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What is Trauma?

Trauma has a dual definition. It is known as a horrific event, or a set of circumstances that is experienced first-hand or vicariously, leading to physical or emotional threats or harm. It can have lasting adverse effects on an individual's physical, social, emotional, cognitive, or spiritual well-being (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). Trauma is also known as the emotional response to a terrible event. Immediately after the event, shock, flashbacks, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea can occur (American Psychological Association, n.d.). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), one out of every four students in the U.S. has been exposed to a traumatic event that can negatively affect learning and/or behavior (NCTSN, 2008).

Given the high percentage of students who have suffered from trauma, instructors are bound to come in contact with students who have been exposed to a traumatic event. However, unlike in K-12 school, students will not have an individualized education plan to help respond to the resulting academic issues in higher education. Although college students can request special accommodations from the Office of Disability Support Services, several academic-related trauma symptoms might not be recognized or included under those options.

A 2020 study (Kumar, 2020) that assessed educators’ awareness of trauma exposure matched NCTSN’s research and found that the majority of instructors surveyed reported anywhere from one to four traumatic experiences in their students. However, in that same study, many participants also reported that they were not aware of techniques or tools that can help to respond to traumatic exposure among their students in order to positively impact their health and wellness (Kumar, 2020). This is why it is vital for instructors to recognize possible trauma indicators related to academic performance, and rely on resources to respond to them.

Tools and Techniques for Trauma-informed Classrooms

Similar to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), trauma-informed classrooms aim to go beyond standard accommodations and use tools and techniques that help to prepare for teaching students who might have traumatic experiences (Barnard College, n.d.).

Below are some helpful tools, techniques, and resources for the college classroom.

Trauma-Informed Teaching Checklist

The Trauma Sensitive Schools Checklist (TSSC), (compiled from the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity) contains five subscales, including school-wide policies, practices, classroom strategies, and techniques. The TSSC has been administered in schools, and was found to be associated with a decline in traumatic stress levels (Sprang & Garcia, 2022).

While not every item on the checklist applies to postsecondary classrooms, some can be translated to your interactions with your students and used as a guide for responding to the possible impact of trauma on them.

The checklist includes items such as:

  • Consider the role that a known, common traumatic event may be playing in learning difficulties in the classroom.

    This could be anything upsetting or threatening that occurs in the classroom, on campus, or nearby that students experience or learn about through social media.

    In the classroom, traumatic exposure can appear in many different ways, including difficulty with memory, cognition, information processing, ability to focus, chronic absenteeism, or a lack of motivation to participate in lessons. All of these issues can lead to low academic performance.

    When an event occurs that could be traumatic, consider that these experiences could impact your students’ performance. You might want to ask your students how they are doing, before discussing any concerns about their grades or participation.

  • Structure class activities in emotionally safe ways.

    This can include trigger warnings for possibly upsetting content, or providing alternative readings for upsetting class materials. Upsetting content may include discussions of assault, violence, war, or suicide. A student who heeds a trigger warning to avoid traumatization or re-traumatization would not be completely excused from the assignment. Rather, they would receive alternative readings/assignments in place of upsetting class content.

    Sample trigger warnings could include the following language:

    "Throughout this course, we might cover content that may be disturbing to some students. If any course material is upsetting to you, you may choose not to participate in the discussion/lesson, and we will find an alternate way for you to learn".

  • Provide access to trauma-competent services for treatment, and crisis intervention.

    This can be accomplished by making a referral to Campus Resources. Instructors are not expected to act as mental health professionals. If techniques like listening to how traumas have affected your students or assessing the emotional safety of your lessons are beyond your capacity, that is understandable.

If you notice that students could need help, you can refer them to CUA's Counseling Center in 127 O’Boyle Hall for a variety of helpful services, including:

  • Walk-ins for emergency mental health crises
  • Individual and group counseling sessions
  • Referrals to outside mental health professionals

Students can benefit just as much from being informed of the professional support services that are available to them on campus. Simply encouraging students to take advantage of those resources can lessen the risk of trauma-related academic struggles, and increase their chances for academic success.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Trauma.

Barnard College. (n.d.). Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

Kumar, S. (2020). Current knowledge, perceptions and implementations of trauma-informed teaching practices in two Connecticut public schools. Journal of Adolescent Health, 66(2), S72-S73. (CUA Library Permalink)

National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee. (October 2008). Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators. Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Sprang, G., & Garcia, A. (2022). An investigation of secondary traumatic stress and trauma-informed care utilization in school personnel. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 15(4), 1095–1103. (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.


Katharine Carter is a Ph.D. Candidate and an adjunct faculty member in the National Catholic School of Social Service, and is currently a Research Assistant at the Center for Teaching Excellence.