What is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy?

Trauma is not an event itself, but the body's protective response to an event or series of events that is experienced as harmful or life-threatening. It can have lasting emotional and physical effects on an individual. Importantly, trauma is not experienced the same by everyone - a traumatic event for one individual may or may not prompt a trauma response in another, even if the experiences seem similar. Each individual's response is unique and independent of those around them.

Trauma-informed pedagogy is pedagogical practice that keeps trauma, its prevalence, and how it affects an individual, in mind. These practices are very similar to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and include practices such as:

  • Providing content information in advance
  • Using content descriptions, especially for potentially triggering media
  • Creating a safe and inclusive framework for discussions
  • Checking in on students
  • Encouraging community building and sense of belonging
  • Allowing for multiple ways to engage with course content
  • Building flexibility into assessment and absence policies
  • Valuing student input and feedback

Student-Disclosed Trauma

When a student approaches you wanting to disclose a traumatic event, it's important to recognize the situation and understand your role in this interaction. Where is this interaction taking place? Are you familiar with campus resources? Being prepared can go a long way in comforting the student and handling the situation with confidence and professionalism.

Here are some key points to keep in mind when responding to student-disclosed trauma:

  1. Ground yourself and approach the situation with a calm mindset
  2. Recognize that it’s not about you, it’s about a trauma
  3. Create a safe environment for them when they disclose
  4. Pause and inform the student of your reporting requirements
  5. Provide the option of either continuing to speak with you (if you’re comfortable) or being connected to a confidential support person
  6. Be present, listen, and have empathy (reflect back feelings)
  7. Empower them and allow them to make their own decisions (do not make decisions that remove their control)
  8. Connect them to confidential support resources where they can explore their options with a trained person
  9. Check in and take care of yourself afterwards

Facilitating Discussion of Potentially Traumatic Topics

If you are facilitating a course or class that has potentially triggering topics, it's important to both take preventative measures and prepare yourself for in-the-moment student reactions.

Here are some ways you can prepare yourself and your students ahead of time:

  • Provide students with a content warning. Here are two examples:

Throughout this presentation, trauma and events that may prompt a trauma response will be discussed. There will also be a scenario depicting a disclosure of trauma that uses words only.

Please take breaks as needed and engage in the way that feels safe and comfortable to you.

This reading includes the author discussing ___. If you feel that reading the article would be triggering for you right now, here is the main take-away: ___. If you want to read the readings, some practices that people sometimes use to take care of themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed or triggered by content include deep breathing, feeling the ground under their feet, taking a walk outside, listening to music, stomping their feet or clapping their hands, or using the five senses to orientate themselves to the room.

  • Allow students to opt out of potentially triggering topics
  • Consider alternative ways to engage with the material for students opting out
  • Build flexibility into your assessment and absence policies so students can opt out, no questions asked
  • Provide strategies for grounding and settling:
    • Box breathing - trace the lines on a box in your mind, inhale and count to 4, and exhale and count to 4
    • Energy release - rub and clap your hands together, shake out your hands
    • Orienting - look around the room, scanning from high-to-low and side-to-side and notice what you see
    • Rocking - rock your upper body from side-to-side or forward and backward
    • Feeling safety - think of a person, animal, or place that makes you feel safe and secure and imagine that person or animal is beside you or that you are in that safe place
    • Humming - hum in a low tone
  • Create a safe learning environment by building community, demonstrating empathy, and valuing student opinions
  • Have the students engage with the discussion topic ahead of time and write reflective pieces

Here are some ways to effectively facilitate discussion containing potentially triggering topics:

  1. Give students class materials (readings, videos, etc.) ahead of time and have them engage with the content through reflective activities
  2. Think through your lesson plan and anticipate as many outcomes as you can
  3. Come to class knowledgeable about the topic
  4. Provide content warnings (see above)
  5. Inform students of the structure of the facilitation
    • What should they expect?
    • How can they provide responses?
    • What is your role?
    • Are there any boundaries they need to know?
  6. Be open-minded and empathize without judgement and/or threats
  7. Affirm responses by reflecting back using students' words throughout the discussion
  8. If you feel like the discussion is becoming nonproductive or spiraling out of control, pause the discussion and have everyone perform grounding/settling exercises (see above)
  9. Thank the students for a respectful discussion when wrapping up

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Matthew Mahavongtrakul (mmahavon@uci.edu) from DTEI or Kaeleigh Hayakawa (hayakawk@uci.edu) from UCI CARE.

UCI and Orange County Resources

UCI Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE)* - provides free and confidential support services to members of the UCI community who have been impacted by sexual assault, relationship abuse, family violence and/or stalking
UCI Counseling Center* - free for enrolled students who have paid registration fees. Offers one-time visits, online self-help, group therapy, short-term individual therapy, off-campus referrals, and urgent care
UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD) - contact to report Title IX-related incidents
Waymakers Orange County* - nonprofit organization providing services for sheltering children, supporting victims, counseling families, resolving conflicts, and educating communities

*Denotes a confidential resource

References and Additional Information

"Trauma-Informed Classroom Discussion". Mary Renda. Hub Coach, LSA Opportunity Hub - University of Michigan. POD Network Conference, 2020.
"When a Student Discloses Trauma". Andrea Aebersold, Kaeleigh Hayakawa, Ashley Hooper, Matthew Mahavongtrakul. DTEI and UCI CARE, 2020.
"Teaching Potentially Traumatic Topics". Andrea Aebersold, Kaeleigh Hayakawa, Ashley Hooper, Matthew Mahavongtrakul. DTEI and UCI CARE, 2020.
Common Reactions To Trauma 
(UCI CARE) - emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social reactions
Integrating Trauma-Informed Values Worksheet 
(UCI CARE) - develop ways to integrate trauma-informed values and care into your work and everyday interactions
Trauma-Informed Interactions with Students 
(UCI CARE) - contains basic information about trauma-informed care and suggestions about how to integrate it into student interactions
UCI CARE Services & Programs Brochure 
- contains additional support and resource information
Mental Health Training Webinars For Faculty - curated list of pre-recorded webinars focused on student mental health, faculty mental health, and creating healthy environments. 
Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now 
(Inside Higher Ed) - article exploring seven ways instructors can help students thrive in class in times of trauma
Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Podcast 
(Tea for Teaching) - 40min podcast on how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times