Anger. Fear. Anxiety. Sadness. Hopelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide anti-police-brutality protests around the killing of George Floyd have left people reeling from a wide range of emotions that they are unable to fully process due to social isolation from stay-at-home orders, says Carol Dolan, clinical associate professor of community health sciences.
The long-term effects of traumatic situations “can result in emotional dysregulation of our normal responses to stress, and that dysregulation can make it very challenging to stay focused, to learn, and to thrive,” she says.
Dolan spoke during an ACEs Connection webinar titled “A Better Normal: Higher Education and Trauma during COVID-19” on Tuesday, June 2. ACEs Connection, a national organization and social network that promotes trauma-informed practices and policies to ease the impact of adverse childhood experiences, invited Dolan and Laura Hofmann, an adjunct instructor and career counselor at Miramar College in San Diego, Cal., to discuss how college educators can establish a trauma-aware environment for students who may be struggling from personal challenges and stressful situations. The session, which is part of the network’s ongoing A Better Normal series, was moderated by SPH alum Alison Cebulla (SPH’19), a community facilitator for the organization.
“At this moment in time, we all need to heal,” said Dolan during the webinar. “So many people want the world to go back to normal, but we’re not taking the time to consider what wasn’t working with the old normal, and how we can do better.”
The nationwide unrest “can offer us a lot of opportunities to learn from each other and build a different and better normal,” she said.
The classroom, a place where college students spend a significant amount of time, can be a prime environment for healing. Trauma-informed (or trauma-responsive) teaching, an approach in which teachers recognize and respond to students who may have been impacted by traumatic stress, is a format that everyone in a school community can benefit from, said Dolan, acknowledging that many faculty and staff members in higher education are likely dealing with trauma and loss as well.
“While faculty are not expected to know what is going on in the lives of all of their students, by offering this approach, all students benefit,” she said. “And, in our current world, it may be safe to assume all have experienced some sorrow, loss, and pain.”
Dolan offered recommendations on how educators can adjust their curriculums and classroom environments to create a sense of connection and safety with students.
“One of the basic tenets of being trauma-informed is to provide a safe, respectful, and accepting environment for students,” said Dolan, who teaches several courses at SPH, including Stress as a Public Health Problem, Mental Health and Public Health: A Social and Behavioral Sciences Perspective, and Trauma, Trauma-Informed Care, Recovery and Resilience. “Acknowledging, normalizing, and discussing difficult situations that are in the news and in the community, is really important.”
It’s a good time for instructors to be good listeners and show empathy to their students, she said. One way for educators to show this support is to seek students’ input in course planning and consider how aspects of a curriculum can be revised to accommodate all students, but particularly those who may be experiencing excessive challenges and stress. Teachers can also provide content warnings before introducing potentially uncomfortable subjects in class discussions so that students can prepare accordingly, she said.
Dolan also recommended that schools maintain a list of mental health referral services for students. “At SPH, we’re lucky to have a Wellness coordinator [Ilana Schlesinger] who shares resources with faculty where students can be referred if their psychological and adjustment issues affect class performance,” she said.
Professors should also practice self-care and use stress-reduction techniques to stay focused and centered during classes, which often last for three hours at the college level, said Dolan. Instructors can set healthy classroom boundaries that promote a healthy work-life balance for faculty and students.
As a career counselor, Hofmann shared details on how she assists students to develop an “empowered, personalized equity plan” during their job search, which means she embraces a holistic approach to counseling that takes into account possible traumatic experiences or other social determinants of health that have impacted students personal and academic performance, including housing instability, food insecurity, past education, access to health care, racism, and discrimination.
“A misconception about career counseling is that it is all about practical ways to pick a major, get an internship, graduate, and find a job,” said Hofmann. “Over the years, I became interested in the human story behind the person before they came to sit in my office.” She said students seeking networking and resume-writing advice may have anxiety tied to those actions, or may have never had the opportunity to create a professional resume. And if someone has experienced trauma, they will need long-term support and coping skills no matter how well they succeed in a job application process, Hofmann said.
Several members of the SPH community joined the webinar, and Daniel Merrigan, associate professor of community health sciences, shared insight on trauma-informed teaching after Dolan and Hofmann spoke.
“I’ve been teaching for 45 years, and I know there is always at least one person that comes into class in a state of disequilibrium, and who, for that reason, is not able to focus,” Merrigan said. “What I try to do is acknowledge that there is a lot going on in the world, so that people can take a few moments to collect themselves, and be present in a safe space.” He said he often begins his classes with an exercise that gives students an opportunity to discuss the news or any topics that are troubling them.
These types of activities can help foster trust in the classroom, among teachers and classmates, Dolan said. She, too, holds ice-breaker activities to put students at ease.
In one such activity during a recent class she taught remotely, Dolan said she asked her students to share a photo of their ideal vacation setting or one place they wanted to be at that moment.
“One student took a picture of her computer screen, because the place she wanted to be was right there in class,” Dolan said.
To hear more from Dolan on trauma-informed teaching, click here to watch the full ACEs Connection webinar.