Trauma-Aware and Wellness-Oriented Teaching Practices

This resource has been adapted from several sources and collaborators, including: an original Trauma-Informed Teaching resource produced at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic by the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department (original authors: Dr. Theresa Hice-Fromille, Michelle Gomez Parra, and Dr. Rebecca London); Dr. Alison Hanson, formerly of the UCSC Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) office; UC Irvine’s Pedagogical Wellness initiative; the work of Dr. Shawn Ginwright, Dr. Mays Imad, and Dr. Karen Costa, and further resources that are cited throughout and at the end of this page.

There are many intersecting factors that contribute to instructors and TAs wishing to employ trauma-aware and wellness-oriented practices in their teaching: the ongoing impacts of the global pandemic that have disproportionately affected people of color and people from low-income backgrounds; ongoing police violence and anti-Black racism; increases in targeted violence to many minoritized groups (including Asian and Pacific Islander, Arab and Muslim, queer, trans, Jewish, and undocumented community members); local climate disasters; global conflicts; and many more instances of distressing experiences that personally and collectively impact our students, our communities, and ourselves. 

In addition to accounting for events that take place while we are teaching, some studies indicate that a majority of young people (between 66 and 85 percent) experience a traumatic event before coming to college (cited in Davidson). We can expect that trauma will be present in all of our classrooms.

The resources and strategies embedded in this page seek to help teaching teams bridge “trauma-awareness,” that is, an understanding of how experiences of individual and collective trauma impact how we learn and teach, with a “healing-based” or “wellness-based” approach that invites us to design learning environments that help students and instructors/TAs thrive and nurture our collective wellbeing. Many teaching strategies can be enacted by all members of a teaching team, and others are in the purview of instructors because they require decisions at the course design level.

Compassionate disclaimer: This resource provides a range of possible strategies, some of which will be more useful in some contexts and disciplines than others, some of which cater best to small and large classes, some of which may be impacted by instructor expertise or bandwidth. We want each instructor and TA to feel that they can find ideas that are useful and that fit their pedagogy, and to not feel like you need to try everything all at once. The resource is organized so that you can jump between different categories: we encourage you to selectively browse the categories based on your own current needs, interests, and capacities.

How does trauma affect learning, and what is a healing- or wellness-oriented approach?

Trauma refers to the embodied and psychological impact of a stressful event(s) or set of circumstances that is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening, and that has lasting effects on an individual or community (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]). Trauma affects brain function and learning, including higher-order thinking skills and executive functioning skills. Students, TAs, and Instructors alike may find it more difficult to focus, manage their time, make decisions, concentrate, cope with stressors, and perform academically and professionally when they experience trauma.

All people have been exposed to some level of stress and trauma through collective experiences, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and local climate disasters. It’s important to remember that, due to compounding experiences, the conditions of our current moment have differential impacts on students and colleagues of color, first-generation college students, and low-income students. Students deserve a rigorous learning experience, and this rigor can include intentional teaching strategies and design choices that acknowledge the impact of trauma on learning. 

In taking a wellness-oriented approach, instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) can make adaptations to their teaching that simultaneously support student, instructor, and TA thriving. UC Irvine’s Pedagogical Wellness Specialist, Dr. Theresa Duong, defines a wellness-based approach as one that “creates a culture of mutual care, compassion, and respect among instructors and students.” This focus on creating a culture of wellness points out some of the limitations in only focusing on trauma-awareness. As Dr. Shawn Ginwright points out, some formulations of trauma-awareness can incorrectly imagine trauma as solely an individual experience, and therefore focus on individuals rather than on systems that contribute to trauma (2018). When we adopt a more wellness- or healing-centered approach, we can focus on changing policies and practices so that they can contribute to mutual and collective thriving.

For further information on how trauma affects teaching and learning for students and instructors, and how a wellness-oriented approach can support both instructors and students, we recommend reading the following resources:

Reduce Harm & Center Student Strengths

A sense of emotional and psychological safety is necessary for learning to happen (Imad 2020, Costa, SAMHSA). There are a number of ways instructors and TAs can reduce potential threats, harms, and experiences of retraumatization or a heightened need for self-protection and vigilance—experiences that get in the way of learning. We can also structure the learning environment intentionally so that students are seen for their strengths and they can feel prepared to engage deeply and succeed in the course. Implementing some or all of the following suggestions is likely to support student feelings of safety and, thus, learning in your course. 

  • Select course content while being sensitive to the fact that some topics and conversations may require more psychological and emotional preparation to engage with. When choosing course content/topics that require additional preparation, the UCSC CARE Office recommends providing content advisories for such topics as: racism, racialized violence, sexual and domestic violence, death and dying, illness, and mental illness. (See examples of content advisories at: TLC’s Sample and Recommended Syllabus Language.)
  • When choosing topics that relate to issues of social inequity and justice, check that the content includes and even centers asset-based (v. deficit-based) representations of marginalized communities. Asset-based representations center authorship and voices from within the communities described; address the practices of collective resilience and creativity that those communities bring; and do not frame communities solely as victims of oppression.
  • When starting your courses, invite students to reflect on the practices—academic, personal, collective—that have contributed to their wellbeing and abilities to persist up to this point. Ask them to share their knowledge and expertise with regard to creating a culture of wellbeing in a way that feels comfortable to them (e.g., on an anonymous jamboard).
  • Early on in your course, facilitate an activity that invites students to establish and share their sense of purpose in the course. Seeing one’s coursework as relevant to one’s sense of purpose can increase students’ sense of belonging and persistence.
  • Collaborate with students to set up community guidelines for interactions in the course. In the process, support students to account for how everyone’s intersectional identities and experiences with privilege and oppression will shape interactions with each other, and invite them to imagine how they can work together to reduce and repair harm, as well as cultivate a supportive community for learning.
  • For addressing critical current events or preparing to conduct student-driven dialogue around important but sensitive topics, view TLC’s resource on Addressing Critical Current Events
  • Provide (or collaborate with students to create) expectations and guidelines for collaborating and doing group work in more equitable ways. In doing so, explicitly name that you want to draw from their strengths in and experiences with effective collaboration. (See TLC’s Active Learning page for suggestions for equitable group work.)
  • Near the end of the course, ask students to tap into their expertise to write or record messages for future students about how to succeed in the course overall, or on a specific project or exam. Ask them to share one or two tips or strategies that helped them succeed that they would like to share with others. (Check out one example of a “wisdom wall.”)
  • Do not avoid conversations about how racism, classism, sexism, ableism, queer- and trans-phobia, and more, show up in and affect learning environments.
    • During times of increased violence, especially racist and anti-trans violence, acknowledge when a local or national event may be having an impact on all students, but especially and differentially on students from targeted communities. Not acknowledging these realities can lead to students not feeling seen.
  • Decrease the risk of retraumatization and secondary traumatization by prioritizing the emotional safety of students in your classroom and reducing potential harm from trauma exposure. While it is important to acknowledge how a moment of crisis impacts students, students should not be expected to recount traumatic events or be exposed to traumatic disclosures as part of their learning assessments and grading. Reducing harm of retraumatization should not elide or omit conversations related to historical and current events, especially as they relate to course content. Instead, invite students to engage in sensitive topics through a variety of ways, including optional and alternative activities, that are not required for evaluation purposes. Recommended reading: Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as Trauma- Informed Teaching (Carello and Butler 2014).
  • Make clear to students how, when, and why they can contact you about any concerning incidents in class (including those that arise from your own behaviors).
  • If the intersections of racism and trauma, or the concept of racial battle fatigue, is new to you, make a plan to learn more about it and reflect on how your awareness can shape your teaching approaches. Recommended reading: Racial Battle Fatigue in Higher Education (Fasching-Varner et al. 2015), “If we aren’t addressing racism, we aren’t addressing trauma” (Simmons 2020).

Prioritize Relationships & Community

Quality relationships and social embeddedness are essential for any person to be able to practice resilience and heal from trauma (Campa 2013, Stanton-Salazar & Spina 2000). As Shawn Ginwright (2018) points out: “healing is experienced collectively … Healing-centered engagement is the result of building a healthy identity, and a sense of belonging.” To help students thrive, we can make teaching choices that affirm students’ identities and that encourage connectedness and community-building.

  • Consider using tools like Flip or options to post video/audio in Canvas discussions to allow students to introduce themselves to each other and share their goals for the course. At the same time, remember that requiring students to be on camera for any aspect of the class is not trauma-aware.
  • Take time for check-ins and icebreaker activities during class sessions to give students a chance to check in on each other and for you to communicate your care for students’ wellbeing.
    • For asynchronous engagement like discussion boards, use prompts that allow students to connect with each other about how they are doing and how they are taking care of their and their communities’ health and wellbeing during trying times.
  • Consider creating and sharing a “sense of belonging story” with students, which can normalize concerns about belonging, help students feel connected to you, and invite them to recognize how they themselves can and have overcome challenges.
  • Encourage students to recognize and actively identify their strengths for learning, including their existing resilience and wellbeing practices.
    • Near the end of the course, ask students to tap into their expertise to write or record messages for future students about how to succeed in the course overall, or on a specific project or exam. Ask them to share one or two tips or strategies that helped them succeed that they would like to share with others. (Check out one example of a “wisdom wall.”)
  • Notice and act on crucial opportunities to clearly and explicitly express your care and concern for students’ wellbeing, such as when a student is unable to attend class or does not meet a deadline.
  • Make a brief video and/or friendly landing page in Canvas to welcome students to your course and identify yourself as a partner in their learning. Welcome videos and welcome pages can include your perspective on the course and on teaching, your belief in student success and commitment to educational equity, and some tips for starting the course off strong. Here’s one example of a “humanized homepage.”
  • Make brief videos for additional purposes like introducing students to an assignment to demystify its expectations, or introducing students to each week’s focus of inquiry and major deadlines.
  • Support students to set up (optional) peer networks of care and support, so that students can study together and check in on each other throughout the term. When doing so, be sensitive to different students’ privacy needs and preferences, by setting clear expectations for which kinds of contact are appropriate and which are not, and always allow students to opt in or out of sharing personal information.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer collaboration and relationship-building with activities like structured group work and pair-shares; discussion prompts that require students to respond to their peers’ posts; structured peer review processes so students can learn from each other’s works-in-progress; and more. Here are 50 ideas for using Google docs for collaborations.
  • While group work can be supportive for community-building, it’s also trauma-aware and accessibility-aware to prepare for alternatives to group work. Group work and collaboration can be more difficult for students to engage in when unexpected situations arise. Consider including options for students whose groups are not able to meet due to schedule conflicts, or who would find it more accessible to do an individual assignment.

Provide Structure

People who have experienced trauma can experience difficulty with executive function skills, which include skills like focusing, concentrating, making decisions, setting and maintaining priorities, and managing time effectively. Similarly, a large number of students (in a 2022 study, around 75% of 2,000 students surveyed nationally) have experienced anxiety while attending college in the ongoing pandemic. We can make teaching choices that provide students with opportunities to practice mindfulness, focus more readily on core skills and content, and practice  their executive function skills in a structured and supportive way.

  • Reduce cognitive load (that is, “the amount of resources in working memory that are being used by students for processing and encoding new information”) by amplifying the most important content and skills of your course (and removing less critical material), providing cognitive aids and scaffolds for larger tasks, and using more streamlined content delivery (including reducing longer lectures). UC Merced provides helpful strategies for reducing cognitive load.
    • When choosing readings and assignments for a course, consider using the Workload Estimator tool from Wake Forest University, which allows instructors to estimate weekly time-on-task for common assignments like complex readings, discussion posts, writing assignments, videos/podcasts, and more.
  • Ensure that course texts are accessible, such as by using digital texts whenever possible. If possible, make all course readings free. Utilize the TLC’s Accessibility Team (A-Team) to help make existing course materials accessible.
  • Consider starting a class session with a quiet “minute to arrive” or a deep breathing exercise.
  • Include information in your course announcements and/or presentations about wellness and mental health services available to students to normalize the use of these services and to integrate mental health into the day-to-day experience of the class.
  • Provide structured note-taking outlines for students to use when they listen to presentations, whether live or pre-recorded.
  • Provide clear written steps and directions for all activities, whether live or asynchronous.
  • When providing students with instructions for activities during live sections, especially for breakout room activities, make sure to provide a written version (e.g. on a Canvas page, in a slide deck, in a shared document, etc.).
  • Provide “reading guides” that support students to engage with and understand more challenging course readings.
  • Support students to make plans for what Karen Costa calls “do dates” in addition to “due dates”. Support can include things like calendars and other time management tools and activities. One helpful planning and goal-setting tool is UC Berkeley’s Roadmap to Success assignment.
  • Explicitly talk with students about, and encourage them to talk to each other about, strategies for organization, planning, time management, and studying.
  • Organize materials in Canvas so that they are easy to navigate and access, such as by using modules and text headings.
  • Provide students with reflection prompts about their learning and the strategies they’re using to support their learning.
  • Provide students with opportunities to check in on how they are doing with their learning, such as self-check quizzes after reading new material, watching a presentation video, or learning a new concept.
  • Plan for the unexpected: Have a structured plan for what you will do if a student is in crisis at the time of a crucial course deadline. What will your policy be for students who cannot complete key assignments? Excusing students from assignments, providing alternative assignments, and providing extensions are all options. View the Accessible Syllabus website to get ideas for effectively designing and implementing flexible deadlines and grading policies without overburdening the TA and instructor team. 

Practice Trust-Building & Transparency

Trauma is associated with feelings of unpredictability and distrust. Upended habits and routines can cause further challenges. Given this information, we can work to create learning environments in which we build trust with students and practice transparency (Imad 2020, Costa, SAMHSA). In many ways, this practice intersects with sharing power with students as agents in their learning.

  • Begin to build trust and transparency with students right away by providing a pre-course survey, which can include questions about general accessibility, access to different technologies and to study space, other commitments that students are balancing (like family care and work), and their interest in the course. (See a sample “getting to know you” survey.)
  • Establish predictable routines and rhythms in the course so that students know what to expect each week. 
  • Communicate regularly with students — such as over email, in pre-recorded videos, or through Canvas announcements — about what to expect each week and to remind them of upcoming deadlines.
  • Organize your course’s digital space (e.g. on Canvas) so that students easily know how to find what they need in order to learn. 
  • Be transparent about your decision-making and teaching choices, including your course design, assignment design, and grading/evaluation choices. Transparency can also relate to explaining why students are asked to do a given task and what it’s intended to support them to practice/develop.
  • Provide feedback on student work that is truthful and compassionate, that recognizes students’ strengths and successes, and that provides a clear pathway for improvement. (Rubrics are good for this!)
  • Provide (or co-create with students) clear expectations for engaging online, such as for synchronous discussions in Zoom or in asynchronous online discussion posts.
  • Adopt some degree of flexibility around due dates when students need extensions or grace; mutual trust can be built through transparent communication and not being overly rigid when students face any challenges that cause them to need more time. 
  • Plan for the unexpected: Have a plan for what you will do if a student is in crisis at the time of a crucial course deadline (e.g., midterm or final). What will your policy be for students who cannot complete key assignments? Excusing students from assignments, providing alternative assignments, and providing extensions are all options. Revisit the Accessible Syllabus website to get ideas for effectively designing and implementing flexible deadlines and grading policies.
  • Create accountability structures for yourself and your teaching: what are some ways that you will check in on and get information about whether your teaching choices are supporting learning in equitable ways?

Encourage Student Choice & Agency

Trauma can involve the experience of losing control and access to one’s rights. Integrating explicit opportunities for students to make some choices about their own learning (without getting overwhelmed by too many choices) can make a course a more empowering experience (Imad 2020, Costa, SAMHSA). Likewise, taking a healing-centered approach, “Researchers have found that well-being is a function of the control and power young people have in their schools and communities” (Ginwright 2018).

  • Create course policies that allow students to have some necessary flexibility without having to ask special permission. It is difficult to expect students who are feeling vulnerable, upset, behind on their work, or missing class to seek help or ask for special accommodations. View the Accessible Syllabus website to get ideas for effectively implementing flexible deadlines and grading policies, in ways that also support the instructor and TA team.
    • Consider integrating mutually supportive attendance alternatives for when students need to miss class. For example, consider having a ready-to-go discussion assignment or make class materials and recordings available, or consider setting up a collaborative class note-taking system. 
  • Consider how to provide opportunities for students to address issues that matter to them in their work for the class. For example, can students have an opportunity to analyze how a course topic impacts them and their communities?
    • When inviting students to address issues that matter to them, including social justice issues, provide structure for them not to just dwell on the issue but also to propose solutions and take action toward improving the issue.
  • Review your course plan and indicate where students have opportunities to provide input or make choices about course content, discussions, and assignments. Are there areas where you can shift some authority and power to students?
  • Invite students to set goals for their learning, such as in addition to or in relation to the course learning goals. Ask students to revisit their goals, edit them, and reflect on their progress throughout the course.
  • Provide students with some choices on assignments while remembering that too many choices can also be overwhelming (recall the importance of clear structure and routines). Some “small” examples include asking students to: choose one additional reading from a list of three based on individual interests; choose one prompt from a list of two or three prompts for a discussion post; choose between two modalities for submitting an assignment (e.g. written text v. voice recording); choose to drop the grade of any quiz, etc.
  • Some learners may become anxious when presented with choices, especially if they have not been provided with many choices in their learning before. Offer to meet with those students individually to help them process their options.
  • Begin lessons by asking students to reflect on and share what they already know about the topic, and create space for all students to share their prior knowledge, such as in the Zoom chat or in small groups (e.g. think-pair-share model).
  • Prepare for alternatives to group work. Group work and collaboration are important parts of learning, but they can be more difficult when unexpected situations arise. Consider including options for students whose groups are not able to meet due to schedule conflicts, have DRC accommodations related to group work, or who would be more comfortable doing an individual assignment. 
  • Provide students with opportunities to give feedback on how the course is going for them, such as through a mid-term feedback survey. Be willing to make necessary changes/adjustments based on student feedback. 
  • If issues arise over late work, ask the impacted student(s) about what timelines and processes could work for them and ask them for suggestions to involve them in the decision-making process.  

Balance Presence with Healthy Boundaries & Self-/Community-Care

Effective teaching involves what some call “instructional presence” (Darby & Lang 2019), which can entail being responsive by: responding to student inquiries, giving feedback to student work, responding to discussion posts, communicating regularly and checking in on students, and more. Effective teaching also asks instructors and TAs to set healthy boundaries that honor the effects of trauma on their own lives, the emotional labor of responding to student needs, and the importance of self- and community-care to one’s own wellbeing. Shawn Ginwright (2018) reminds us of the importance of practitioner wellbeing: “Healing is an ongoing process that we all need.” While all of the categories in this resource can be best implemented with strong collaboration in a teaching team, this category especially points to the importance of strong communication and collaboration amongst instructors and TAs.

  • An important aspect of reflecting on boundaries is acknowledging the racialized and gendered expectations of trauma-aware teaching. We can collectively acknowledge that the emotional labor, responsibility, and expectation of responding to students in trauma-informed ways (e.g. with support, care, compassion, and flexibility) — especially as this work overlaps with efforts toward racial justice — falls most heavily on colleagues of color and on women and non-binary people, especially women and non-binary people of color. Additionally, the pandemic has exacerbated gendered equity issues in care work both in home spaces and in professional spaces. How do these realities affect you, members of your teaching team, and your individual and collective teaching practices? What kinds of institutional and structural changes are needed to reshape this inequitable reality?
  • Set a schedule for yourself for when you will be “present” in your course (e.g. when will you check discussion boards, when will you be available to respond to students’ work and questions). Do your best to commit to not working on your course during your “off” hours if you can; protect your time.
    • Coordinate with other members of the teaching team to ensure that the labor of the course is equitably distributed. Instructors can take special responsibility to organize the sharing of this information and recalibrating workload when needed.
  • Clearly communicate to students what they can expect when it comes to response time (e.g. “I respond to emails/discussion forums between X and Y time each day,” or “Please expect a response within X hours during the week”).
  • Communicate with students about the importance of filling out the Student Experience of Teaching (SET) surveys at the end of the course. Practice self-/community-care when doing so by having an honest conversation with students about the gendered and racialized bias that make their feedback on SETs harmful (and less effective). (Consider sharing with them tools like the interactive data visualization on Gendered Language in Teaching Reviews, and TLC’s guide to giving more effective feedback to instructors.)
  • Students who have experienced trauma, and educators who support them, can all benefit from clear roles. What kinds of support can you offer? What issues are the responsibility of the instructor of the course, v. that of the TAs in a course? What kinds of support are you (as instructor or TA) not able to or not trained to offer? In what areas will you need to refer students to seek support elsewhere? Karen Costa calls your area of influence and concern your “scope of practice.” Being clear about your scope can help you determine the best ways to show up for your students, and when you need to set boundaries.
  • Identify the actions/behaviors/things that help you stay well, healthy, and connected to your family/community. Make a list of these things. Keep the list near your work space and check in about whether you can prioritize any of them throughout the day.
  • Identify your own personal support network: Who will your community be while you teach? Which people and which resources will help you problem-solve challenges that come up? Who will listen or provide a sounding board? How can the teaching team itself be organized as a space of collective knowledge-sharing, brainstorming, and collaboration?
  • Identify your larger institutional support network: Make sure you know about the resources that can support students so that you can compassionately refer students to them. 

Readings & Resources

Campa, Blanca. (2013). Pedagogies of Survival: Cultural Resources to Foster Resilience Among Mexican-American Community College Students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 37:6.

Carello, Janice, and Butler, Lisa D. (2014). Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as Trauma- Informed Teaching. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation 15.2.

Costa, Karen. Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist

Davidson, Shannon. Trauma-Informed Practices for Post-Secondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest.

Ezarik, Melissa. (2022). Professors’ Part in Maintaining Student Wellness. Inside Higher Ed.

Ginwright, Shawn. (2018). The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement.

Imad, Mays. (2020). Trauma-Informed Pedagogy Workshop.

Learning for Justice. (2020). A Trauma-informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus

Morales, E. E. (2014). Learning from success: How original research on academic resilience informs what college faculty can do to increase the retention of low socioeconomic status students. International Journal of Higher Education, 3(3).

McMurtrie, Beth. (2020). What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like? Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pacansky-Brock, Michelle. (2020). How and Why to Humanize Your Online Course.

Stanton-Salazar, R. & Spina, S. U. (2000). The network orientations of highly resilient urban minority youth: a network-analytic account of minority socialization and its educational implications. The Urban Review, 32(3).

Stommel, Jesse. (2020). Designing for Care: Inclusive Pedagogies for Online Learning.

University of California, Irvine. Pedagogical Wellness Initiative.

University of Washington. (2020). Well-Being for Life & Learning: A Guidebook for Advancing Student Well-Being