Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Tips

A quick tip sheet based on the webinar “Examining the Intersection of Equity, Trauma-Informed Pedagogy, and Social-Emotional Learning." Prepared by instructional designers McKinzie Sutter, M.S., and Julia Remsik Larsen, M.A.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy requires having an awareness of our students’ past and present experiences and the effects of those experiences on students’ well-being and their ability to engage with the materials and learn. We must be able to recognize trauma in ourselves and our students. We need to be intentional to promote safe environments that cultivate connectedness, empowerment, and recovery.


Recent studies show significant (63%) increases in diagnosed mental health conditions between 2007 to 2017 (The American College Health Association and National College Health Assessment, 2019). COVID is likely exacerbating mental health conditions students already struggle with, intensifying feelings of helplessness that are at the core of traumatic stress. Some examples of challenges that contribute to trauma are mental health status, isolation, uncertainty, poverty, and racism. Traumatic stressors can be anything from basic needs insecurity to sustained microaggressions to witnessing or being involved in a car accident.

According to a survey conducted by The Hope Center in the early days of the pandemic, over half of students reported at least moderate anxiety and an inability to concentrate on school. Other alarming results were also reported, including a 60% rate of basic needs (food, shelter) insecurity and employment impacts for almost two-thirds of student respondents. In April 2020, an Active Minds survey further documented negative effects of COVID19 on the mental health of college students in the realm of stress and anxiety, disappointment or sadness, and loneliness or isolation.

We all experience traumatic stress to varying degrees from our unique challenges, but there are things we can do help our brains and our students’ brains when trauma exists.

The Neuroscience of Trauma

Stress hinders the ability to learn and remember. Traumatic stress puts a person in a sense of helplessness or lack of agency and can be a place of conscious or unconscious fear/overwhelm.

A healthy nervous system can handle a certain degree of increased vigilance that is the result of stress and normally goes from less aroused vigilance (parasympathetic branch, relaxed, stance of the nervous system) to higher arousal (sympathetic branch, the activated stance of the nervous system). In traumatic stress, a person’s brain gets stuck alternatively in high or low levels of arousal that result in sympathetic hyperarousal (“stuck on high” vigilance) or parasympathetic hyperarousal (“stuck on low” vigilance).

The body experiences “Amygdala Hijack” where stress hormones are created to extreme degrees and initiates a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The fight, flight, or freeze response is prioritized biologically over higher-level brain functions like the ability to pay attention, make decisions, learn, and remember and it’s impossible to will oneself out of the amygdala hijack experience. When trauma happens, the default mode network for the human brain goes from full communication between parts of the brain to a limited network consisting of the past.

Strategies & Tactics to Help Students

  • Take Care of Yourself. First and foremost, it’s important to practice self-care in whatever form you need to be gentle with your amygdala (to consciously avoid stress hormone production and encourage positive hormone production). This might be as “simple” as picking your battles, documenting hope and beauty, holding on to some normalcy through routines or reaching out to friends, or developing backup plans. It can also include visible reminders to cultivate joy, practice gratitude, check in with colleagues, to not take negative interactions personally, and to “put your own oxygen mask on first.”
  • Create Relevant Course Content. Make your course materials as relevant to student lives as possible. When trauma is present and the brain is stuck in the past, this teaching tactic encourages future orientation.
  • Gratefulness Exercise. Have students complete the sentence “I am grateful (or happy) for...”. This activity creates positive neuroplasticity which is part of a healthy life/mind.
  • Ensure Safety
    • Welcome the students with an intentional invitation in the syllabus rather than a contract. (e.g. “Know that in this course, you are more than a number – I see you and you matter. I ask you to bring your own experiences to enrich one another. Let us begin this journey of learning together.”)
    • Convey your passion for teaching and why you continue to teach.
    • Remind the students that you want them in your class and care about their wellbeing.
  • Build Connections
    • Connect through stories. Share stories of challenges you had if they provide help and hope to your students now.
    • Facilitate relationship building among your students by encouraging them to check up on each other if appropriate and they are comfortable doing so. Also encourage them to provide suggestions on ways to help their classmates because students tend to do better asking for help for someone else than for themselves.
    • Remind your students that we are social creatures and being part of a community and having a sense of belonging helps us learn.
  • Impart Purpose
    • As an assignment, ask students to describe a better world for them and their fellow human beings. Ask them to consider what role they play in moving toward that future. This helps them imagine and enact the future.
    • Invite students to identify/reconnect with their sense of purpose. Encourage them to remember longer-term goals by asking them to remember the reasons they are pursuing an education. Try inspiring this with the “What is Your Why?” video.
    • Foster metacognition and making connections between the course and life.
  • Empower with Knowledge
    • Pedagogy of interiority – help your students be comfortable with, and learn about, the “home within”.
    • Validate and normalize the students’ concerns. Give them a voice.
    • Teach about the brain and stress and learning and have them do a project on those relationships. Understanding these connections can be very empowering, especially given that students typically interpret that something is wrong with them.