Trauma-Informed Pedagogies

Educator vs. Mental Health Professional

Educators can create trauma-informed learning environments where students recovering from trauma can learn, achieve, and thrive. Educators are not trained to diagnose trauma or offer mental health services. Trauma can be asymptomatic, culturally specific, and impact students in myriad ways. Students with acute symptoms should be referred to crisis hotlines, trauma-trained counselors, identity-affirming organizations, and/or trusted clinics.

Safety-based teaching


From the perspective of learning sciences, trauma can be defined as a long-term change in brain structure caused by a significant stressor (Zhifeng). Significant stressors include a single overwhelming event or long-term exposure to inescapable, harmful environments. Changes in brain structure are reversible (Kolassa).

A brain impacted by trauma is sensitized to actual and perceived threats; it activates survival responses frequently and for long periods (Zhifeng). While focused on immediate survival and safety, other brain functions are reduced: planning, organization, decision-making, learning, social connection, emotional regulation, concentration, and more (Stark).  Trauma-informed learning environments can mitigate these impacts and significantly increase student engagement and performance.


Establish routines and rituals to create a predictable environment, e.g. consistently open and close sessions in the same way.  

Outline responsibilities of students and responsibilities of instructors. Be explicit about your expectations, including what is flexible or negotiable and what isn’t.

Explicitly outline behavioral norms and how tensions and issues will be handled.  

Consistently follow through on promises and commitments; acknowledge lack of follow through.

Communicate changes by clearly stating the old and new information. This supports a sense of stability and continuity.  

Share your own guiding principles for teaching, how principles translate into decisions, and what the boundaries of your role are. Role clarity and transparency contribute to a sense of safety.

Strengths-based teaching


From the perspective of clinical psychology, trauma is an extreme or chronic experience of disempowerment. ‘Extreme’ means that the experience threatens to exceed available coping resources. A lingering or chronic sense of helplessness and negative self-image activate stress and survival responses, which is detrimental to learning. Restoring agency and confidence is a significant part of trauma recovery (Herman). Empowering students by offering choices and responsibility for shaping the course are effective strategies for enhancing student achievement.


  • Provide options within assignments.
  • Encourage students to pitch projects or alternative assignments.
  • Gather student feedback on the course midway, respond to feedback by making adjustments and/or explaining rationale.
  • Identify and acknowledge strengths in students who struggle academically.
  • Notice and acknowledge the skillfulness of students and families who are navigating difficulties.
  • Practice reciprocal teaching: facilitate opportunities for students to teach each other and you.
  • Prompt students to formulate their own critical questions about content, explore their own conclusions, consider multiple implications, and weigh outcomes.
  • Use reflective techniques such as self-assessment or journaling to increase consciousness of learning and sense of control over learning. 


During temporary periods of crisis, campus closures, and other exceptional circumstances, it is important to adjust teaching practices. The first question to settle is whether instruction will continue through a period of upheaval and uncertainty. If instruction continues, a reduction in cognitive resources can be expected for students and instructors alike. Cognitive resources include focus, memory, patience, emotional regulation, absorption of information, learning pace, and more. Flexible teaching approaches are useful in this situation for mitigating impacts on learning and providing students with an effective course environment.  

Flexibility as an Equity Approach

Flexibility in teaching is especially important for equity reasons. Students with low income, unstable housing, and other already challenging situations are more likely to experience disruptions because of a crisis. This includes internet access, access to a laptop or library computer, physical mobility, neighborhood infrastructure, family support, and more. Some students may be able to work as usual, while others are preoccupied with basic needs and community survival. It is important to recognize multiple situations when considering adjustments.

Extend Deadlines

Online, hybrid, and web-enhanced courses may more easily continue instruction during crisis situations or campus closures than face-to-face courses. Regardless of modality, there can be no required deadlines during a formal campus closure period. This is to accommodate students who may be without power, heat, or other essentials during the event that caused the college closure. Any deadlines scheduled during the closure dates must be extended past the closure period.

Provide Extensions

While some students continue studying through a crisis, other students may be preoccupied with family obligations, work, health problems, finances, and other issues exacerbated or caused by a crisis. Consider providing additional time to complete missed assignments. Here is a best practice addressed to students: "It is your responsibility to communicate with me before the deadline if you cannot complete an assignment. You do not need to provide a reason. You do need to provide the date by which you will submit the assignment.” This empowers students to manage their time, judge their own ability to complete work, and makes sharing of personal information optional. This can protect both students and instructors from re-tellings of potentially traumatic experiences while maintaining accountability and communication.

Divide Work Amongst Students  

If covering material that was missed early in the crisis, consider a jigsaw puzzle approach: Assign different portions of the material to different students or small groups. The individual students or groups would then go off and learn their material and be responsible for coming back and teaching it to the rest of the class. This can happen through oral or written presentations, discussions, multimedia productions, live or recorded. This allows for covering more material in a shorter amount of time.  

Another version of the jigsaw: divide students into content groups. Each group learns a portion of the material, makes choices about what they will teach others, and practices teaching with each other. New groups are then formed, containing one ‘expert’ for each portion of content. The experts take turns teaching the rest of their new group about the material they studied.

Reduce complexity of workload

It may serve both students and instructors to adjust expectations for completion of activities and assignments. Consider eliminating and simplifying assignments, while maintaining a basic routine. This can help stabilize the course without overwhelming students or yourself. If possible, facilitate short community building, opt-in social activities, creative expression, and remote gaming. This helps to maintain social bonds, increasing resilience for all involved.

Conduct Live Sessions on Zoom

Zoom is a synchronous tool that allows you to interact with students in real time. This option can serve as a backup when the campus is closed. Sessions can be recorded for students who do not have internet access. Students can playback the session recording and answer predetermined questions to demonstrate that they understand the content. Zoom is also a great tool for community building, watching and debriefing audio or video clips, and office hours.

Realign your Assessments

Different levels of outcomes are assessed in different ways. We often default to ‘application’ level assessments, which sometimes aren’t necessary. You may be able to better (and more quickly) assess your course outcomes through lower-level assessments. For example, if your outcome requires students to “recognize,” to “identify,” or even to “understand,” you may not need students to complete a lengthy project or write a full paper. Ask students to do only what you need to assess that outcome—a quiz or matching activity can assess recognition and understanding in many cases. Instead of a full paper, consider shorter essay questions that get specifically to what you’re assessing.

Trim Supplemental Content

Almost every course has content that is useful for students but not fully necessary for meeting course outcomes. While we want our students to be well-rounded learners and participants in the world, times of crisis require simplification and focus. Take a look at your content and ask yourself what is essential and outcomes-driven and what primarily exists to reinforce learning. Consult a colleague or instructional designer if it’s helpful to hear an outside perspective. Commit to the outcomes-driven content and eliminate or significantly shorten supplemental content.

Remove Triggers

Consider altering or eliminating an assignment if the topic is directly tied to a current crisis. While it is helpful to process events with students, sustained engagement with a difficult topic can overwhelm students’ and instructors' ability to cope. To still meet learning objectives, use a context that is further removed. For instance, during a time of flooding, the topic of snow is likely manageable, while the topic of losing a home to water damage is not.  

Practice Equitable Consideration

Remember that we have students from all over the Seattle area and online students from all across Washington and the other 49 states. Impacts of a crisis in Seattle, the greater Seattle area, and other states may be entirely different. This includes impacts on jobs, childcare, children’s schools, elder care, and more. Responses from local institutions and infrastructure repair may occur on different timelines. Transportation, such as bus routes, may be canceled or delayed for longer in different regions, affecting students’ ability to attend classes and attend to their lives. Adjust your policies on absences, class participation, and student response rates accordingly.

Communicate Clearly and Regularly  

In whichever ways you adjust your curriculum, be sure to communicate the changes to your students. If you edit or cut content, include the rationale—why was that content trimmed and other content kept? Make sure you communicate the expectations for the remainder of the quarter and reiterate any relevant course policies. Students may be unsure what to prioritize in a crisis. Be as clear as possible on what to focus on, what to skip, how to keep up, and how to mitigate falling behind. Addressing those anxieties and outlining a path forward will strengthen students’ resilience and engagement.

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Bremner, J. Douglas. "Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 445-461. Link

Carroll, G. "Mundane Extreme Environmental Stress and African American Families: A Case for Recognizing Different Realities." Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, 1998, pp. 271-284. 

Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. 3rd ed., New York, NY, Teachers College Press, 2018. 

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, Basic Books, 2015. 

Kolassa, I.-T., & Elbert, T. "Structural and Functional Neuroplasticity in Relation to Traumatic Stress." Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 6, 2007, pp. 321–325. 

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Verschelden, Cia. "Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization." Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, Taylor and Francis, July 2018, doi:10.1080/19496591.2018.1470007. 

Zhifeng, Liang, Jean King, Nanyin Zhang. "Neuroplasticity to a single-episode traumatic stress revealed by resting-state fMRI in awake rats." NeuroImage, vol. 103, 2014, pp. 485-491. ISSN 1053-8119,