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Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices

“Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (SAMSA, 2022, March). As Carello and Butler remind us, “[n]ot only do students arrive at college with a trauma exposure history, but some also experience trauma while there” ( 2014, p. 157). The effects of these experiences on students’ well-being, approaches to learning, and engagement in our courses may be bleak. To counter these effects, we must recognize trauma in ourselves and our students and ensure that we help them feel safe, empowered, and connected.

Signs of Trauma in Classes
  • Difficulty learning, being attentive, retaining information, synthesizing ideas
  • Not attending class or not attending class attentively
  • Difficulty with emotional regulation
  • Increased anxiety about school tasks that normally students have found manageable (tests, group work, speaking)
  • Withdrawal and isolation (Hoch et al., 2015, as cited in Davidson, 2017)
What is Trauma-informed Pedagogy?

Instructors who are hesitant to implement trauma-informed teaching may believe that doing so entails diluting the curriculum, lowering standards, or being mental health experts. These are all myths.

Trauma-informed pedagogy recognizes that we and our students have past and present experiences that may negatively affect both teaching and learning. ‘‘Trauma-informed educators recognize students’ actions are a direct result of their life experiences. When their students act out or disengage, they don’t ask them, ‘What is wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What happened to you?’” (Huang et al., 2014).

Trauma-informed pedagogy displays empathy. Meyers et al. (2019) explain that teachers display empathy when they “work to deeply understand students’ personal and social situations, to feel care and concern in response to students’ positive and negative emotions, and to respond compassionately without losing the focus on student learning. Teacher empathy is communicated to students through course policies as well as the instructor’s behavior toward students.”

A Trauma-informed Approach

In using a trauma-informed approach, instructors maintain consistent and high expectations while helping students build competency and confidence to counter negativity with positive experiences. As Carello and Butler suggest, instructors should recognize “student emotional safety” as essential to learning, realize that “a trauma history may impact your students’ academic performance, even without trauma being a topic in the classroom,” and refer students to counseling when needed (2014, pp. 163-164).

Reasonable Goals for Instructors

  • Maximize the possibilities for educational success
  • Raise awareness of long-term pandemic stress and trauma
  • Destigmatize trauma and seeking help
  • Direct students to sources of support
  • Practice and model empathy
Course Design
  • Optimize the atmosphere: Make class a place for relationship building, experiencing success, and practicing the behaviors of resiliency.
  • Be clear and consistent: Make expectations and daily class experience clear, predictable, and comfortable. Include choice, control, and opportunities for students to share their concerns and experiences.
  • Create opportunities for student empowerment: Emphasize strengths and resilience, and encourage choice making. Build community and connections in your classroom by encouraging peer contact and by supporting networks and campus community involvement.
  • Open the door to articulation of fears: Use a quick writing assignment or survey to help students work through their fears in a logical and rational way. Learn where the fear originates in order to support the fear.
  • Foreground the relevance of cultural differences: Support different perspectives and interpretations on trauma and be prepared to acknowledge mistaken assumptions based on your own cultural window. Ask questions and listen to your students
  • Support growth and resilience: Empower students by giving supportive feedback to reduce negative thinking. Acknowledge the wide range of situations that individuals come from and offer support in identifying concerns and resources. Share your own experience of educational and other struggles – failing builds resiliency.
  • Recognize and mitigate the possibility of retraumatization: Consider whether your assignments or class materials have the potential to trigger certain students, and develop strategies to mitigate this risk (trigger warnings, options).
Make Referrals

Vermont State University has a number of student support services available. Review these resources with your students and also directly refer individuals. Although contact information will vary by campus, options for support include:

  • Academic Advising
  • Career Advising
  • Wellness Center
  • Office of the Dean of Students
  • Academic Support Services

It’s important to acknowledge that not only students can be affected by trauma, but instructors as well. What can instructors do to manage their own anxiety?

  • Consider and acknowledge if you have experienced or are experiencing trauma
  • Seek help
  • Seek community among colleagues and friends
  • Practice kindness to colleagues so it comes back to you
  • Box teaching work — it has its time and place
  • Box university work — it too has its time and place
  • Practice self-congratulation for accomplishments and good work
  • Share experiences with trauma and feelings with colleagues, gaining the capacity to empathize.
  • Name, own, and talk about our own trauma with others, in meetings and one-on-one’s.
  • Recognize that sharing and caring enables academic growth.
References and Additional Resources

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2014). Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation15(2), 153–168. 

Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest.

Huang, L. N., Flatow, R., Biggs, T., Afayee, S., Smith, K., Clark, T., & Blake, M. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach (SMA No. 14-4884). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Imad, M. (2020, March). Hope Matters: Ten Teaching Strategies to Support Students and Help Them Continue to Learn in this Time of Uncertainty. Inside Higher Ed

Imad, M. (2020, June). Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now: Seven ways professors can help students thrive in class in times of traumaInside Higher Ed.

Meyers, S., Rowells, M. W. , and Smith, B. C. (2019). Teacher Empathy: A Model of Empathy for Teaching for Student Success. College Teaching67(3), 160-168.

Minahan, J. (2019, October). Trauma Informed Teaching

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, March). Trauma and Violence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Citation: Trauma-informed Pedagogy. Montclair State University Office for Faculty Excellence. Retrieved May 3, 2023 from


This teaching guide, which has been modified from its original form, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.