from the beginning of class that “the university has extensive resources to which I can direct them. For instance, students may be unaware that they can still seek help at the University Counseling Center and have remote sessions, and I will make sure that they are aware of this.” Another anonymous instructor plans to “invite experts from across campus, including folks from Project Safe and the Office of LGBTQI Life, in order for students to get to know other people on campus who play important roles on our campus.”

Understanding and acting from trauma-informed perspectives is not only the responsibility of individual instructors, but is a responsibility of the entire University system. Instructors are not in it alone.

Integrate Course Content with Justice and Equity Frameworks

In order to address the particular traumas and crises that arise from social inequities, some instructors may want to find ways to address justice and equity frameworks directly via their course content. Not only does this provide a direct message about one’s commitment to fostering equity and inclusion as course commitments, it also may deepen student learning by providing opportunities for students to connect their real-world experiences with course content.

Professor Chaudhry reflects: “Now more than ever, as I design my course assignments, it has become important for me to ask myself: why should students care to study a language during the current social, political, economic, and health crisis? I do not expect learners to continue to do the same assignments that they did in the course of a usual semester without addressing the reality we are in. Hence, I am working on revising my course material and assignments to incorporate systematic examination of social justice themes in the target and their native cultures/languages.”


For more information on trauma-informed teaching, check out the Center for Teaching’s teaching guides on Teaching in Times of Crisis and Keeping Stress from Evolving into Distress: A Guide on Managing Student Stress through Course Design and Cait Kirby’s webinar Trauma-Informed Teaching: Maslow First, then Bloom.


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