Monday, October 5, 2020
Trauma is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening[,] and that has long-lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With the pandemic, resulting recession, and ongoing social unrest stemming from racial injustice, if the year 2020 doesn’t fit this definition, I’m not sure what does. I am navigating a lot right now. We are all navigating a lot right now. There is so much uncertainty in the world and many of us have been socially isolated for more than six years months. Though trauma is centered in an individual’s experience, I think it’s safe to say that current circumstances represent trauma for many folks.
Many of my students seem to be faking it until they can make it taking the current situation in stride (at least on the outside). However, I have found myself wondering how well they are really doing with focus, learning, and managing any stress, fear, and anxiety they may be feeling. I also keep thinking about what else I can do to help them. In seeking resources responsive to this moment in history, I stumbled upon several articles about trauma-informed teaching and learning.
Trauma-informed teaching prioritizes helping students feel safe, seen, empowered, and connected. This approach recognizes that, because of the current convergence of crises, students may have more difficulty: completing tasks; finding the motivation to complete reading assignments, “show up” to class, and participate in class discussions; completing writing assignments; effectively managing their time; and, more generally, staying engaged with their legal education. If you’re looking for ways to provide additional support for students during these difficult times, consider the following trauma-informed teaching practices:
- Work to create safety for your students. Think about what makes you feel safe when you feel most vulnerable or are facing uncertainty, and consider sharing your vulnerability. Be honest with students about how you have been affected by current circumstances and tell them how you are doing. By naming your emotions in this way, you are modeling for students that it is healthy to share and process emotions in a community setting. Accordingly, ask your students how they are doing and solicit their thoughts on how you can create a feeling of safety for them in your course. Suggest that they journal as an outlet to express their feelings and create/offer a space for students to share if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Foster relationships and facilitate peer support. Relationships are a key to resilience. Encourage students to check on one another, if they are comfortable doing so, and promote storytelling. The act of sharing their stories with their peers can help students better cope because it creates a feeling of shared experience and fosters a sense of community.
- Create a sense of trustworthiness and transparency. Be clear, transparent, and reliable in interacting with students. Creating and maintaining trust can help lessen stress and anxiety. Adopt and adhere to routines to create some level of predictability for students.
- Empower voice and choice. Validate and normalize student concerns by talking to students about fear, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Empower students who may feel a diminished sense of control to advocate for themselves. Ask their opinions, survey them about how you can help them learn during these difficult times, and brainstorm ways for students to play a role in creating or structuring assignments.
- Understand that students are not a monolith. View student challenges through the lens of intersectionality. We are all trying to navigate the trauma of 2020. However, not all of our students are experiencing this trauma in the same way or to the same degree. Many BIPOC students, for example, may be experiencing trauma much more severely because of intergenerational trauma, ongoing oppression, and structural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Interrupt microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions are a daily source of traumatic stress for students with marginalized identities. Commit to learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions in your classroom. Navigating multiple crises and online learning as a law student is traumatic enough.
- Emphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. Share your passion for teaching, learning, etc. with students and invite them to reconnect with their sense of purpose.
- Re-emphasize concepts and scaffold. Trauma can affect law students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which means they may have a more difficult time planning, remembering, and focusing. Consider providing more reminders about dates and deadlines, what was covered in prior classes, and how it connects to what students are learning next. Build these additional guideposts into your syllabus, learning management system, class meetings, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for us to also prioritize care for ourselves. Doing this work, in addition to everything else we’re trying to navigate in 2020, is not for the weary. In addition to adapting and adopting trauma-informed practices to better support students, we must also carve out time to unplug, unwind, and de-stress. We and our students will be better for it.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Mays Imad, Seven Recommendations for Helping Students Thrive in Times of Trauma, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.
Natalie B. Milman, Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should), Educ. Week, Apr. 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-informed-teaching-remotely.html.
Beth McMurtie, What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?, Chron. Higher Educ., June 4, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2020-06-04.
Kara Newhouse, Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, KQED, Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning.
 BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.