TEACHING AT PITT: Trauma-aware pedagogy


By the end of my first year as an international grad student in the U.S., I got news from Peru that my father was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. When communicating with my professors about the weight of the uncertainty of my father’s bleak prognosis I encountered a range of responses.

While there was the instructor that, in noticing my absences, said I should consider withdrawing from their course, there also was the instructor that encouraged me to take care of myself first — a phrasing that I have since incorporated in my own interactions with students facing their own losses and scrambling to prioritize their time and energy when dealing with life-altering choices.


Watch: Mays Imad goes over the fundamentals of trauma-informed pedagogy (approx. 1 hour).

Listen: Tea for Teaching podcast covers the need for trauma-informed pedagogy strategies in our classrooms (approx. 40 minutes).

Read: The Association of Colleges & Research Libraries curates a collection of relevant articles and research on trauma-informed pedagogy (approx. 10 minutes).

Borrow: Karen Costa presents a checklist of trauma-aware teaching strategies for higher ed.

My father’s passing marked a stark change in how I imagined the future would unfold — him being the only source of steady income for my family. But, more immediately, it defined an ever-present sense of isolation and disconnect from my peers’ experiences, which lingered well beyond the spring of 2009.

The imprint of trauma projects itself into the present, affecting the emotions we rely on to attach meaning to our daily lives, as well as our capacity to engage in new learning (van der Kolk, 2014; Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). As higher education reels from COVID-19, administration, faculty, staff and students face the challenge of teaching and learning with and through past and ongoing trauma. In dealing with the many kinds of profound losses that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us, how may we help foster classrooms in which our students feel safe and truly valued and seen?

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are experienced by a person as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being (SAMSHA). As explained by Pitt’s Toya Jones, bachelor of arts in social work program director and assistant professor of social work, in her Trauma-Aware Pedagogy workshop, overwhelming individual experiences — as well as other forms of violent social forces such as racism, ableism or intolerance, to name a few — can undermine our students’ beliefs that the world is good, safe or fair, thus blurring the attainability of academic success.

In a series of panels organized through our year-long period of mandated social distancing, we had the opportunity to hear undergrad and grad students’ thoughts and words about their lived experiences amidst the abrupt transition to remote learning. Students candidly shared their fears and their testimonies of resilience. They also eloquently phrased longer-term concerns for themselves and their loved one’s safety and well-being amidst the pandemic. For example, a student with an immunocompromised parent was preoccupied with visiting their family. They expressed that their “everliving fear” was that they would be the reason their dad would get sick.

As instructors, we may not have undergone the necessary training to accurately recognize and diagnose trauma, nor to provide trauma-specific interventions, yet we can and should educate ourselves in a broad understanding of how a trauma-aware approach to teaching can improve our students’ learning experiences.

The precarity that permeates our students’ lives as we all go through this shared public health crisis may be experienced by many as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. This disruption to a student’s safety or survival (accurate or not) may have lasting effects on their educational trajectory. By adopting a trauma-aware approach to our course design and teaching, we are making a conscious effort to let our students know that we understand the potential impacts different events or series of circumstances may have in their lives, that we recognize the signs of trauma, and that we are willing to respond by implementing course policies, activities and assessments that avoid exacerbating the negative effects of the trauma that students are experiencing.

As such, a trauma-aware pedagogy is firmly entrenched in the broader realm of pedagogies of care, which embrace Freire’s liberatory pedagogy and his advocacy for instilling hope as a key aspect of our teaching (Mays, 2020, 2021).

As instructors and as human beings, we know that trauma is and will be an inevitable presence in our classroom, regardless of the continuing effects of the pandemic, which has but highlighted already existing inequalities in higher education. Research stemming from the science of emotions (Cavanagh, 2016) highlights how instructors can create caring environments through the implementation of activities, assessments, and class policies that enhance connection, belonging, transparency, flexibility and empowerment among our students.

Think about one small, sustainable change you may implement in your course design in your next session:

Connection: Could you invite your students to identify a peer with whom to exchange notes in case they must miss a session and exchange contact information with them?

Belonging: Could you have the first step of all your pair or small group activities be an invitation for students to introduce themselves to each other?

Transparency: Could you add a single-point rubric to the highest percentage assignment of your course? Could you schedule 10 minutes of a session to invite students to ask questions about this grading tool so that they not only know how their work will be evaluated, but also why you selected those criteria?

Flexibility: Could you offer a no-questions-asked option for students to miss one class, coupled with participation incentives for students that forgo this option?

Empowerment: Could you normalize the challenges of higher education by making it clear that it is ok to ask for help?

Small gestures, like using your syllabus to explicitly communicate to your students that in your class their well-being matters, can empower them to seek the support they require. Other strategies you decide to implement should be mindful of your own time and energy.

As experts in our respective fields of study, we may feel that acknowledging and addressing the impact of stress, disruption, and trauma in our everyday lives is outside of the realm of our lectures and discussion. While an archaeology instructor is most certainly not trained as a therapist, this does not render them powerless when dealing with a struggling student.

Instructors must reimagine the educational practices and learning experiences they create for their students. These specific strategies, from day-to-day changes to deeper course redesign, should be informed by trauma-aware pedagogical choices, which is but a first step into adopting full blown trauma-informed teaching practices. The University Center for Teaching and Learning is here to help.

Lizette Muñoz Rojas is a teaching consultant with the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016). “The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion.” West Virginia University Press

Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). “We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education,” Mind, Brain, and Education

Mays, I. (2020). “Hope Matters.” Inside Higher Ed

Mays, I. (2021). “Transcending adversity: Trauma-Informed educational development,” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development

Bessel van der Kolk (2014). “The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma,” Viking