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Teaching Resource Center

The Learning Brain vs. The Survival Brain

Trauma Brain

Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning

What is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an “event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual 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 well-being.” Trauma can have a serious impact on a student’s ability to learn, and a trauma-informed pedagogical approach is grounded first and foremost in an awareness of the signs of trauma among one’s students, including difficulty focusing, retaining, and recalling information; tendency to miss classes; anxiety about exams, public speaking, and assignments. While traumatic experiences are increasingly prevalent among students today, researchers have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected “African American, Latinx, Indigenous, Pell recipients, people with kids” (Hoover, 2021).

Like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), trauma-informed pedagogy aims to go beyond accommodations to plan ahead for the possibility—and indeed, likelihood—of teaching students who have experienced trauma (CAST, 2018). As Matthea Marquart and Johanna Creswell Báez write, such approaches aim to address “barriers resulting from the impacts of traumatic human experiences” in order to “create classroom communities that promote student wellbeing and learning” (2021, p. 64). Trauma-informed pedagogy, in short, is a key component of fostering an equitable classroom.

Trauma-informed pedagogy originally grew out of research on post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, and it has also been influenced by research on intergenerational trauma, sexual violence and assault, and more recently by the impact of COVID-19 on college students. “The coronavirus pandemic,” Marquart and Báez argue, “has served as a catalyst for faculty to adopt trauma-informed teaching and learning (TITL) practices, as educators across disciplines have shifted their teaching to be more compassionate, flexible, consistent, and predictable in response to the worldwide trauma and distress” (2021, 63). In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, many Barnard faculty adjusted their courses in ways that align with trauma-informed pedagogies, including compassion and flexibility (e.g., giving students more time to complete exams or replacing exams with alternative assignments, granting students grace periods on their work, offering students options in how they demonstrate learning). Faculty also made time for consistent check-ins with students, and considered the effects of the pandemic on students’ capacity to retain and process information. Many students reported these positive changes in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 Virtual Learning Surveys, and the CEP recommends continuing these practices both for navigating the ongoing pandemic and supporting students as they encounter distress, trauma, and anxiety in their daily lives. These principles would ideally be enacted at all times, and faculty may return to these principles with renewed attention during moments of international, national, or local crises, including acts of violence that impact our community members. 

Definition and Background from the Barnard College at Columbia University