Trauma-Informed Teaching in Remote Courses
Implementing a trauma-informed approach does not mean that students will avoid exposure to traumatic content or to sensitive topics. Rather, the purpose of this approach is to respect survivors of trauma and provide safety for those experiencing adversity.
But how can a trauma-informed approach translate to a virtual environment? How can we support students’ social-emotional health and help them manage personal challenges when we are not learning together in a traditional classroom? From a trauma-informed standpoint, the following are key considerations educators should be conscious of as they navigate the transition to remote delivery:
Educators become susceptible to secondary traumatic stress (also referred to as compassion fatigue) when working closely with students who have experienced trauma. Teaching in this regard can be emotionally exhaustive, and while it may be difficult to prioritize self-care, doing so is incredibly important and beneficial, both for educators and their students.
The shift to remote delivery may also cause significant stress, and it is quite reasonable to feel overwhelmed during this period of change. Let students know that this is new territory for everyone and that you are all learning and making mistakes together. Work with the connections available to you – small support groups, staff teams or work/home friendships can help make the transition more manageable.
Students who have experienced trauma can feel triggered by a lack of clear structures, boundaries, and routines. Providing consistency, daily structures, clear expectations, and reliable instructional support helps students feel reassured and safe. Normalcy is profoundly healing and comforting, particularly for students who do not feel in control of their lives (ResilientEducator, n.d.).
Implementing even small systems can help alleviate emotional stressors. For example, posting a check-in video for students at the same time each week on the course site, clearly outlining that week’s learning outcomes, makes students aware of what is ahead and expected, giving them time to prepare. This decreases the potential stress associated with uncertainty.
It is important that instructors also ensure that the information they provide to students is digestible (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.). Moving to remote learning and having fewer direct interactions can make assignments, for example, feel overwhelming or daunting, particularly when several directions are given at once. Break directions down into smaller items when appropriate and encourage students to ask clarifying questions. Aim to simplify misinformation and connect students with other institutional supports that can provide helpful services (e.g. SAS).
Relationships are key to resilience; thus, anything that you can do to help foster positive relationships within the learning community (i.e. student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-community members) should take priority. For students facing adversity, having a sense that they can turn to a circle of support for help should they need it can be very reassuring. “Virtual reach-outs” for example, let students know that you are there to support them and that you care. This can make a real difference in their lives, no matter how inadequate it may feel to you (Education Week, 2020). Instructors are encouraged to maintain meaningful connections using the technologies available to them and their students (e.g. email, discussion threads, Zoom, etc.) and to allot time specifically for these important engagements. It is important to ensure students have structure and to hold high expectations, but students will fare best if they know their instructors care about their well-being just as much as their academic achievement.
To foster a sense of connectedness, instructors can:
- Make time for students to reflect on their real-life experiences, not just those had online
- Greet students by name and create a virtual routine
- Plan activities through the use of online technologies that allow students to see, hear and interact with each other and their instructor
- Play an active role in online discussion threads
- Talk directly about the importance of connecting with others
Because trauma involves a loss of control, an inflexible teaching approach may trigger feelings of worry and tension. As such, instructors should keep an open mind to what their students need and collaborate with them to find routines, resources and strategies that will most effectively support their learning.
For example, a flexible instructor may provide their students the option of presenting live on Zoom, or, submitting a recording via the course site. They have the option of presenting to the whole class ‘live’ or recording it. It is important that these options have the underlying goal of making students (and instructors) feel safe, valued, and part of the fabric of the virtual community.
A sense of safety is the belief that your needs will be met and that you will be protected from harm (e.g. harm caused when an individual’s ideas or contributions are questioned, criticized, or overlooked). Learning is virtually impossible for students who feel unsafe; instructors, however, are able to increase feelings of safety by creating positive learning environments where the course community is a primary focus, and by being cognizant of the interactions between those within that community (online interactions including live group discussions and discussion threads).
Our responses and behaviours as facilitators must also be consistent and supportive. We can recognize that some behaviours we are witness to, may be a response to feeling unsafe, versus for instance, a desire to argue or disengage. For example, if a student withdraws from a discussion about Canada’s residential school system, it may be a “survival mechanism” to avoid being triggered. If they themselves have experienced personal trauma tied to said topic, the instructor should consider following up with that student and making a modification. Maintaining a supportive role in responding to all behaviour with compassion and understanding, strengthens the instructor-student relationship and establishes trust (KQED, n.d.). Keeping this thought in our minds can support us in our reactions and the way we assist students in regulating their emotions.
There are steps instructors can take to support a sense of safety:
- Reach out, provide space and encourage students to connect with them or another trusted professional to talk about their safety concerns. Offer students a way to connect if there is something that they need help with or are worried about (e.g. listing links to the various institutional student services/supports somewhere visible on the course site).
- Encourage students to access supports outside of the institutional environment (e.g. friends, family members, tele-counsellors, etc.).
- Recommend or include in modules, self-care activities that students can do at home or outdoors
- Maintain and communicate predictable routines
- Provide opportunities for students to complete activities that affirm their competence, sense of self-worth and feelings of safety
A crash course on trauma-informed teaching. (n.d.). Retrieved from thecornerstoneforteachers.com: https://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/truth-for-teachers-podcast/trauma-...
Education Week. (2020). Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should). Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-info...
KQED. (n.d.). Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning. Retrieved from KQED: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-inf...
ResilientEducator. (n.d.). Essential Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies for Managing Stress in the Classroom. Retrieved from https://resilienteducator.com/classroom-resources/trauma-informed-teachi...
Teaching Tolerance. (n.d.). A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/a-trauma-informed-approach-to-teachin...
Written by: Mitchell Huguenin
Edited by: Joel Baetz
Last Updated: 30 August 2020