Taking a trauma-informed approach

Early on in the pandemic, I was in a Zoom meeting where those leading began by putting us in small groups where we were tasked with identifying the “silver lining” of the pandemic. Some folks shared that they were thankful for more time they had with family or that they were re-thinking priorities. When it came to me, I said, “You know, I appreciate the spirit of this prompt, but I just can’t talk about positives of the pandemic right now. I’m not okay and I don’t think any of us are.” This led our group to instead share our grief, and for me it felt cathartic. Later, when I was sharing this experience with a friend. She responded, “Were the leaders thinking about people who have lost someone to COVID when they asked the group to identify a silver lining?” This hit home for me – it hadn’t occurred to me the level of trauma people in that meeting might have been dealing with.

I begin with this anecdote to make the point that those of us who have not experienced or are experiencing trauma, and perhaps even those of who have/are tend to go into situations assuming that everyone else is doing okay, and we really shouldn’t, particularly in higher education, and particularly during a pandemic.

Shannon Davidson defines trauma as “any experience in which a person’s internal resources are not adequate to cope with external stressors.” She goes on to talk about the diversity within trauma. Some people experience one traumatic event, some multiple, some experience them as a chronic part of life. Some people suffer from PTSD. Some people bounce back from trauma in a relatively short amount of time, and some people with a history of trauma have lasting effects.

Trauma and people suffering from trauma are pervasive. According to Galatzer-Levy, et al., as many as 50% of college students are exposed to a traumatic event in their first year of college. We also know that people with marginalized identities like people of color, women, LGBTIQ+, and dis/abled people are more likely to have experienced trauma before coming to college and more likely to experience trauma while in college.

Shannon Davidson describes the following as what trauma for postsecondary learners sometimes looks like:

  • Difficulty focusing, attending, retaining, and recalling
  • Tendency to miss a lot of classes
  • Challenges with emotional regulation
  • Fear of taking risks
  • Anxiety about deadlines, exams, and group work, or public speaking
  • Anger, helplessness, or dissociation when stressed
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Involvement in unhealthy relationships

Certainly, as we review this list, we can identify behaviors we frequently see in students, as well as that in our colleagues. Indeed, these behaviors do not mean that person is experiencing trauma, but as educators, we should consider these behaviors as reminders that we do not necessarily know what is going on.

To take a trauma-informed approach with our students and with our colleagues then, Davidson suggests watching for the signs mentioned in others. When we see these behaviors, we can respond with the following: do not “mirror” the other’s behavior (this can escalate things), practice empathy (listen and acknowledge), invite them to take a non-punitive cool-down, and ask for help. Most of us aren’t therapists or mediators, so it’s vital that we seek support from professionals and not try to handle things ourselves when we are working with people suffering from trauma.

To learn more, I encourage you to see Davidson’s Guide for “Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education.”