What can I do when students stop showing up for class? What should I say when students disclose personal struggles? How do I maintain rigor yet offer flexibility? How do I recognize and respond to signs of distress in students without acting like
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve explored questions like these with hundreds of college and university educators across the globe during workshops on trauma-informed teaching. Prior to the pandemic, a few students in a course each semester might experience a trauma such as a life-threatening injury or illness, the death of a loved one, interpersonal violence, food insecurity, or homelessness. Since the pandemic, however, my perception is that many more students are undergoing these kinds of crises—and educators are urgently searching for strategies to support them.
Trauma-informed education is one strategy that can help. It involves understanding the widespread prevalence and impact of violence, victimization, and other forms of trauma in our society and using those insights to develop educational policies and practices that reduce further harm. As a trauma-informed teacher, I have learned to recognize signs of traumatic stress in my students, such as missing classes, behaving disruptively, failing assignments, or ignoring outreach from instructors and student support professionals. I try to think about these behaviors in terms of what has happened to students rather than what is wrong with them or with me. Taking a trauma-informed approach to teaching allows me to respond with compassion to students experiencing adversity and enables the creation of policies and practices that keep those students engaged with learning.
Despite the good intentions of their creators, many conventional educational policies and pedagogical practices have not served me or my students well. For example, while I understand the importance of class attendance, I realized early in my career that no one benefited if I failed a student with an A average because of the department’s attendance policy on unexcused absences. Similarly, while students need to understand the importance of due dates, failing an otherwise A paper because it was late felt like I was punishing the student who wrote it rather than fostering learning.
My initial efforts to create new ways of approaching these situations were not always effective; in fact, they sometimes made the situation worse. For instance, when I experimented with eliminating due dates throughout the semester, the lack of structure increased anxiety and resulted in lower grades for some students because they didn’t plan sufficient time for revision. And because some students turned in all their assignments at the end of the semester, I struggled under the stress of having to grade a mountain of assignments in a short period of time. I decided to take a different approach.
Through my training as a social worker with a certificate in trauma counseling, I had become familiar with trauma-informed approaches to behavioral health, child welfare, and K–12 education. I decided to apply psychologists Roger D. Fallot and Maxine Harris’s trauma-informed framework to my classroom teaching. Utilizing its core values—safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment—allows me to focus on student learning and remain connected to my students and my love of teaching, even during times of crisis in the world. These core values serve as useful guides rather than as prescriptive rules—what works in one learning environment may not work as well in another. For example, some instructors warn students about potentially distressing content in upcoming course content, while other instructors only provide links in the syllabus to resources that offer support for academic and mental health. These actions demonstrate a commitment to creating a learning environment in which students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.
Over the years, I have learned five key lessons about caring for students during times of crisis:
→Be predictable. Students who have experienced trauma may persistently feel on guard or expect the worst. Instructors can establish predictable patterns to help students build trust and manage the anxiety that can arise from uncertainty. For instance, I often hear students complain that faculty are not answering their emails. When faculty don’t respond to emails in a timely manner, they can inadvertently send the message that they don’t care about their students. This can produce anxiety for students who have previously lived in erratic and unsafe environments. I’ve observed that students manage stress better when their instructor has a consistent email response time.
Keeping courses—including syllabi, class sessions, and the online learning environment—well organized is another way instructors can increase predictability for students.
→Be flexible. Because trauma involves a loss of control, inflexible teaching methods can cause students who have experienced trauma to go into survival mode. Instructors can modify high-stakes activities such as tests and presentations to reduce stress for students and thus improve their learning. For example, I often allow students to retake tests or have more time to finish tests. These strategies assess knowledge rather than a student’s ability to take tests under pressure and can also increase knowledge retention. Implementing a “no questions asked” late work policy can also be effective. With this approach, students do not need to provide an excuse or disclose any personal health information in order to submit work late within a specified time window with no grade penalty. Students are still held accountable for completing the work, but the policy eliminates the need for faculty to judge which excuses are justified.
→Respond with empathy. After trauma, students may isolate, be hypervigilant, or have difficulty trusting others or themselves. Responding with empathy to students who have experienced trauma helps them feel safe and conveys the message that “I see, hear, and value you.” Being empathetic also allows us, as faculty, to position ourselves as allies of students rather than as adversaries.
For example, if a student shows up to office hours visibly upset and claims a grade of D was unfairly given, any faculty member may find it difficult to remain calm. We may have the impulse to ask whether the student really studied for the test. We may feel the need to correct the student by observing that, technically, a D is a passing grade.
I’ve found it’s more effective to first respond with empathy. Rather than saying, “Don’t worry, you’re passing the course,” I will say, “It sounds like you’re really disappointed with your grade.” Because students perceive that I understand and care about them, they are then more receptive to any corrections or advice I might offer.
→Avoid power struggles. What can faculty members do if empathy doesn’t work or tension escalates? First, avoid scolding the student and making sarcastic or defensive comments. That can increase the student’s perception of threat and escalate negative behaviors such as arguing or cursing. Instead, work with the student to solve the problem. Help the student re-establish a sense of control. Rather than exerting my authority, I try to set boundaries and offer choices. For example, if a student starts to complain or cry, I might offer the option of either finishing a test or taking it at a later date. Recognizing our limits as faculty members is also important. Sometimes the best choice is to refer a student to a guidance counselor or other appropriate on-campus resource.
→Normalize seeking help. Students can have a hard time asking for help, especially if they have experienced trauma or if they are unaware of resources. Faculty can empower students by sharing information about campus and community support. This also normalizes the idea that it’s OK to seek help while allowing faculty members to maintain healthy boundaries and clarity that, as educators, our role is to teach.
Ultimately, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that small changes make a big difference. As educators, we cannot fix our students’ problems or protect them from suffering. However, we can use a trauma-informed approach to respond compassionately to students and create environments that support both teaching and learning.
Illustration by Jin Xia
TRAUMA: Exposure to one or more events that are emotionally disturbing and/or perceived as life-threatening with lasting effects on an individual's well-being and functioning.
EMPATHY: The ability to sense and share another person's emotions and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
COMPASSION: Using the recognition of our shared humanity to respond to other people in ways that reduce suffering.