Trauma-Informed Teaching

Many of us – faculty, students, and staff alike – are experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety in a world upended by the global pandemic, financial uncertainty, sustained social isolation, racially motivated violence, and divisive politics. Read on to learn how acute stress and anxiety impact our ability to learn and to teach; and how you can use trauma-informed teaching principles to support students.


The challenges of the last few years have exacerbated the mental health crisis at universities. Back in August of 2019, the CDC reported that over 25% of 18-24 year olds had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days.  By April of 2020, 80% of college students reported that Covid-19 had “negatively impacted their mental health,” and 85% identified focusing on schoolwork as one of their primary challenges.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at BU’s School of Public Health, offers more recent statistics. In the fall of 2020, Lipson conducted a survey of almost 33,000 college students across the country through the Healthy Minds Network, and found that two-thirds of students reported struggling with loneliness and isolation. 83% indicated that emotional or mental health challenges had impacted their academic performance in the prior 4 weeks, the highest proportion ever reported in this annual survey.

Research attests to the impact of acute and ongoing stress on the brain that these students are experiencing. Heightened levels of stress trigger our brains to focus on survival. Energy is rerouted from the prefrontal cortex, and as a result, our ability to concentrate, problem-solve, manage time, and other skills critical to learning and teaching are significantly impaired. 

Lipson’s study offers a powerful picture of the toll of the last few years on students’ wellbeing, but it is important to recognize that students have always experienced and will continue to experience challenges that detract from their ability to learn. Carol Dolan, Clinical Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, explains that we should assume that all of us have experienced significant stress and loss, particularly in the last few years. Moreover, minoritized students face additional ongoing stressors due to structural inequities. 

While it would be inappropriate for faculty to serve as therapists for students, Dolan explains that adopting a trauma-informed teaching approach, in which we recognize that students’ adverse experiences (past or current) impact their ability to learn, can benefit everyone. Below are several trauma-informed teaching principles, accompanied by concrete strategies used by BU faculty for actualizing them:

Foster connection

  • Share your pronouns on the first day of class, and invite students to share theirs.  Learn and use students’ names and pronouns throughout the semester.
  • Check in regularly with students 
    • Remind them of the importance of self-care (sleep, etc.) on academic performance and wellbeing, and ask what they are doing to take care of themselves (Ellen DeVoe, School of Social Work)
  • Acknowledge and discuss difficult news and events (Carol Dolan)
  • Incorporate moments of meditation into your class 
    • BU community members have free subscriptions to the Headspace meditation app

    Be consistent and transparent

    • Explain rationale for curriculum, instructional strategies, and assignments (i.e., how each component helps students to work towards the learning objectives)
    • Explain grading guidelines (using rubrics, etc.) for assignments (Jessica Kent, CAS Writing Program, “Trauma-Informed Practices in the Age of Covid-19” Lightning Talk)
    • Provide content warnings before introducing sensitive content (Carol Dolan)

            Give students agency

            •  Offer multiple ways for students to engage with and demonstrate their understanding of the material
            • See this site on Universal Design for Learning for further explanation and rationale 
            • When possible, offer flexibility with deadlines 
              • Consider making assignments due at 5 pm rather than midnight or 9 am, times which potentially make students lose sleep to meet deadlines (Sarah Ketchen Lipson)

            Normalize asking for help

            • Learn to recognize the symptoms of stress in students and be prepared to direct students to support services
            • In small classes, instructors can reach out to students when they notice that a student has repeatedly missed class or assignments and/or is exhibiting any changes in behavior, performance, attendance, etc. 
            • In larger classes, faculty can enlist Teaching Fellows to look out for such changes in student performance.  
            • Share resources  

              Last but not least, recognize that you, too, are impacted by these times.  Recognize signs of stress and extend compassion to yourself.  The Faculty & Staff Assistance Office offers workshops and confidential one-on-one counseling sessions, as well as tips for self-care.

              Additional resources

              On-campus services for student support

              • BU’s Student Health Services offers tips for starting a conversation with a distressed student; information about how to refer students to counseling services; and resources for learning more about how to support students.
              • The Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center provides support and counseling to BU students who experience trauma, and provides education and awareness to prevent interpersonal violence on campus.

              Resources for instructors

                1. Normalize the need for help
                2. Actively listen (Validate, Appreciate and Refer)
                3. Embed the course with well-being practices
                4. Remember to practice self-care

              Additional resources on student mental health and trauma-informed teaching

              Last updated: July 3, 2023