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Teaching Tips for the Pandemic: The Value of Trauma-Informed Education during COVID-19


COVID-19 is a traumatic stressor impacting the lives of faculty and students globally. Whether or not you have had to move your classroom online, and no matter if you have been teaching for 3 or 20 years, the teaching tools that you have been using may no longer be effective. If you have struggled with student engagement, late submission of assignments, and the feeling that your students are simply not “getting” the material, you are not alone. Traumatic stress impacts our students’ learning process more than we may realize. In order to successfully teach during the pandemic, adopting a trauma-informed lens to teaching is one strategy that can be useful to both instructors and students.

What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

Trauma-informed means acknowledging the different ways traumatic events and experiences may impact individuals in a particular setting, whether it be an educational setting or any other organization. First, being trauma-informed means recognizing the prevalence of trauma and its potential deleterious impact on persons. Second, it means responding to individual needs through an approach that accommodates those needs to support optimal participation and functioning. Essentially, this means developing organizational and educational strategies that support safety, trust, support, mutuality and empowerment, while also attending to salient cultural and historical issues.

How does this translate into trauma-informed teaching?

Applying a trauma-informed lens to teaching means that we recognize the potential impact of COVID-19 on students’ learning and we respond to students’ needs with specific, trauma-informed strategies (highlighted below). This begins with recognizing that students are learning during a chronic, traumatic stressor that is potentially impacting their ability to learn and engage in effective time-management, all while multi-tasking the tasks of caregiving, childcare and employment with school. It also means that teaching and learning look different than they did before the pandemic. Second, we need to understand how trauma may potentially impact student learning and adapt our teaching styles. This means letting go or modifying old practices – as well as the expectations we previously held for our students - to meet students where they are at in the learning process, while simultaneously ensuring they are “getting” the material.

Is trauma-informed teaching really necessary? How are students impacted?

Trauma-informed teaching is 100% necessary. Traumatic stressors impact individual learning process in several ways, including working memory, attention, self-regulation, and processing. Due to the neurobiological effects of trauma, students’ executive functioning – including initiating tasks, problem solving and organizational skills – have the potential to be greatly impacted. When our stress response is triggered in the brain, we go into survival mode. This is typically referred to as flight, fight or freeze. The animal part of our brain is processing the fear and stress before we can make sense of what is happening. The more chronic the stress, the more resources are exhausted. This translates into students’ numbing, avoidance, having difficulty shifting from one task and situation to the next, and difficulty processing information. Add to the equation that students must also simultaneously adapt to learning online in a home that may be full of distractions, and we arrive at the current struggle.

Trauma-informed teaching tips:

The good news is that trauma-informed teaching is nothing new! Research exists about how to apply a trauma-informed lens to teaching in the higher-ed classroom, which we believe that you may find very helpful.

Predictability, Transparency and Structure

COVID-19 has created an environment that is unpredictable and stress-ridden. Providing more structure in the classroom offers a sense of control in an environment where students feel they have none. With transparency and structure, students have a better sense of what to expect and in turn, their stress levels are less likely to be further triggered and managed with better regulation.

Flexibility with deadlines and assignments

The academic skills that adult learners have acquired up until this point may not prove effective while managing the stress of the pandemic. Additionally, students won’t realize this until they try what has previously worked without success. The potential impact on students’ learning means that there may be missed deadlines and difficulty processing and synthesizing material, among other challenges. If we can learn to be flexible and understand that this is not intentional, we can better teach our students and support their learning process. Instead of penalizing students and causing further stress, if we can learn to be flexible, we can help them adapt and learn new strategies for academic success.

Review syllabi and assignments for necessary revisions

Take a look at your course syllabi and assignments. In the same vein of flexibility, see if there is space to modify and set more realistic expectations for the required page number of an assignment, the amount of discussion boards in a semester and the number of readings per week. Remember, it is quality over quantity. As students work to manage the stress of the pandemic with school without any modifications in their course load, they become further inundated and shut down.

Promote student choice

Offering students options for due dates and assignments helps to not only empower students but increase self-efficacy. This can also relate to the structure of the online classroom. By asking students what method they best learn in the online classroom - whether it be with a shared PowerPoint, in breakout groups or group discussion – we can better meet students’ needs and increase students’ personal agency, reducing feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

Check in with students and be prepared with referrals for resources

We are privileged to work at a University with wonderful resources for students. If you identify a student struggling, set up a time to check in with them. Model with your student being present and offer support while simultaneously promoting accountability. You can still maintain the boundary of Professor with the goal of connecting the student to invaluable resources that may be the difference in their school success during this difficult time. This includes the Counseling Center, Office of Disability Services and the Writing Center. Even a referral to the students’ advisor for support can be a small support that has the potential to be far-reaching.

Offer reminders for students

In times when our stress response is in overload, memory can be easily impacted. Providing reminders to students through email and through your online learning platform is any easy task that can help foster students’ success.

Do not personalize students’ behavior

Students will react to trauma in different ways and we must not internalize these behaviors.  For example, students who presents as disconnected or disengaged aren’t necessarily reacting to our teaching style or the material. This also does not mean they are not trying or uninterested. Students’ behavior in and out of the classroom may be due their reaction to trauma, which means we must learn to put students' reactions into context and not to take them personally.

Use of technology

As educators, we need to not only think of technology in terms of moving our class into the online realm either asynchronously or synchronously, but we must also consider how we can integrate new technologies to continue to provide the high level of experiential learning we provide in the traditional classroom.  Integrating different types of technology such as simulated role plays, virtual reality technology or simply integrating videos or breakout rooms into the digital classroom will keep the students engaged and provide a higher level of knowledge attainment.

Help students to connect and foster community

To facilitate positive outcomes in online educational platforms, educators should consider not only the content delivery but also the importance of creating a supportive learning environment that is sensitive to and understanding of students needs to connect to one another - especially during times of high stress and crisis like COVID-19.  Educators facilitating a sense of community and student engagement in both the synchronous and asynchronous online platform experience better outcomes with student satisfaction, quality of learning, and knowledge attainment. Positive, collaborative learning experiences can help to create a safe space, allowing students to increase participation and connection, which thereby enhances critical thinking, shared reflection and provides the space to share helpful feedback among peers in the online platform. These experiences can also lead to supportive online community groups outside of the classroom.

Lisa A. Henshaw, PhD, LCSW
Assistant Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work

Hanni Flaherty, PhD, LCSW
Assistant Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work