For many of us in higher education, we intentionally plan our courses and do our best to create positive learning experiences for our students. Often, we fail to keep in mind that by the time students reach their freshman year of college, many of them will have experienced multiple traumatic incidents. For example, over 356,000 students have experienced gun violence in schools; in 2022 alone, there were 46 school shootings, more than in any year since 1999, when data on school shootings started to be collected (Cox et al., 2023). Crime in many major cities has increased by almost 13% in the past five years (Gramlich, 2022). Of course, there are many other forms of interpersonal trauma in addition to violence in the community. According to the World Mental Health Survey Consortium, in 2016, over 70% of respondents reported that they had experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, an increase from the 60% of respondents the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in its original trauma survey in the 1990s. Suffice it to say, the types of traumatic experiences college students carry with them are numerous and can impact behavior in the classroom, academic performance, and mental health (DeLuca, 2016). The American College Health Association's (ACHA) National College Health Assessment found that approximately 77% of college students reported that they experienced moderate to serious psychological distress (ACHA, 2022).
Trauma & Learning
The effect of traumatic events on the school experience for children and adolescents has garnered the most attention when it comes to the impact of trauma on learning (Dombo & Sabatino, 2019). Less attention has been paid to the experiences of undergraduate students and those in graduate programs (Wells, 2023), with exceptions found in professional schools such as social work and law (Katz, 2022; Radis et al., 2020). Primary experiences of trauma, coupled with learning about traumatic events experienced by others, can have negative effects on learning (Davidson, 2021; Harrison et al., 2020; McPhillips, 2021). While it is not prudent to cease teaching about these issues for a myriad of reasons, we can develop strategies to do so in a trauma-informed manner.
Because faculty members interact with students consistently each week, we are in the best position to recognize the signs of trauma in students. However, we don’t need to be mental health professionals in order to respond to those signs. A trauma-informed approach means that anyone who interacts with a student should have a basic understanding of how trauma can affect students (SAMHSA, 2014; Sweetman, 2022). For educators, one of the most visible effects of traumas in students is their academic performance, such as absences, declining grades, or difficulty paying attention in class. Because students could be unaware of the resources available to them on campus or reluctant to seek help, sharing information about support services on campus can encourage and promote care without pressuring faculty to step into the role of a counselor (Carello, 2023).
Strategies for Your Classroom
A response to trauma doesn’t have to be clinical; it can simply be caring. A basic trauma statement inside a course syllabus, which can be personalized to fit individual teaching styles, can encourage communication with students and bring awareness about the resources available to them (Gunderson et al., 2023). For example, I have used the following language:
"As your instructor, I am committed to creating a safe learning environment. If you are experiencing stress or need someone to talk to, I encourage you to reach out to the Counseling Center or Campus Ministry."
Last spring, when classes were canceled after a period of lockdown, I sent my students an email. It wasn't to remind them of their readings for the next time we met for class, but rather to assure them that it would be normal to have difficulty processing the events. I reminded them that the counseling center is available to them if they needed support.
Recently, one student was unable to participate while my class was presenting individual research. Eventually, the student left the classroom. Rather than view this as an act of disrespect or a failure to adequately contribute to class discussions or complete assignments, I approached the situation with concern and the understanding that something may have been wrong. After class, the student revealed the reason behind leaving the room was anxiety over speaking publicly because she had experienced verbal abuse in the past and was triggered by the thought of presenting. Instead of penalizing her for leaving class by giving her a zero for the assignment, I worked with her to give her the alternate option of presenting just to me so she could participate in a way that felt less threatening. A flexible approach to course assignments to enable students to be more comfortable - with the understanding that they could be dealing with the documented effects of trauma, including anxiety, can help students become successful in your course.
Through trauma-informed teaching, students have increased their participation in classrooms and the school community, improved attendance, behavior, and graduation rates, and have improved emotional intelligence and communication skills.
Below is a helpful link to resources on trauma-informed care for the classroom:
American College Health Association (2023). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III: Undergraduate Student Reference Group. Executive Summary.
Carello, J. (2023). How to create compassionate classrooms. Liberal Education, 109(2), 8–3. (CUA Library Permalink)
Cox, J.W., Rich, S. Chong, L., Trevor, L., Muyskens, J., Ulmanu, M. (October 6, 2023). More than 357,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. The Washington Post.
Davidson, J. W. (2021). Beyond trigger warnings: Toward a trauma-informed andragogy for the graduate theological classroom. Teaching Theology & Religion, 24(4), 4-16. (CUA Library Permalink)
De Luca, S. M., Franklin, C., Yueqi, Y., Johnson, S., Brownson, C. (2016). The relationship between suicide ideation, behavioral health, and college academic performance. Community Mental Health Journal, 52(5), 534–540. (CUA Library Permalink)
Dombo, E. A., & Sabatino, C. A. (2019). Creating trauma-informed schools: A guide for school social workers and educators. Oxford University Press. (CUA Library Permalink)
Gramlich, J. (November 20, 2020) What the data says (and doesn’t say) about crime in the United States. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/11/20/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/)
Gooblar, D. (2020). How to help a student in a mental-health crisis. The Chronicle of Higher Education Coping with Coronavirus: How Faculty Members Can Support Students in Traumatic Times. Retrieved from: https://connect.chronicle.com/rs/931-EKA-218/images/CopingwithCoronavirus_Collection.pdf
Harrison, N., Burke, J., & Clarke, I. (2023). Risky teaching: Developing a trauma-informed pedagogy for higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 28(1), 180-194.
Katz, S. (2022). We need to talk about trauma: Integrating trauma-informed practice into the family law classroom. Family Court Review, 60(4), 757-776. (CUA Library Permalink)
McPhillips, K. (2021). The trauma-informed classroom. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 37(1), 127-132. (CUA Library Permalink)
Radis, B., Crocetto, J., & Beemer, K. (2020). Incorporating trauma-informed educational practice into the baccalaureate social work classroom. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 25, 31-44. (CUA Library Permalink)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884.
Sweetman, N. (2022). What is a trauma informed classroom? What are the benefits and challenges involved? Frontiers in Education, 7, 1-8. (CUA Library Permalink)
Wells, T. (2023). Creating trauma-informed higher education classrooms. Journal of Effective Teaching in Higher Education, 6(1), 97-111. (CUA Library Permalink)
Katharine Carter is a Ph.D. Candidate in the National Catholic School of Social Service, was an adjunct faculty member in the National Catholic School of Social Service and the Department of Education, and is currently a Research Assistant at the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Eileen Dombo, Ph.D., LICSW, is an Associate Professor, Assistant Dean, and the Ph.D. Program Chair at The National Catholic School of Social Service. Her research and practice focuses on trauma. Additionally, she directs the Certificate in Child Protection and Safe Environment and edits the Journal of Spirituality in Social Work.