Teaching Tuesdays: Trauma-Informed Pedagogy and Instructor Self-Care


The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our ongoing series on pedagogy in higher ed and on the RU-N campus.



Pre-pandemic, colleges and universities were already serving more students with more stress than at any prior point in history. Now, we are steering students through a period uniquely marked by fear, isolation, contagion, and societal unrest. The pandemic is not only a physical and institutional crisis but also a profound emotional crisis, and as John Medina reminds us in Brain Rules, “Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.”


As educators, we are charged with helping our students learn to the best of their ability regardless of the stress, anxiety, or trauma they carry with them. What science knows about stress, trauma, and learning is this: there is a tipping point where normal stress, an inevitable part of the human condition, transforms from ally to enemy. Since the early 1990s, neuro-endocrinologists have referred to persistent toxic levels of stress as “allostatic load,” or the point at which stress begins to negatively affect brain function. Under the weight of allostatic load, the portions of the brain that are responsible for memory, planning, organization and learning begin to fail. As Karen Costa puts it, “If learning is a fistfight, students who’ve breached their allostatic load are fighting with both hands tied behind their back.”

Stressed-out students, as well as their stressed-out instructors, can work together to cope and heal within the confines of higher ed. Trauma-Informed Pedagogy (TI Pedagogy) refers to a holistic teaching approach that 1) understands the ways in which violence, victimization, and other forms of trauma can impact individuals, families, and communities and 2) uses that understanding to inform educational policies and practices to prevent (re)traumatization and promote learning, resilience, and growth. (See Carello & Butler, 2014). Simply put, TI Pedagogy combines what science knows about PTSD and allostatic load and what educators know about cognition and active learning. While chronic stress/allostatic load and trauma are different, yet interconnected conditions, TI Pedagogy emphasizes stress management, compassionate decision making, and care for the whole student.


Instructors considering a TI approach to teaching should bear in mind that:

  • TI teaching practices are beneficial to all students, regardless of a clinical diagnosis or underlying stress condition.

  • Rates of trauma or trauma histories amongst college students are likely higher you think. (See stats below)

  • Adopting a TI centered approach to teaching also helps acknowledge and offset pervasive socioeconomic and health disparities already at work in your classroom. (See Dasco et al, 2020; Szanton et al, 2005)

  • We are ALL living through a traumatic event, RIGHT NOW, even though we all experience it differently.

See: Bernat et al, 1998; Frazier et al, 2009; Read et al, 2011; Smyth et al, 2008

Image Credit: Janice Carello, Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis



Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery (1997), explains that “Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.” Being a trauma-aware educator means making learning accessible and actively striving to (i) help reestablish lost connections, (ii) make learning meaningful, and (iii) empower students with healthy choices.


There are six basic principles of TI teaching that instructors should familiarize themselves with:

  1. Ensure emotional, cognitive, physical, and interpersonal SAFETY in your course.

  2. Foster TRUSTWORTHINESS and TRANSPARENCY with your teaching and in your communications with students.

  3. Facilitate PEER SUPPORT structures.

  4. Promote COLLABORATION and MUTUALITY.

  5. Empower students’ VOICES and CHOICES.

  6. Pay attention to and acknowledge CULTURAL, RELIGIOUS, HISTORICAL, and GENDER-RELATED difference.


How these principles manifest in your teaching is up to you, and there are many resources available to help you brainstorm options and approaches. Previous Teaching Tuesday entries on Transparency and Group Work may prove useful in your creative process, but note that TI Pedagogy also considers less formalized interpersonal (teacher-student, student-student) connections and communications central to the TI model. Try to devise ways for your students to connect that are not just about assessed projects, for example, staging a Netflix Watch Party for a course-related film, or creating small accountability groups that check-in with each other periodically throughout the semester. When something traumatic happens (e.g., death in the family, a local safety emergency, a violent insurrection, natural disaster, another instance of police brutality, etc.), give your students options that promote self-care, such as cancelling or rescheduling your class, providing an asynchronous option, or pushing back a deadline. Aim to balance structure with flexibility, to help keep students on track toward their goals, to be present and accessible, to give your students an academic focus (which may function, ironically, as a much-needed distraction), while also respecting that many of our students have other survival issues at play right now.


Finally, Trauma-Informed Pedagogy sees faculty and student as interdependent. Many of us are faring only slightly better than our students at the moment. We are heavy-hearted, anxious, and experiencing our own allostatic breaches and trauma. Parker Palmer states, “We teach we who are.” We cannot give what we do not have. TI Pedagogy also presses us to pay attention to our own trauma and mitigate its impact on our ability to teach and help our students learn and flourish.


Ultimately, TI pedagogy is about forging meaningful connections between students and educators. Just as a student’s unprompted “thank you” will brighten your day and suffuse you with positive energy, so, too, can a simple check-in or remembered detail of a student’s life give them the hope needed to heal.


TIPS & REMINDERS FOR TRAUMA-INFORMED EDUCATORS

  • Engage in self-care and healthy boundaries (and model it for your students).

  • Recognize and address signs of empathy fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma

  • Avoid negatively generalizing students or student behavior. In particular, use intentional language -- avoid sarcasm, scolding or defensive language.

  • Compile local resources for students (therapy, crisis and community resources). Share visibly and often. Provide trigger warnings for sensitive material.

  • You will not and cannot always know what your students are going through – but keep the lines of communication open if students want to share.


Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Resources:

More on Trauma, its Effects, and its Treatment:

More on Allostatic Load:


SEE ALSO: Last week’s entry on Supporting Student Mental Health During a Pandemic.


Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark

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One Year In

The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our ongoing series on pedagogy in higher ed and on the RU-N campus.