The trauma-informed classroom
Published: December 5, 2023 / Author: Kelly Rubey
“Earlier today, a woman came to the building and was throwing bricks and rocks. One of them hit me right in the face. In that moment, I paused and recognized that she must be having a hard day, so I asked her, ‘How can I help you today?’”
Miguel Lugo, Community Relations & Head of Security at Homeboy Industries shared this approach to trauma informed leadership with me during one of my visits to Homeboy Industries, a partner to my MBA experiential service learning course, Frontlines in America. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Every day, hundreds of former gang members seek hope, kinship, new beginnings, and trauma healing through Homeboy Industries’ services and social enterprises.
Understanding Causes & Signs of Trauma
While the Homeboy Industries community certainly has experienced an incredible amount of trauma, it is not alone in serving a traumatized population. According to the CDC, nearly ⅔ of adults have at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and 1 in 6 adults have 4 or more types of ACEs. This is worth noting, as studies have found a significant relationship between the number of ACEs a person experienced and a variety of negative outcomes in adulthood.¹
Many of our students have come from trauma or may experience a traumatic event while enrolled in our course. This could stem from experiences such as loss of a loved one, difficult break-ups, sexual harassment or assault, or broader community experiences like school shootings, protests, natural disasters, etc.
Trauma can be acute, stemming from a single isolated event; chronic through repeated and prolonged exposure; and/ or complex where an individual was exposed to varied and multiple events. Trauma can also be experienced by a singular individual (abuse) or communal (school shooting).
Trauma impacts student behavior and presents itself in a number of ways such as:
- Difficulty focusing and performing
- Missing classes or group meetings
- Fear of taking risks
- Anxieties about project work
- General sense of helplessness and/or hopelessness
- Withdrawal and isolation
Creating a Safe & Inclusive Environment in the Classroom
From the beginning of the course, it is important to foster a sense of safety and inclusion in the classroom to provide a trauma informed environment. Some steps that you might take in your class include:
- Understand Your Social Identities and Positionality as an Educator: Reflecting on our intersecting identities helps us understand our lived experiences, values, and perceptions. Positionality influences how we interpret and disseminate information as educators.
- Ensure Diversity in Assigned Materials: Review readings, videos, case studies, and other materials in your curriculum. Ensure diverse authors and perspectives.
- Co-Create Community & Classroom Norms: Have a discussion with your students about the type of culture they want to have in the classroom.
- Provide Opportunities for Feedback: After a few weeks, create opportunities for students to provide feedback on their experience in the course. Follow up on this feedback with the class so they feel heard.
- Consider Flexibility in Pace and Deadlines: Building in opportunities for students to work on materials at their own pace can take off some of the stress they might be feeling. You could also consider allowing students to ask for an assignment extension with enough notice.
In my Frontlines in America course, materials range from Native American Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe in the 19th century to César Chávez, leader of migrant farm workers rights, to firsthand stories from poor Americans, immigrants, and other people on the margins of power. Including material from diverse authors encourages students to share their own unique perspectives. On the first day of class, the students brainstorm a set of classroom norms for the semester. These often include items such as “assume positive intent” and “avoid generalizations about groups, including those with which you identify.” As we move through the semester, students are frequently empowered to provide feedback and can ask for revised due dates at least 24 hours prior to the deadline, with the understanding that the instructor can decline the request for a number of reasons. Though, there is no penalty on the student for asking.
Fostering a Sense of Empowerment
Along with fostering safety and inclusion, it is important to consider how your course could empower students. A sense of ownership and empowerment can facilitate student growth and trauma healing. Here are some ideas you might consider:
- Assign Roles on Teams: If your course includes teamwork, consider assigning each student on the team a different role. This makes each student feel important and creates a sense of ownership.
- Student Discussion Leaders: Identify opportunities for students to take an active role in the course material by taking the lead at various points throughout the semester.
- Shared Decision-Making: Plan opportunities for students to share power and make decisions as a class. This could include how to spend class time, options for reviewing for an exam, or adjusting assignment deadlines.
- Celebrate Together: Plan opportunities for short-term wins for students to develop self-efficacy and a sense of camaraderie together.
Protect Your Compassion and Empathy
Finally, for instructors supporting students through trauma, it’s important to manage compassion fatigue and set boundaries. “Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We cannot connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”²
Resources for Further Reading
- Notre Dame Red Folder: Assisting Students in Distress
- ND Center for Student Support and Care
- Positionality Worksheet (University of Calgary)
- Student Norm Creation (Berkeley)
- Teaching in Times of Crisis (Vanderbilt)
- Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning
Kelly Rubey is an assistant teaching professor of management & organization in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. She was a 2022–23 participant in the Kaneb Center Course Design Academy.
¹ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study: Major findings. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html
² Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. First edition. New York, Random House.