As we begin this school year, it is good to consider the state of students' emotional wellbeing and ways in which we can meet them where they are. Data make clear that students are struggling. There are a number of contextual pressures that may add to students' well-being and thus, their ability to function in the classroom, whether synchronous or asynchronous, virtual or in person.
The spring Healthy Minds Study, which surveys tens of thousands of students each semester about their mental well-being, found that 41 percent of students screened positive for depression and that 34 percent screened positive for anxiety. (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Many students are coming into the academic year already burned out. Ohio State University polled 1,000 of its students and found that 71 percent of them had screened positive for burnout in April 2021, compared with 40 percent in August 2020. (Chronicle of Higher Education)
All of us—you, your colleagues, your students—are going through a traumatic event as we weather an ongoing global pandemic. But trauma isn’t about the event, it’s about the experience of and reaction to events. In other words: traumatic events don't impact people in the same ways.
By definition, individual trauma happens when something happens and is experienced “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 wellbeing” (SAMHSA). Here’s an easy way to remember it:
Uncertainty plays a major role here. As the pandemic continues and how we do things necessarily adapts, we must remember that students are especially vulnerability to the swirl of constant change. This is compounded by the experiences students have in their personal lives, work settings, home conditions, and community contexts.
Faculty are in a unique position to support students.
As instructors, we have the power to SEE and validate what our students are experiencing. But more than that, we can make small changes to structure our classes in ways that support and make things better for them.
“Faculty right now have an important role to support and acknowledge what students are going through, and think about how class structures can be most conducive to mental health” (Chronicle of Higher Education).
How can trauma show up in the classroom?
When trauma is present, students may:
- Find it hard to focus and think deeply.
- Have trouble retaining and recalling information.
- Have difficulty taking risks like responding to questions, starting new tasks, or considering alternative viewpoints.
- Become withdrawn and disengaged.
- Be irritable or have difficulty regulating their emotions.
- Overread nonverbal cues (tone, facial expression, posture, etc.) negatively.
- Struggle with attending class and completing assignments regularly and on time. (list from Zingarelli-Sweet)
Here are 5 strategies we can incorporate this semester to be more responsive to our student's needs:
Strategies for Trauma-Informed Teaching
1. Communicate safety.
Students can't learn if they don't feel safe. Not just safe in your classroom, but safe in a broader sense: in their home, in their life, in their community. However, regardless of their broader context, students can find safety in the classroom and when that happens, they can learn, contribute, and succeed.
To do this, we need to be proactive and responsive to our students needs. These are typically small changes but can have a large impact.
"Some key examples are keeping people informed of what will happen, showing coherent expressions on your face, managing your tone and body posture, being genuine and friendly, avoiding judgement, and respecting boundaries." (Batterham)
Be forthright about your care and concern for students and the contexts in which they find themselves. Establish yourself as a safe person to whom they can turn for support. Do this by directly acknowledging the circumstances we are in and being honest about how this situation impacts you. (Brittany R. Collins)
2. Check-in on students.
One way to be proactive and responsive to our students needs is to ask what their needs are. Check-ins are a great way to do this. They can be individual or systematic; weekly or sporadic; formal or informal. The key is to INQUIRE; to gather information to allow you to prioritize relationship.
How are you feeling? What questions do you have about school or life in general right now that I can answer? What can I do to better support you today? What was the best part of the past week for you? What was the hardest part of the past week for you?
3. Consider how it might feel to be in your students' shoes.
Based on what you know from checking in with your students, what does it feel like to be a student in your class?
Do they work 1, 2, or 3 jobs? How long are their days? Who are they responsible for? What concerns weigh on their minds? How to they like to be communicated with? What are they excited for/nervous about in your class? Do they have opportunities to feel competent during the day?
The answers to these questions provide us avenues to be proactive and responsive to our students. It may also help us understand why even seemingly simple tasks—like reading the syllabus, remembering due dates, figuring out how to log on to Zoom, etc.—can be very difficult for students.
4. Make things personal.
Trauma-informed practices are about communicating safety, as well as the general feeling that we care about our students success. Grades and feedback can be hard for students to process when they are carrying the weight of trauma. One way to counterbalance this challenge is to give students more feedback, in a more personal way. This way, feedback can be infused with care and safety, while still communicating details about performance.
Here are two ways to make this possible and even easy as an instructor:
5. Adjust expectations and communicate flexibility.
Trauma-informed teaching means moving away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach, towards a model that is responsive to students and their needs. This often means adjust expectations to account from what you learn about students. More than anything, communicating and offering flexibility to students is a way to foster safety in the classroom and be responsive to trauma needs.
Seven recommendations for helping students thrive in times of trauma
One of my students who recently lost her job and is fearful for her health and well-being, having recently been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, asked me, "How do you have the will to get out of bed?" Wanting to honor the gravity of the question, I paused.
A 'Trauma Informed' Return to Campus
As the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee started to plan for an in-person fall 2021 semester, Adam Jussel pondered a complicated question. The university, set a few blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan, had held some of its classes in person in the spring.
Exploring the role of psychological safety in promoting the intention to continue sharing knowledge in virtual communities
Yixiang Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate majoring in Information Systems at the City University of Hong Kong, University of Science and Technology of China Joint Advanced Research Center. His researches interests include knowledge management, virtual community and electronic commerce. Yulin Fang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Systems, City University of Hong Kong.