Trauma-Informed Teaching: Creating Classrooms that support learning

In recent years, teachers and heritage professionals have wrestled with the question of when and how to provide alerts about materials that students or users might find difficult to navigate. This is the first in a three-part Active History series on the subject of content warnings that elaborates the crucial processes and approaches that inform this work.

Source: Students in a classroom at Carleton University, 1961. National Film Board. Phototheque. 1971-271, TCS 01186, Library and Archives Canada.

Jo McCutcheon

…to foster an optimal learning environment, we need to pay attention to emotions and how the learner is feeling, as learning cannot take place in the absence of emotion.

Myas Imad[1]

As a researcher and teacher who has read exceedingly difficult archival material and as someone who has openly sobbed in the middle of the reading room at Library and Archives Canada after finishing a work of fiction and in a few cases, after reading government reports and documents, I came to realize how important it is to carefully consider assignments, readings, and topics covered in class and explicitly warn students in the syllabus, on lecture slides, and before discussing some of these topics about the difficult material we encounter as historians and researchers.[2] I have learned over the past several years that content warnings, and a consideration of triggers are part of a pedagogical framework that can provide a learning and teaching environment that can support all students.[3]

The process of teaching and learning is dynamic and often challenges us to carefully consider our approaches on an ongoing basis. When I reflect on some past experiences of teaching difficult material, I feel that I did not always have the framework or understanding at the time to fully support the diversity of challenges inherent in my courses, beyond the course content. Looking to other professions, I noted the work that was taking place to provide a trauma-informed approach, and I wanted to review the whole of my classes to see how I could provide an overall approach in this vein. This post is a reflection of what I have learned and what I am working on.

Seven Components for Trauma Informed Learning and Teaching

Using the framework outlined by Kirsten Wright and Nicola Laurent for archives, and the principals shared by Mays Imad for trauma informed teaching, I have outlined below seven components for a trauma informed approach to teaching history. Additionally, I think we should check our biases regularly. Students change and changing how we address and interact with students should be re-evaluated regularly. For me, this involves finding out about my students and determining how I can support their learning throughout the term. Keeping students’ experiences and circumstances in mind is central to a trauma-informed approach to teaching.

  1. Safety is key. This means cultural, emotional, and physical safety. As noted in Wright and Lauren’s work, this means creating an environment that, “… is safe for people: where there is no assault, challenge or denial of their identify of who they are and what they need. It is about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience of learning together with dignity, and truly listening.”[4]
  2. Build and maintain trust and be transparent. From my experience teaching, trust may build differently in courses, and it may take time to deepen through the term. Respect is also part of trust. Transparency with the course culture, expectations, grading guidelines, and how you are doing within a professional context supports this trauma informed component.
  3. Collaboration can take many forms in classes. For many years, I have been teaching students to use Zotero and we collaborate throughout the term adding readings and course material that is related to our class. We also take time to discuss major projects and students are encouraged to share their expertise, ideas, and knowledge that may support their colleagues.
  4. Giving students the ability to make decisions about course content and in some cases, exam questions, empowers students. An example of what this might look like in a history class might be to brainstorm final exam questions. Students are invited to write their ideal final exam question that would reflect course themes. One section of the exam has student questions, and they have the option to select one question for a long answer question and one from questions I have designed.
  5. Choice can be important with readings and learning assessments. For example, more recently, I have built syllabi for fourth year seminars that have a lot of choice for readings and guides students on the amount of reading that is expected for each seminar. When there is a reading that is a key theoretical reading, it is indicated as a mandatory reading. As much as possible, students are given a lot of choice about the approach and topics they will cover for their projects. As often as is possible, students are given a diversity of ways to demonstrate their learning and to meet key course objectives like critical thinking, research, and writing skills. They may create, exhibit, or write about the past. Projects have included beading, baking, board games, crocheting, embroidery, essays, podcasts, and websites.

In my experience, teaching women’s history, teaching about the institutions established to remove children from their cultures, communities, families, and homes, among other topics, involves discussions of violence that often went unchallenged at the time. When race, class, sexuality, and white supremacy are layered into this violence, the information is important to learn, but for community members whose family and communities were the targets of violence, providing choice and a more flexible way to evaluate learning and to give students more choice about the topics they wanted to study.

  1. Listening to students, actively, also supports a trauma informed approach to teaching. You may learn how they are really doing on several levels that affect their learning in classes and their ability to complete assignments and projects. Students are working, caring for family members, worried about housing, food, thinking about their next degree and so much more. Giving students time to talk and taking time to listen can sometimes take you away from your schedule, but, from experience, you can learn what is working and what is not in your class.
  2. Having a clear set of learning objectives and learning outcomes, well-described and linked to course activities provides students with a clear purpose for the work they are undertaking throughout the term.

Using a trauma informed approach does not mean that you are lowering academic expectations. When reading further on this topic, I came across a line that made me pause, “stress can be tolerable, toxic, and then traumatic”.[5] We do not always know at what point students are at with stress during the term. Some will always find ways to navigate school and work or other activities while others will find the stress to be overwhelming and traumatic. I feel it is important to provide a much flexibility and support as is possible, and the trauma-informed framework is one that I will continue to use and apply and review. Teaching is an evolving process.

Jo McCutcheon holds her doctorate in Canadian history from the University of Ottawa and teaches part-time at the university’s History department. She teaches a diversity of Canadian and American undergraduate survey history courses and fourth year seminars that focus on archives, decolonization, gender, and material history. She is on the Board of the Costume Museum of Canada. She is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Archives.


[1] Mays Imad, “Our Brains, Emotions, and Learning: Eight Principals of Trauma Informed Teaching.” In Phyllis Thompson and Janice Carello, eds. Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2022. In addition to many perspectives on trauma-informed pedagogies, this work also has a series of appendices on specific examples on how to implement these components in the classroom with examples for your syllabus, assignments, deadlines, and ways to obtain feedback throughout the term to gauge how students are doing.

[2] See Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, In Search of April Raintree (Winnipeg, Man: Portage & Main Press, 1983).

[3] The point of departure for this work was a consideration of trigger warnings and teaching difficult content in classes. Over the past few years, I have benefited from the work of several archivists who have written on the topic of Trauma-informed approaches and have created online training and materials to address trauma in archives. In this way, there may be steps we can take to create teaching and learning environments that more explicitly address trauma. See Kirsten Wright and Nicola Laurent. ‘Safety, Collaboration, and Empowerment’: Archivaria, 3 June 2021, 38–73.

[4] Wright and Laurent, 52.

[5] Imad, 38.

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