Pedagogical Strategies for Inclusive and Trauma-Informed Teaching

Blog post Robin Phelps-Ward, Ed.D., Guest BloggerSREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program Graduate
An occasional series from the Doctoral Scholars Program on postsecondary topics.

Dr. Robin Phelps-Ward As educators continue in the 2020-2021 year during a time of racial unrest, a national presidential election, and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, many are wondering how to adapt their teaching practices in response. The current climate has been traumatic for those who are navigating loss, grief, and profound changes of all sorts. As educators we must respond to this in inclusive ways that support students’ well-being.

As an assistant professor who studies racial marginalization in postsecondary education, I find that few traumatic events and situations (school shootings, alcoholism, sexual violence) occur by happenstance. Many are rooted in systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classicism and homophobia. Thus, as educators we must acknowledge that past and current experiences of trauma are a reality for our students, especially the most marginalized, including students of color, LGBTQ2S+ students, international and ESL students, undocumented and low-income students, and those with disabilities.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma is “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physi­cally or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the in­dividual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” People can experience trauma on many levels, and it is a devastating and common human experience.

To be trauma-informed in our teaching practices, we can engage inclusive pedagogies such as those which Drs. Frank Tuitt, Chayla Haynes-Davison, and Saran Stewart outlined in their 2016 book Race, Equity, and the Learning Environment. These emphasize the knowledge production process, confront dominant ideologies, and inspire praxis — the connection between theory, analysis, reflection, and action. We must also avoid triggering practices in our teaching: actions that evoke a memory of past traumatizing events, including feelings and sensations associated with those experiences. Here are five key strategies, with related actions and reflection prompts, to guide your pedagogical choices.

Five Key Strategies to Guide Your Pedagogical Choices
Strategies Actions Reflective Prompts

1. Critically examine your own position

  • Engage in learning and development activities both within and outside your institution that raise your critical consciousness (awareness of your own sociopolitical position and your ability to actively disrupt oppression). You might find some helpful resources in The Great Unlearn and Academics for Black Survival and Wellness.
  • Engage in a dialogue with yourself about your privilege, any oppressive ideologies you harbor, and how they show up in your thoughts and actions. You might ask: How has trauma and oppression shown up in my own life? How might I want an instructor to teach me, given my experiences?

2. Share power with students

  • Ask students what they want to learn and do in the class, and integrate their ideas.
  • What messages have I received about the relationship between teachers and students?
  • What value systems influence how I interact with students?
  • How can I redistribute power in class so that students have more ownership over their learning and feel cared for?
3. Cultivate identity-affirming and socially just learning environments
  • Get to know students through voluntary story-telling activities. This means acknowledging that students have lives outside of your class.
  • Seek regular feedback from students about how they’re experiencing the class; adjust accordingly.
  • What am I doing to ensure that the most marginalized students in my course feel safe, welcome and supported?
  • How will I respond if a student approaches me with feelings of discomfort or traumatization in my class?
4. Be context-conscious 
  • Acknowledge the social, historical and political context of topics in class discussions.
  • Include a diverse representation of authors and guest speakers.
  • Be familiar with current events, ready to discuss, and willing to say, “I don’t know; please let me find more information.”
  • Identify the barriers to discussing such charged contexts fully in class. You might ask yourself: How can I seek support within and outside my own network to address these barriers?
  • What can I do to break down my own media echo chamber and filter bubble?
5. Show compassion
  • Avoid playing devil’s advocate. This can minimize or invalidate some students’ experiences, with potentially oppressive and harmful viewpoints elevated, as  ”up for debate.”
  • Be flexible and adaptable. Show grace.
  • Be vulnerable and empathetic.
  • Help students build a self-care plan and system of support.
  • Develop your own plan of self-care and support to ward off compassion fatigue.
  • What can I do to help my students feel empowered, cared for and liberated?
  • What alternative assignments, deadline modifications or additional flexibility can I provide if a student is struggling in my class?
  • How might I best structure my lesson plan to attend to students’ well-being?

Robin Phelps-Ward, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education, Director of the Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education Master of Arts Program,and Graduate School Faculty Fellow for Inclusive Excellence, at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.