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Trauma Informed Educational Practice

Working Definition

"The experience of an event or enduring condition in which the individual and/or community experiences a threat to life, the psychic, or bodily integrity, and experiences intense fear, helplessness, or sorrow. A key aspect of traumatic experiences is that the individual and/or community’s coping capacity is overwhelmed. Trauma often impacts multiple domains, including physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual. Trauma can take many forms such as collective and community trauma, historical trauma, intergenerational trauma and insidious trauma." (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). 

SAMHSA’s "Three E’s" of trauma are Event(s), Experience, and Effect.
When a person is exposed to a traumatic or stressful event, how they experience it greatly influences the long-lasting adverse effects of carrying the weight of trauma. SAMHSA definitions related to trauma: (Trauma Informed Oregon, n.d.). 

Trauma Informed Approach/Care is the manner in which a program, agency, organization, or community thinks about and responds to those who have experienced or may be at risk for experiencing trauma. “The term implies a change in the organizational culture to ensure that all components of the organization incorporate a thorough understanding of the prevalence and impact of trauma, the role that trauma plays, and the complex and varied paths in which people recover and heal from trauma for both faculty and students.

The goal of this approach is to avoid re-traumatization in the classrooms or other community arenas.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Social & Emotional Learning

Trauma-sensitive schools (TSS) are grounded in the science of learning and child development. Addressing trauma in school settings was historically focused at the level of the individual student and rooted in providing individual clinical treatments to address trauma-related symptoms. Throughout the past decade, the focus for addressing trauma has expanded to include schoolwide efforts to recognize and respond to trauma and to foster healing and resilience-building in the education setting.

A TSS approach builds staff awareness and understanding of trauma and its effects, creates safe and supportive environments, eliminates retraumatizing practices, adapts policies and procedures to align with a trauma sensitive vision, empowers youth and families, and builds social and emotional skills (Guarino & Chagnon, 2018). School-level models for addressing trauma apply, extend, and adapt therapeutic strategies for fostering healing to the learning environment.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process by which youth and adults acquire and apply intrapersonal, interpersonal, problem-solving, and decision-making skills that are key for success in school, career, and life.

Used together, schoolwide SEL and TSS support a holistic approach to meeting student needs, particularly when focused on enhancing individual skill-building and environmental conditions that support student well-being and advance educational equity.

From Osher, Guarino, Jones, & Schanfield, 2021

Why TIEP is Important to Student Learning and Academic Success

Rationale for trauma-informed approaches in higher education is multifaceted. The neurobiological impact of trauma on individual learning includes changes in:

Concentration, memory, executive functioning, information processing, language acquisition, and the socio-emotional aspects of learning in the classroom with peers and instructors.

Johnson, R. (2018). Trauma and learning: Impacts and strategies for adult classroom success. Minne TESOL Journal., 34(2), n.p.

Perry, B.D., (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. New Directions in Adult Continuing Education, 2006(110), 21-27.

Allostatic load is the term used to describe cumulative physiological wear and tear, that results from repeated efforts to adapt to stressors over time. College related stresses add to the allopathic load of students and instructors, activating stress responses & potentially impacting learner performance.  (Danese, A. & McEwen, B. S., 2012)

Henshaw, L.A. (2002). Building trauma-informed approaches in higher education. Behavioral Sciences. 12(10), 368. 

Classroom Tools

Explore how the classroom is designed prior to the start of the semester including such principles such as:

  1. Establishing a welcoming environment where learners are challenged & supported in their growth (Trust).
  2. Review policies & procedures with awareness of trauma informed practice - Preparation of the syllabus and classroom online Learning Platform balancing accountability and safety (Trust & Collaboration).
  3. Development of evaluation methods for ongoing assessment of the classroom learning environment (Empowerment & Choice, Collaboration).
  4. Consider how to give students control over the class material and their responses to learning (Collaboration and Mutuality, Empowerment & Choice).

For additional strategies:

Venet, A.S. (2021). Equity-centered trauma-informed education. Norton & Company.

Mayer, K., Rothacker-Peyton, S., & Wilson-Anderson, K. (2023) Trauma-informed educational practices within the undergraduate nursing classroom: A pilot study. Trauma Care, 3(3), 114-125. 

Classroom Audit Materials

This term was coined in 2015 by Carello & Butler and describes educational practices that followed Trauma Informed Care (TIC) principles in higher education.

Venet (2021) defines trauma informed practices as those practices that respond to the impacts of trauma on the school community and work to prevent future trauma from occurring. Key concerns for TI educators include equity and social justice (Venet, 2021, p. 10).

The intention of Trauma-Informed Educational Practices is not to treat symptoms or issues but to decrease the possibility for triggering or exacerbating trauma symptoms and re-traumatizing individuals for faculty and learners, to improve learning outcomes.

Crisis Prevention Institution (n.d.). Trauma-informed Approach in School. Crisis Prevention Institute. 

Venet, A.S. [CriticalSkills1]. Equity-centered trauma-informed education: A book talk with Alex Shevrin Venet [Video]. YouTube. 

Theoretical and Evidence-Based Practices

The identified impact of using trauma informed educational interventions varies. Most research has been done in primary or secondary educational settings and within organizations.

Tested interventions focus on resilience and include strategies such as:

  • Mindfulness
  • Other forms of Meditation
  • Cognitive Behavioral Training (CBT) Strategies
  • Self-Care Strategies & Strategies to enhance Self-Efficacy in learners

Implementing reciprocal inhibition and/or titration of exposure for potentially traumatizing classroom material and including classroom strategies such as those listed in classroom tools. (Black, 2008; Cares et al., 2019; Li et. al., 2019)

Required Institutional Supports for Success

Trauma Informed Care (TIC) or Trauma Informed Educational Practices call for a change in organizational culture, where an emphasis is placed on understanding, respecting, and appropriately responding to the effects of trauma at all levels. (Bloom, 2010)

  • Administrative commitment to integrating a trauma-informed culture: readiness, capacity, and planning.
  • Includes all individuals involved and provides for planning and ongoing evaluation to ensure sustainability.
  • Provides introductory training to all students, faculty, staff, and support roles. Establishes an internal team (such as Green Dot).
  • Addresses any potential re-traumatizing policies and procedures. (Menschner & Maul, 2016)

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