Keeping Up With . . . Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet.

Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet is the Reference Librarian at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, email:


Trauma-informed pedagogy adapts the trauma-informed care framework from health and human services for the practice of teaching. Trauma-informed approaches to teaching strive to understand how various forms of trauma may have impacted the lives of learners and use that understanding to accommodate learners’ needs, prevent further or retraumatization, and promote resilience and growth. While K-12 educators and policymakers have been grappling for several decades with what it means to be “trauma-informed,” the conversation in higher education has gained momentum within the last 5-10 years, with much of it originating in social work education. [1]

Traumatic stress and its effects have been much more frequently discussed in higher education of late, given that the last year has been characterized by the “cascading collective traumas” of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, continued killing of unarmed Black people and resulting social unrest, and climate-based extreme weather events. These events have disproportionately hurt minoritized communities and those of low socioeconomic status, deepening existing inequalities and compounding race-based historical traumas.[2] Recent data suggests that individuals worldwide—younger adults 18-35 included—are experiencing these events as traumas and suffering ongoing adverse effects.[3] The convergence of collective traumas with direct exposure to individual potentially traumatic events (e.g., life-threatening illness, loss of loved ones, economic precarity, violent policing) is likely to continue negatively impacting our short-term and long-term mental health, in forms ranging from heightened anxiety to ongoing depression and PTSD.[4]

Trauma and College Students

In recent decades many health professionals, researchers, policymakers, and scholars outside of health and human services disciplines have come to understand “trauma” as a set of phenomena extending well beyond clinical diagnoses of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Psychological trauma, as defined by SAMHSA,

“Results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being." [5]

Trauma responses occur when a person’s ordinary internal resources for coping and maintaining a sense of control, connection with others, and meaning are overwhelmed by external stressors, imparting an intense, lingering experience of helplessness and terror.[6] Some basic types of trauma include:

  • Acute trauma: single-episode, unexpected event, e.g., a car accident, tornado, one-time rape.
  • Complex or developmental trauma: sustained or repeated traumatic episodes, e.g., life-threatening illness, combat, ongoing abuse or neglect, poverty.
  • Continuous traumatic stress or historical/generational trauma: ongoing, systematic, and/or cumulative group trauma, e.g., identity-based discrimination, racism, slavery and its legacies.[7]

Even before the pandemic, trauma and traumatic stress touched the lives of many postsecondary learners. 66%-94% of students report exposure to at least one traumatic event by the time they reach college, with many reporting exposure to multiple traumatic events. 9-12% of first-year college students meet the clinical criteria for PTSD, while many more report symptoms below the diagnostic threshold.[8] Slightly over half of student respondents in a 2020 survey reported at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), early traumatic stressors closely tied to a range of negative, long-term psychological and life outcomes.[9] Student groups demonstrated to be at greater risk of trauma exposure include women, students who are BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color), LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, veterans, current and former foster youth, refugee students, and nontraditional adult learners.[10]

Trauma’s Effect on Student Learning

Childhood traumas in particular, often understood as ACEs, can have a profound impact on brain development, leading to developmental delays and emotional and behavioral responses that impede sensory processing, social relationships, and learning. Students with one or more ACEs in their history are more likely to have had behavioral issues in school; trauma symptoms misdiagnosed as conduct problems, attention deficits, or learning disabilities; and negative interactions with peers and teachers in the past.

As many of us can probably attest, feeling anxious or afraid makes it difficult to reach the state of attentive calm necessary for learning. Dealing with traumatic stress tends to be physically and emotionally draining and time-consuming, as a person’s body and mind are continually engaged in a state of alarm and heightened vigilance. Commonly, students may:

  • Find it hard to focus and think deeply.
  • Have trouble retaining and recalling information.
  • Have difficulty taking risks like responding to questions, starting new tasks, or considering alternative viewpoints.
  • Become withdrawn and disengaged.
  • Be irritable or have difficulty regulating their emotions.
  • Overread nonverbal cues (tone, facial expression, posture, etc.) negatively.
  • Struggle with attending class and completing assignments regularly and on time. [11]

Educational environments can play a strong, positive role in facilitating students’ recovery from traumatic stress and cultivation of resilience, “but only if [the students] feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions.” [12]

Trauma-Informed Teaching Principles

While trauma-informed approaches are holistic and most effective when adopted at all levels of an organization, there are important moves individual faculty and staff or individual units can make to promote the well-being of students in instructional settings.[13] Janice Carello’s principles for trauma-informed postsecondary teaching and learning (based in part on SAMHSA’s six key principles for adopting an organizational trauma-informed approach) are paraphrased below.[14] They apply likewise to the library instruction classroom.

  1. Physical, Emotional, Social, & Academic Safety. Foster an atmosphere that respects individuals’ needs for safety, respect, and acceptance, including feeling safe to make and learn from mistakes.
  2. Trustworthiness & Transparency. Establish trust by making expectations clear, operating transparently, being consistent and reliable, and maintaining appropriate boundaries.
  3. Support & Connection. Facilitate peer support and connection with appropriate resources.
  4. Collaboration & Mutuality. Create opportunities for input, power-sharing, and cooperative decision-making.
  5. Empowerment, Voice, & Choice. Build in flexibility and choices where possible so learners can build competence and confidence making decisions for themselves.
  6. Social Justice. Strive together to be aware of and responsive to intersecting dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression to honor each person’s experiences and identities.
  7. Resilience, Growth, & Change. Emphasize strengths and resilience over deficiencies and pathology. Provide feedback to convey optimism and facilitate growth.

Wholly integrating trauma-informed approaches into one’s teaching practice is a tall order, but the steps to becoming “trauma-informed” can be conceptualized as a progression from trauma-aware, trauma-sensitive, trauma-responsive, then trauma-informed.[15] It’s also helpful to bear in mind that trauma-informed teaching practices frequently overlap with those of connected educational approaches, including feminist, critical, and anti-racist pedagogies and Universal Design for Learning.

Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

Guided by these principles and the effects of traumatic stress on learning, here are some recommended teaching strategies.

  • Continue educating yourself on the nature, signs, and effects of trauma in higher education settings.
  • Uphold learning as the primary goal and student safety (including basic emotional safety) as a necessary condition. Invite but do not require students to share how they are feeling at key junctures (even when the content itself is unlikely to be upsetting). [16]
  • Empower students to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their learning by building in flexibility and a contained set of choices where possible (e.g., seating, lighting, mode of participation).[17]
  • Spell out the “why” of tasks and assignments along with the “what.” Leverage Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project (TILT Higher Ed) resources to help improve the clarity and transparency of your assignments and exercises. Tie them explicitly to bigger-picture goals.[18]
  • Reduce and focus information and create predictable structures to help manage information overload, decrease uncertainty, and improve cognitive functioning.[19]
  • Communicate empathetically to create and reinforce connection and to reassure. “Help me understand” is a useful phrase. Familiarize useful with communication techniques that promote self-regulation, like de-escalation techniques, psychological first aid, and nonviolent communication. [20]
  • Demonstrate unconditional positive regard (genuine respect and care for students as persons), even if a student is acting out. This is important for helping those who’ve experienced trauma restore their sense of self.[21]
  • Avoid the romanticization of trauma narratives or implication that trauma is desirable. This can be dysregulating for those with trauma histories or invite trauma disclosures without providing an appropriate environment or adequate support. [22]

Many of us are likely already striving to teach in ways that adhere to some of these principles and strategies. As collective and individual traumas of varying degrees are and will continue to be present in every institution and in virtually every class, the time is ripe for librarians to take advantage of recent advances in other fields and more deeply integrate current understandings of trauma and learning into our instructional practice, for the benefit of all students.

Additional Resources

Bruce D. Perry, “Fear and Learning: Trauma-Related Factors in the Adult Education Process,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 110, (2006): 21-27, doi:10.1002/ace.215.

Mays Imad, “Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development,” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development 39, no. 3 (2021): 1-23, doi:10.3998/tia.17063888.0039.301.


[1] Janice Carello and Lisa D. Butler, “Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice,” Journal of Teaching in Social Work 35, no. 3 (2015): 262-269, doi:10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059; Janice Carello, “Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis,” YouTube video, 1:02:53, April 6, 2020,

[2] Roxane Cohen Silver, E. Alison Holman, and Dana Rose Garfin, "Coping with Cascading Collective Traumas in the United States," Nature Human Behaviour 5, no. 1 (2021): 4, doi:10.1038/s41562-020-00981-x.

[3] Gary W. Harper and Leah C. Neubauer, "Teaching During a Pandemic: A Model for Trauma-Informed Education and Administration," Pedagogy in Health Promotion 7, no. 1 (2021): 16-17, doi:10.1177/2373379920965596.

[4] Silver, Holman, and Garfin, 4-5.

[5] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach,” HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884, July 2014, 7,

[6] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence―From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992; repr. with a new epilogue by the author, 2015), 33-34.

[7] Janice Carello, “Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis;” Ibrahim A. Kira, Mounir H. Fawzi, and Mohab M. Fawzi, "The Dynamics of Cumulative Trauma and Trauma Types in Adults Patients with Psychiatric Disorders: Two Cross-Cultural Studies," Traumatology 19, no. 3 (2013): 179-183, doi:10.1177/1534765612459892.

[8] Carello and Butler, “Practicing,” 263.

[9] Timothy J. Grigsby, Christopher J. Rogers, Larisa D. Albers, Stephanie M. Benjamin, Katherine Lust, Marla E. Eisenberg, and Myriam Forster, "Adverse Childhood Experiences and Health Indicators in a Young Adult, College Student Sample: Differences by Gender," International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 27, no. 6 (2020): 660-667. doi:10.1007/s12529-020-09913-5.

[10] Shannon Davidson, “Trauma-Informed Strategies for Postsecondary Educators,” Education Northwest, August 29, 2017, 8,; Alan I. Leshner and Layne A. Scherer, eds., Mental Health, Substance Use, and Wellbeing in Higher Education: Supporting the Whole Student, A Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2021), 91-92,

[11] Davidson, 6-8; Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 55-88, 145-150.

[12] van der Kolk, 351.

[13] Davidson, 16-17.

[14] Janice Carello, “Examples of Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in College Classrooms,” Trauma-Informed Teaching (blog), March 2020,; SAMHSA, 10-11.

[15] Missouri Department of Mental Health and Partners, “The Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed Approaches,” 2014, revised 2019,

[16] Janice Carello and Lisa D. Butler, “Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as TI Teaching,” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 15 (2014): 163-164, doi:10.1080/15299732.2014.867571; Carello and Butler, “Practicing,” 270.

[17] Carello, “Examples.”

[18] Mays Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now,” Inside Higher Ed, June 3, 2020,; Mays Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now: Toward Healing and Recovery,” YouTube video, 1:02:35, March 26, 2021,

[19] Carello and Butler, “Practicing,” 266; Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now: Toward Healing and Recovery.”

[20] Davidson, 17; Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now: Toward Healing and Recovery.”

[21] Ray Wolpow, Mona M. Johnson, Ron Hertel, and Susan O. Kincaid, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success (Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Compassionate Schools, 2009), 15, 72-73,

[22] Carello and Butler, ”Potentially,” 162, 164.