Trauma-Informed Teaching Resources
Trauma is Ubiquitous
The first thing I want to impress upon professors is that trauma is everywhere. The recent global pandemic and protests against systemic racism and racial policing, mass shootings, and climate change, and the past few years of social and political events and movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, have brought trauma and mental health into the spotlight. On top of that, our college students have been coming into Minnesota State University for years – decades – with prior trauma histories. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) studies show us that around 65% of the general population in the United States has had at least one adverse childhood experience, such as violence, abuse, or neglect, a family member attempting or dying by suicide, or growing up with a mentally-ill or substance-addicted parent; and over 12% experienced more than four ACEs. Women and people of color are at a higher risk for ACEs. There is also evidence that students are at a higher risk of experiencing new trauma in college (e.g., sexual assault) than the general population (Galatzer-Levy, Burton, & Bonanno, 2012). Therefore, it is not only important to understand how these recent and collective traumas are currently impacting our students (and ourselves or loved ones), but also that these recent events might be compounding on top of pre-existing traumatic experiences and subsequent trauma responses.
There are a number of different definitions of trauma. A traumatic experience can be simply defined as an event that "overwhelms one’s capacity to cope". More than that, though, "trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think." (Bessel van der Kolk, pg. 21, book cited below)
The terrifying, possibly life-threatening situation an individual endures highjacks the higher-order functions of the brain – the area responsible for logic and reason and planning – and the individual is instead operating purely on an emotional and survival brain. And it has long-lasting impacts on things like emotional regulation, memory, concentration, self-image, and even relationships. These recent state, national, and global events have not only disrupted our emotional or cognitive functioning, but individuals may now face things like illnesses, public safety concerns, or financial, food, or housing insecurity. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us that when physiological and safety needs are not met, higher-order processes and goals cannot be obtained.
To more fully understand our students and their learning – and then how to implement trauma-informed and trauma-responsive practices – we must learn a little bit about trauma and toxic stress, and its impact on the mind and body. You don’t have to become an expert in trauma, post-traumatic stress, or mental health. Instead, the goal here is to help you start seeing some of the learning, emotional, and behavioral problems going on in your classrooms and with your students from a more holistic, trauma-informed lens. And then use that knowledge to adapt your teaching practices.
An Introduction to the Brain and Trauma Responses
Short video: "A Quick and Simple Way to Think About the Brain"
- This infographic (in OneDrive) and video briefly explain the structures of the brain. Learning about the brain can help us better understand the areas and functions most affected by trauma.
Short video: "Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain versus Survival Brain"
- This video specifically helps teachers understand, in simple terms, what the difference is in your students who are able to be present in class in their "learning brain" versus students who have experienced trauma and are instead in a "survival brain" having a survival response.
Short video: "Three Ways Trauma Can Change the Brain"
- Bessel van der Kolk describes the three ways trauma can change the brain: 1) threat perception is heightened and therefore the individual is more primed to be triggered, 2) the filtering system is disrupted, making it harder to focus and engage, and 3) the self-sensing system changes the way the person feels about themselves.
Short video: "Recognizing the Symptoms of Trauma"
- Bessel van der Kolk describes the three main life areas affected by trauma: 1) attention, focus, and concentration, 2) affect regulation, or the ability to identify and respond to emotions in a balanced way, and 3) interpersonal relationships.
Book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- If you were interested in Dr. van der Kolk’s explanations of how trauma affects the brain and the individual, his book is a must-read. He delves into and synthesizes decades of research on the neurobiological, psychological, and psychological disruptions that trauma causes – and therapeutic approaches to address such problems.
Childhood Trauma and the Developing Brain
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- This is the study mentioned previously about the pervasiveness of childhood adversity and toxic stress.
TEDTalk: "How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime"
- Nadine Burke Harris shares her journey of discovering and understanding the physical toll that toxic stress (trauma) has on an individual across the lifespan and her contributions to what we now know as the ACEs study.
Book: The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris
- If Dr. Burke Harris' TEDTalk grabbed your interest, her book is even better at describing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and how toxic stress affects the individual across the lifespan. Her own preliminary research uncovered that her pediatric patients with four or more ACEs were over 32 times more likely to have been diagnosed with learning and behavioral problems like ADHD (p. 59), which has significant implications for teaching and learning.
Trauma-Informed Teaching Resources
What educators have done is to try to apply the key principles of a trauma-informed care approach to teaching. Not surprisingly, there are not a lot of research articles on trauma-informed practices in higher education. [If anyone is wanting to research or write something, I am eager to collaborate!] There are a number of articles for children and secondary education that may be relevant. And of course, there are so many resources about the origins of trauma-informed care and applications in the public health and mental health arenas. However, I did find a number of useful articles and guides (all PDFs in the OneDrive folder) and online training videos.
The Chronicle of Higher Education: "What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?" (June 4, 2020)
- A timely article that outlines a few basic things professors can do to prepare for the fall semester, with additional resources and readings listed at the bottom.
Blog: "Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning: Bringing a Trauma-Informed Approach to Higher Education"
- Janice Carello has a website with articles, websites, videos, presentations, and other useful resources that will introduce anyone in higher education to trauma-informed principles. More specifically, she has a number of posts and training related to times of crisis and COVID-19. Subscribe to receive updates.
Blog: "Unconditional Learning"
- Alex Shevrin Venet is an expert in trauma-informed teaching and learning. She writes articles, summarizes resources, and offers trainings, workshops, and consultations. Visit her “Getting Started with Trauma-Informed Teaching” post (2016).
Presentation: "Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis" (1 hour)
- Carello’s presentation is a must-watch/listen. She outlines basic definitions of trauma, the importance of avoiding re-traumatization, the origins of trauma-informed care, and then shares practical strategies for college educators.
Webinar: "Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning" (1 hour)
- This video was linked in the above Chronicle article as an additional resource by Mays Imad. Like Dr. Carello, Mays Imad does a great job of outlining the basics of trauma consequences, the main principles of a trauma-informed practice, and also shares some specific examples and strategies for teaching.
Podcast: "Trauma-Informed Pedagogy" (40 minutes)
- This podcast does an amazing introductory job of introducing trauma, talking about the prevalence of trauma in higher education institutions, defining how trauma and toxic stress impact learning, and providing simple strategies for what faculty/professors can do to be trauma-aware and trauma-responsive in the classroom and with their students – especially now.
Podcast: "A Crash Course in Trauma-Informed Teaching" (30 minutes)
- A useful podcast that outlines trauma-informed teaching as a "universal approach" to be taken with all students. Her DOs and DON’Ts with K-12 "kids" can be easily applied to college students.
Articles and Guides (PDFs)
- SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (2014). This is a good background article that outlines the trauma-informed framework, and key practices and principles.
- 6 Guiding Principles to a Trauma-Informed Approach (Infographic)
- Trauma-Informed Practices in Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Davidson, S. with Education Northwest.
- This is an incredible resource that starts with how to understand and recognize trauma in learners, outlines higher-risk groups, and details campus-level and classroom-specific strategies.
- Trauma Informed Care in the Classroom: A Resource Guide for Educators in Higher Learning. Smith, J with Trauma Informed Oregon Brief tip sheet.
- Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice (2015). Carello, J. & Butler, L.
- The How and Why of Trauma-Informed Teaching (2018). Shevrin Venet, A.
- Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning (2020). Newhouse, K. (summarizing Alex Shevrin Venet)
- Trauma-Informed Positive Education: Using Positive Psychology to Strengthen Vulnerable Students (2016). Brunzell, T., Stokes, H., & Waters, L.
- Shifting Teacher Practice in Trauma‑Affected Classrooms: Practice Pedagogy Strategies Within a Trauma‑Informed Positive Education Model (2019). Brunzell, T., Stokes, H., & Waters, L.
How to Respond to Students in Distress – Recorded PowerPoint
- Lindsay Murn developed and recorded this presentation to help professors (and other university staff who have regular interactions with college students) learn active listening and responding skills to help students who are struggling with any issue – recent trauma, COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues, etc. (in OneDrive)
Again, professors should not have to take on the role of trauma professional or mental health therapist and instead should become familiar with the resources on (and off) campus to point students in the right direction. Making changes to your classroom or delivery will be extremely beneficial for ALL students – not just the ones with trauma histories. But then knowing how they can get additional support beyond your classroom is the next biggest step.
- Counseling Center
- 507-389-1455 | mnsu.edu/counseling
- We provide a range of mental health and wellness services for students.
- Our website has a number of self-guided resources, peer supports, and on-demand presentations on a variety of topics like mindfulness, finding balance, self-care, etc.
- Counselors are available for university faculty and staff consultations, or for psychoeducational and mental health-related presentations in your classroom.
- Student Health Services
- Minnesota State University Mankato Campus Services and Supports
- There are a number of other campus offices that can help students, including Accessibility Resources, the Women’s Center, the Center for Academic Success, the Multicultural Center, and so many others.
Compassion fatigue in higher education is real (Raimondi, 2019). Professors take on a lot already, and although adding this knowledge and these strategies to your toolkit is tremendously helpful for your students and yourself, it can be mentally and emotionally draining.
- Remember to practice good boundaries with others (especially students), invest time and energy into hobbies and non-work interests, and engage in daily mindfulness or other practices that relieve stress and foster feelings of calm.