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“’Help Me Understand’: Keeping Up With… Trauma-Informed Pedagogy”

August 11, 2021

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) recently shared its “Keeping Up With…” edition, which is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA). In this edition, Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet, the reference librarian at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (New York), speaks about the necessity of trauma-informed pedagogy within higher education. For several decades already, K-12 educators and policymakers have been tasked with the struggle to define “trauma-informed;” on the flipside, this same conversation within higher education has only been gaining momentum over the past five to ten years, with much of the discussion having its origins in social work education.

Given the circumstances of 2020, which have been characterized as “cascading collective traumas,” the topic of traumatic stress and its lingering effects has been more frequently discussed within higher education. Traumas such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession and fall-out (primarily due to the coronavirus), racial tension and division, and a political polarization within the United States, the likes which have most likely not been witnessed since the Civil War, “have disproportionately hurt minoritized communities and those of low socioeconomic status, deepening existing inequalities and compounding race-based historical traumas” (Cohen Silver et al. 4). Coupling these collective traumas with individual potentially traumatic events, such as life-threatening illness, loss of loved ones, loneliness and depression from the isolation and social distancing brought on by the pandemic, unsafe neighborhoods, and police brutality, can continue to have negative impacts on our short-term and long-term mental health (Cohen Silver et al. 4-5).

*(Davidson 4)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines psychological trauma as “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” (7). This is definitely a significant broadening of the definition of trauma in recent decades, extending well beyond clinical diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Trauma can be experienced when an individual’s coping mechanisms for maintaining control, connecting with others, and having a sense of meaning are overwhelmed by external stressors. This in turns leaves the person with intense feelings of helplessness and terror (Herman 33-34).

There are some basic types of trauma. Acute trauma refers to a single episode of an unexpected event which causes immense stress on an individual’s coping mechanisms, such as a car accident, one-time rape or attemped murder, or a catostrophic weather event. Complex or developmental trauma refers to sustained or repeated episodes of trauma and stress, such as living with a life-threatening illness, combat, continuous physical or sexual abuse, severe, ongoing neglect, or poverty. Continuous traumatic stress or historical/generational trauma addresses the repercussions of stressors triggered by “ongoing, systematic, and/or cumulative group trauma,” which includes racism, slavery and its lingering effects, or discrimination based on one’s gender, disabilities, and so forth (Kira et al. 181). 

*(Davidson 6)

According to Janice Carello and Lisa D. Butler, traumatic stress is something that affects postsecondary students: 66%-94% of students report experiencing at least one traumatic event by the time they start college, with 9%-12% of first-year students meeting the clinical criteria for PTSD (263). Academic environments can play a key role in facilitating students’ recovery from traumatic stress in a favorable, positive way towards cultivating resilience, “but only if [the students] feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions” (Van der Kolk 351). This is where trauma-informed teaching principles and strategies come into focus. Based in part on SAMHSA’s six key principles for adopting an organizational trauma-informed approach, Janice Carello’s seven principles for trauma-informed postsecondary teaching and learning (which can also be applied to information literacy and library instruction) are as follows:

  1. Physical, emotional, social, and academic safety. Respect the students’ individual needs and create a safe, inclusive environment where students can be at ease with making and learning from their mistakes.
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency. Establishing trust with students is essential; make expectations clear, operate transparently, be consistent and reliable, and maintain appropriate boundaries.
  3. Support and connection. Using appropriate sources, facilitate peer support and connection.
  4. Collaboration and mutuality. Make sure students have adequate opportunities to contribute input and make decisions cooperatively.
  5. Empowerment, voice, and choice. Allow students to build competence and self-confidence whenever possible by having them make their own decisions.
  6. Social justice. Honor each student’s experiences and identities by creating awareness of incidences of privilege, power, and oppression.
  7. Resilience, growth, and change. Provide feedback to emphasize strengths and resilience over deficiencies (10-11).

As a majority of colleges and universities across the country are expecting to make full, “normal” returns to campuses this month, we must keep in mind that collectively, our students have been through unprecedented circumstances over the past eighteen months. Even the experience of physically being on campus, in a classroom, and interacting with people in the flesh as opposed to virtually is going to be overwhelming for some. Heightened awareness of equity, diversity, and inclusion may spark heated discussions about oppression and discrimination which can trigger recollections of traumatic events. Creating a safe environment to communicate empathetically, enforce connection, and reassure is essential. A very useful phrase to ignite conversation is “help me understand.” Empower students to make the best decisions possible for themselves and their learning by being flexible and allowing choices whenever possible, such as with seating, lighting, and mode of participation (Carello 10-11). Be sure to invite students to share how they are feeling at key junctures, but do not mandate participation (Carello and Butler 270). Another useful trauma-informed teaching strategy is to avoid the romanticization of trauma narratives or the implication that such trauma is desirable. This can invite the disclosure of trauma experiences among the students without having the appropriate environment or adequate support already in place (Carello and Butler, 162, 164).

Shannon Davidson’s Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide is available as a free download and offers valuable advice on trauma-informed practices and strategies. Because recent events continue (and will continue) to instrumentally affect how we relate to our students, Zingarelli-Sweet concludes, it is a perfect opportunity for librarians to take advantage of recent advances in other fields and to more deeply integrate current understandings of trauma and learning into their instructional practice.

Carello, Janice. “Examples of Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in College Classrooms.”

Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning: Bringing a Trauma-Informed Approach to Higher Education, Mar. 2020, ege-classrooms- 3.2020-color-3.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug. 2021.

Carello, Janice and Lisa D. Butler. “Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching.” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 153-168.

Carello, Janice and Lisa D. Butler. “Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice.” Journal of Teaching in Social Work, vol. 35, no. 3, 2015, pp. 262-278,

Cohen Silver, Roxane, et al. “Coping with Cascading Collective Traumas in the United States.” Nature Human Behaviour, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 4-6.

Davidson, Shannon. Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest, 2017.

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. 1R ed., Basic Books, 2015.

Kira, Ibrahim A., et al. “The Dynamics of Cumulative Trauma and Trauma Types in Adults Patients with Psychiatric Disorders: Two Cross-Cultural Studies.” Traumatology, vol. 19, no. 3, 2013, pp. 179-183.

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

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2014.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nicole Miyashiro permalink
    August 23, 2021 4:34 pm

    Thank you for this, Michele! Valuable info for all, both in and out of higher ed settings.

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