Faculty (e.g. professors, lecturers)

Cultivating a trauma-informed lens in the classroom can help prevent traumatization and re- traumatization and allows learners to participate and thrive within a safer environment. Since we cannot know or predict all the diverse mental health and learning needs of students, fostering safer and more inclusive learning spaces strongly creates the opportunities for choice, autonomy, transparency, and empowerment, all of which align with the principles of trauma-informed practice & care and help students succeed.

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which is based in neuroscience, is a trauma- informed practice that can foster inclusion and access for all learners to participate in meaningful learning opportunities by offering guidelines based on the brain’s networks (Centre for Applied Special Technology [CAST], 2022). The UDL framework provides multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression within the learning environment that allows instructors to design learning experiences that provide choice and flexibility for those whose learning may be impeded by trauma responses.

Based on UDL’s (CAST, 2022) three learning guidelines (engagement, representation, and action and expression), consider the prompts below for reflection and suggestions for promoting inclusive and trauma-informed classrooms.

*Remember that the implementation of these practices is contingent on specific institutional contexts, teaching and learning goals, and the characteristics of the students on a campus. While developing strategies that can be sustained in the learning environment on your campus, be mindful of what is possible based on your campus’ organizational and departmental policies and standards.

Representation – How is the course content presented to learners?

The way in which a student takes in classroom content varies from person to person. Some content presented in the learning environment can be traumatizing or cause re-traumatization without intending to do so. Consider the ways in which essential information can be delivered to support students’ comprehension while preserving their sense of safety.

Questions to consider:

Is there sensitive content that can be removed, replaced, or prefaced with a content warning?

If sensitive content is a necessary part of the curriculum, instructors can take the time to prepare students for what to expect in the learning process. Cultivate safety by providing students with time to debrief and discuss their emotions, thoughts, or other responses to the sensitive content. When considering safety, instructors can review how the content, citations, and overall discourse intersect with possible historical trauma of social and cultural identities.

*A note on content/ trigger warnings:
A meta-analysis from Harvard University and Flinders University investigated 12 studies on the response to and efficacy of trigger warnings (Bridgland et al., 2023). The study indicated
that content/ trigger warnings do not often have their intended effect of mitigating or minimizing mental distress from potentially harmful content (Bridgland et al., 2023). However, from a trauma- informed lens, incorporating content/ trigger warnings into course documents as well as in real-time can still contribute to the key principle “choice” in allowing students, staff, and faculty to make their own decision on what to do when they are made aware of sensitive subject matter within the course content.

What topics or discussions are likely to bring out potentially insensitive language, even inadvertently?

Encourage discussions around sensitive topics by first discussing and co-creating group/ classroom guidelines for things like respectful disagreement and tips for appropriate, culturally safe, and anti-oppressive language. Regardless of the instructor’s involvement in class discussions, they can moderate and intervene in moments where cultural and psychological safety are challenged.

What expectations of the students can be communicated with more transparency to eliminate anxieties and uncertainties?

Take care to highlight important policies and expectations as it increases transparency and builds trust. Ensure to clearly communicate course policies in a gentle way that supports student success without being punitive. Instructors can also consider informing students on how best to reach them and what they can expect from an interaction. For example, if students have questions, some instructors may prefer students to attend office hours. Further, if a student sends you an email, let them know from the outset of the course what your timeframe is (on average) for responses.

Which voices are missing or marginalized in how they are represented?

This consideration informs curricular decisions and incites critical reflection of what is biased as the expert voices in the discipline while others are marginalized. This is a larger discussion that often must take place during awkward course development to ensure diverse voices are represented. However, if the context allows it, consider reviewing your syllabus to see what voices are missing or underrepresented and consider how you can add them to the content.

Action & Expression – How do students express what they have learned?

When students are sharing their knowledge, consider what the expectations are and how they are communicated. Allow for choice and control in their actions and expression as it helps to increase agency and feelings of safety in those who have experienced trauma.

Questions to consider:

Under what conditions are students asked to share what they know?

“…a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience.” (Rolston & Lloyd-Richardson, n.d., p. 1)

Reflecting on the stakes and circumstances under which students are assessed and expected to perform can reveal the conditions that are likely to cause dysregulation for trauma- affected students. If an assessment is likely to elicit a stress response in students, ensure there are options for addressing the distress as well as referral pathways, strategies for emotional regulation, and other support.

Which learners are rewarded by the method of action and expression that is required? Where can more meaningful opportunities for choice and flexibility be provided?

Traditional means of assessment tend to favour certain learning modalities and preferences which can systematically exclude students from diverse identities and circumstances. Multi- modal assessments (tests or exams with multiple ways of evaluation such as a combination
of multiple choice, short-answer, and essay questions) help with providing more choice and opportunity for all students to highlight what they have learned. Take care to ensure that students belonging to systemically marginalized groups, and those who are neurodivergent, are not disempowered by assessment practices and expectations.

How do elements of physical and psychological safety affect students’ action and expression of what they know?

“”Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” (Clark, 2020, p. 3)

Pay attention to how the physical/virtual space and culture of safety are part of the classroom environment. Avoiding practices that limit people’s movements (e.g., how and where they sit, and if cameras are on or off) helps to restore autonomy. Supporting students to take risks by allowing them to make mistakes without fear of consequences builds psychological safety. In doing so, be mindful of the power imbalance that exists between instructors and students and among those with diverse identities. Reflect on how your own positionality interacts with classroom experiences of power and privilege.

What do the assessments measure and how do these relate to course and curricular learning outcomes?

Take note what evaluation elements are aligned with learning outcomes and what extraneous demands are also put on the students. Consider alternative and authentic assessments that allow students to express their learned knowledge without needing to demonstrate other skills or qualities that may not be relevant to the objectives of the course.

Guide: PDF Version