Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

This resource was developed by Anita Chari, Associate Professor of Political Science, 2020-21 Provost’s Teaching Fellow, and the Trauma-Informed Pedagogy CAIT (Communities Accelerating the Impact of Teaching) facilitated by Dr. Chari.

Trauma-informed pedagogy

by Dr. Anita Chari, Associate Professor of Political Science

2020 witnessed some of the most passionate protests for racial justice seen in the US and globally since the Civil Rights movements, awakening a new consciousness of the depths of structural anti-Black and racist violence. In the past year we also collectively bore witness to an unfathomable number of incidents of violence against communities of color, from the brutal murder of George Floyd by a policeman to a series of shootings of unarmed Asian women in Atlanta. And all of this has taken place amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic that has heightened inequalities in educational access and severed students from the contact with campus that anchored learning and social contact, as well as a level of political polarization in the US greater than we’ve seen since perhaps the Civil War. 

To say that this constellation of events has been traumatic is only to state something that we all know: students, faculty, and campuses as a whole are collectively overwhelmed. The result has been that students are challenged in their learning process, and that together we face a crisis in higher education’s approach to learning itself, which tends to conceive of education as a disembodied, highly rational process. 

Trauma-informed pedagogy is an approach to education that recognizes that collective overwhelm lives in the body and the nervous system, and that when unaddressed impacts our ability to learn and to engage in transformative conversations about the most pressing issues of our times. Undischarged trauma reduces our window of tolerance for discomfort, healthy conflict, and trust amidst diversity. When we do not acknowledge the presence of trauma, both present-day and historical, we are bound to repeat and recapitulate it in our classrooms. Bodily awareness and social connection are the portals through which trauma can be discharged and resolved in the context of learning environments in higher education. We don’t need therapeutic practices in our classrooms, but rather a recognition of the power of an educational approach in which overwhelm is named and acknowledged in the context of learning itself. 

 

The Trauma Informed Pedagogy CAIT

The Trauma-Informed Pedagogy CAIT (Communities Accelerating the Impact of Teaching) was facilitated by Anita Chari, Associate Professor of Political Science, 2020-21 Provost’s Teaching Fellow, and co-creator of Embodying Your Curriculum, a program that teaches trauma-informed pedagogy to faculty. The CAIT consisted of 11 faculty drawn from various disciplines and schools on-campus who engaged in a 4 Module training. Through the modules and conversations, CAIT participants explored:

  • Tools for nervous system regulation, as well as ways to practice them within a relational and societal context.
  • Learning how to recognize nervous system activation and overwhelm in ourselves and in others, and understanding the relevance to creating an inclusive and anti-oppressive classroom space. 
  • Cultivating resources based on the Social Nervous System and Mirror Neuron System for working with these dynamics. 
  • Working with intersectional oppression at an embodied level, including skills for making repair in the classroom when ruptures occur. 

Examples of Practices from Faculty in the CAIT

Below you can read about some of the practices participating faculty used or adapted that fit their goals and contexts, and what they experienced as the impacts of these practices. We are grateful to faculty for both trying practices that may have been new to them and for sharing those experiences with the broader teaching community. 

Practice as support for both faculty and students (with example grounding practice for classroom)

Dr. Erin Hanna, Associate Prof Media Studies, Department of Cinema Studies

Reflection: My goal going into this CAIT was to develop strategies that would allow me to meet my students where they are and support them, not just as learners, but as whole human beings, with all the complexity that entails. In the past, I have experimented with and explored different pedagogical approaches that align with these goals by promising to improve learning and create more inclusive and accessible classes. What was often missing from these approaches, however, was the basic acknowledgement that in order to do this work in a meaningful and sustainable way, faculty also need access to resources and support (both internal and external). We, like our students, are whole and complex human beings and when we enter the classroom, we bring the whole of ourselves into that space, too. Trauma-informed pedagogy is the first approach I’ve encountered that feels like it genuinely addresses both the need for inclusive and accessible learning environments for students and the reality that this cannot happen without faculty who are supported in developing the tools and skills to care for and resource themselves, both inside and outside of these spaces. On a fundamental level, that validation and perspective shift, paired with some concrete tools and practices I have learned, have helped me to recognize where and how I can support and care for myself and my students, where and how institutional structures have historically made this challenging, and where and how change might be possible. 

I have already incorporated trauma-informed pedagogy into my teaching and find the grounding and containment practices particularly useful, both inside and outside the classroom. I use the containment practice on my own, before I step into the classroom. And in some classes, I now begin by leading the group in a short grounding practice. Since I began incorporating these practices, my experience navigating challenging discussions or moments of tension in the classroom has started to shift. Whether I do these practices alone or with my students, I find that I am better able to resource myself in the classroom because the act of slowing down before lecture begins helps me to feel more centered and focused as I teach. And when difficult situations do arise in the classroom, I feel better equipped to see these discussions through with confidence and empathy. Similarly, I’ve observed that my students seemed better able to work through and move on from moments of conflict or controversy when they arise.  

In many ways, however, the work of trauma informed pedagogy is about more than implementing a set of practices or working with a particular set of pedagogical tools. It is about shifting our relationship to our students, ourselves, and our work by recognizing that our intellectual pursuits are not separate from, but ultimately depend on, our ability to consistently return to and learn from the wisdom deeply embedded in our own bodies. 


Short Grounding Practice  

Note to instructors: Move slowly through the instructions and don’t be afraid to include long pauses after each step. Slowing down is an important part of calming and regulating the nervous system. Keeping this slow pace is also important because it enables you to participate in this practice as you guide your students through it, without feeling rushed or overwhelmed. I try to spend about 5 minutes on this practice at the beginning of class, but the pacing and steps can be adapted to be longer or shorter. Before beginning the practice, remind students that while they are all included, no one is required to participate. To reinforce this, I include the following text on my slides during our grounding practice: “This short grounding exercise is completely optional. If this doesn’t feel helpful right now, you can simply sit quietly and do anything that feels relaxing/comfortable for you. Please know that whether or not you participate in this exercise, you are included.” 

Sample Script 

Find a comfortable position with your feet on the ground and close your eyes. 

Take a few deep breaths and just check in with your body.  

Notice any sensations that arise and where you are feeling them in your body. Where is your energy right now—do you feel like your nervous system is sped up? Or moving more slowly? Where do you feel those sensations in your body? What do they feel like? 

Now take a few more deep breaths and start to move your attention down your body and concentrate on the contact between your body and the chair. Feel where your back is making contact with the chair. Try to focus on that sensation for a few moments. 

Now move your attention down to your sitz bones—the bones at the bottom of your pelvis that are making contact with your chair—notice if one side feels heavier or like it is making more contact than the other. Is it the left side, or the right side, or just an even feeling of contact with the chair? Do you feel more weight or heaviness on the front or the back of your sitz bones? Does the quality of contact feel like more wide contact or more narrow contact? 

Now take a few more deep breaths. 

Slowly open your eyes but keep your eye muscles relaxed and your gaze soft and just take a few more seconds to bring your awareness back into the room and the space we are sharing with each other. 

Relevance for students in clinical practice

Emily Adler Mosqueda  M.S., CCC-SLP, Assistant Clinical Professor/Supervisor  

Engaging in the Trauma-Informed Teaching CAIT has given me the opportunity to deepen my personal self-regulation practices of grounding, orienting, naming, and resourcing. Slowing and grounding are practices I am implementing into my clinical instruction along with information on the social nervous system, polyvagal theory, and the Window of Tolerance at it applies to working with children and families receiving speech-language services.  

My clinical instruction now includes teaching students how to slow down, ground and orient. I chose this practice to share with students as it is foundational to other trauma-informed pedagogy I mention throughout the term and was my personal access practice to deeper experiential knowledge of my own nervous system. I invite students to participate in this practice a few times throughout the term. We engaged in a guided practice of noticing one’s breath, body scanning and awareness to lower parts of their seated selves, and upon completion a slow orientation to their physical space. The first few times I did the practice with students, I was nervous there would be low participation. I have adjusted the length of the practice and believe that has increased the level of participation. After the first time sharing this practice, a few students commented to me that they felt calmer. Another student shared later that they’d continued the practice when they noticed they felt stressed and took the 60-90 seconds to slow and ground which resulted in a calmer state to engage with their tasks. My hope is this practice will support students while in graduate school, and once they’re professionals.   

I appreciate this practice because it allows me to engage with students wholistically. The more I use the practice personally, I’ve found I’m more attuned to subtleties of group dynamics and therefore needs of my cohorts of students. I’m now able to respond to the group or an individual with more care and curiosity to their experiences and how they’re intersecting with me and the content I share. Students comment that they feel calm in my office space and come to office hours ‘to feel better’ about school and life.   

I also teach students what observable behaviors from their pediatric clients might indicate a need for slowing and grounding so the clients can better engage with their speech-language therapy services. The CAIT training provided me with clear tool kits, application examples, and supports to ensure accurate transfer of skills to students and then by extension to the community. I now have a deeper purpose to incorporate my personal practices of nervous system familiarity into my work as it is imperative to connecting with students and the clients they're working to serve. 

Slowing down in the classroom

The practice I plan to implement more in my teaching is the simplest: the skill of slowing down. I have already used this in one of my classes, but I want to integrate it into the other classes I teach as well.  

In the class where I used this practice, I invited the group to take a few minutes to close their eyes and then walked them through focusing first on their breathing, then their bodies, then their emotions. I suggested they just notice, rather than trying to shift anything.  

Overall, it felt quite successful, and students reported that they enjoyed this practice and wished to do more of it throughout the term. I don’t think anything was challenging about it, other than making space for it in a busy class agenda.  

I really appreciated how the room felt different — calmer and more centered — after the practice. And I liked having the moment of stillness, too. It allows me to calm myself and focus before embarking on class.  

Working with student teams in conflict

Aniko Drlik-Muehleck, Portfolio Manager, Institute for Policy Research and Engagement, PPPM

Situation: I work with team-based classes. This year, due to a perfect storm of factors, almost all the teams in one class are fraying: some are on the verge of disintegration, some have already disintegrated. Frustrations are high, and students are seeking outlets for their frustrations. Sometimes this means disengaging, sometimes it means behaving passive-aggressively towards others, and sometimes it means needing to vent to me or someone else. 

what I tried: by using this practice: How it worked:

Naming: acknowledging the mess of a situation in multiple ways

Full-Class Journalizing Activity – Acknowledging our circumstances at the beginning of a class, accompanied by a journaling exercise asking them how they resource themselves in stressful times, followed by a full-class share-out  After this class, a student reached out to let me know that even if other people thought the activity was silly, they thought it was incredibly important and they were grateful for the space to take this pause
Naming: acknowledging the mess of a situation in multiple ways Mid-Term Written Reflection – Acknowledging our circumstances in writing as the set-up to a written mid-term reflection asking students to name how they were currently feeling and what they’re learning about their ability to work through difficult situations (See assignment text below) 
  • This gave students an opportunity to share how burned out they were feeling – I think expressing this in words was important so that they knew they were suffering alone 
  • I tried to provide comments about additional resources, although I don’t know if/how they found this helpful
Naming: acknowledging the mess of a situation in multiple ways Prefacing Team Meetings – In team meetings, acknowledging our circumstances as a set-up for why I’m making a decision to take a project/group in a different direction, asking how this sits with them, and having a group discussion about these decisions 
  • I have been able to have empathetic, rather than adversarial, conversations with small groups 
  • Teams have understood my decisions (even if they didn’t like it), and this has allowed everyone to keep moving forward in some form 

Slowing Down: listening to students individually and prompting them with questions: 

“I wanted to check in to see how you are doing. I’ve noticed [name behavior that we’re trying to address]. I’d like to know more about why this is happening.”  I have been able to have empathetic, rather than adversarial, conversations with individuals and we have built shared understanding about the circumstances we’re in

*Mid-Term Reflection Assignment Text 

Please take a moment at the middle of the term to pause and reflect on your project, yourself, and your team experience. 

Instructions: Please reflect on the following prompts and document your answers. You can do this in writing, as a video, or through some other medium that helps you reflect (for example, I've had some students that prefer to do some kind or annotated drawing/diagram). I just need enough information to understand your thinking around each prompt. I expect you to spend about 30-60min on this assignment. 

Prompts:

  • Project:
    • You are about five weeks out from a final deliverable. What are feeling most confident about and what are you feeling most daunted or challenged by? 

    • What would be most helpful from your coach and/or the instructor in terms of feedback and support as you approach the finish line? 

  • Yourself:

    • Describe your general level of motivation and engagement right now (please be honest) - are you feeling pretty burnt out and ready to be done, are you feeling engaged and excited, or are you somewhere in between? 

    • If you are feeling pretty low motivation and engagement: What are some strategies that have worked in the past to keep you moving forward? What new strategies might you try to keep yourself moving forward? 

    • If you are feeling higher motivation and engagement: What factors have contributed to putting you in this place? What takeaways do you have for how to set up projects in the future to maintain momentum for yourself? 

  • Teamwork can be fun and engaging, teamwork can by challenging, teamwork can be bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating...each of you are having your own unique experience of teamwork through Capstone. Whatever the experience has been for you, please take some time to solidify some learning for your future self: 

    • What do you need most from team members to feel supported, engaged, and productive? 

    • What steps can you take during the team formation phase to ensure you'll get what you need from your team? 

    • What steps can you take after the team formation phase (when you team actually starts working together) to ensure you'll get what you need from your team? 

Exploring and holding our own boundaries

Sarah Ebert, Senior Instructor, Dance 

I joined the Trauma-Informed Pedagogy CAIT this year thinking I would learn new pedagogical strategies for supporting students in these extraordinary times. What I hadn’t fully considered was how my own state of activation was an important part of the pedagogical equation. Anita Chari’s somatic offerings helped me develop a personal practice that aided me in settling my own nervous system before engaging with others – a necessary step in developing a thriving and sustainable teaching/learning community. 

I want to share the relief and comfort I felt when I learned about the “cycles of completion,” which describe the non-linear process of activation and digestion. Essentially, physical sensations I feel when activated (rapid heartbeat, shallow breath, nausea, dizziness, general jitters) will come and go and eventually lessen over time. In these moments of activation, it’s easy for me to lose my sense of time because everything seems so urgent, and then I feel like I haven’t made “progress” in my healing when those uncomfortable sensations return. The cycles of completion are a critical reminder that progress is not always linear. My thoughts and sensations will arise intermittently as I digest them, and understanding this helps me to be more patient and forgiving with myself and others. It’s important to remember that my students experience this as well and are in their own cyclical processes of activation and digestion. 

I also appreciated the practice of containment or setting boundaries. As an empath, I find that I am very sensitive to students’ feelings – almost as if I am feeling them myself – and must work hard at meeting but not merging with the students. Having clear boundaries is an intellectual and emotional task, of course, but I also appreciate the opportunity to embody my physical container in the Trauma-Informed Pedagogy CAIT. This has been a beneficial practice in preparation for discussing challenging content in the classroom with a group of students as well as one-on-one conversations. I even brought this concept into my course DANC 270 – Contemporary II (a dance technique class for undergraduate dance majors, minors, and any UO student that fulfills the prerequisite), where students shared that this exercise instilled agency, trust, and respect: 

I look around the studio at the top of class. It’s Wednesday of Week 3. Spring term. I sense a deep fatigue in myself and see it reflected back to me in the faces and bodies of the student dancers, and so I invite everyone to find a comfortable place on the floor. Stillness and movement are both acceptable as dancers shift from an external focus to an internal survey. I personally pause as I settle myself. [comfort lives in the spaces in-between] I encourage dancers to allow the past and the future to flood their thoughts, as if they are playing a movie in their mind, before letting it all recede – much like the oceanic tides. They are left with cellular presence, a sensation enhanced by the metaphor of innumerable grains of sand on the beach.  

Unlike grains of sand, though, our cells are fluid-filled, contained by a membrane that is both a protective boundary and a receptive point of exchange. I bring our attention to the sensation of the cellular membrane. Time stretches in this state of listening and feeling. When ready, I invite them to sense their skin as a container, creating a boundary between themselves and the world around them. Stillness morphs into movement. The ‘mind of the room’ reflects the focus, the buzz, the permission to yield. The cool factor is shed as dancers care less about how they look and more about what they’re experiencing. Sensation is the guide. 

We move from skin as the container to two inches above the skin – a kind of force field that serves as a container or boundary. Which is it? These feel like two different experiences. We expand to six inches, two feet, six feet, twelve feet. Finally, we explore which boundary feels the most comfortable at this moment in time (knowing that it is likely to change). Movement morphs back into stillness for a moment before we take a walk while maintaining our current boundaries. I encourage dancers to sharpen their gaze just enough to make eye contact briefly with another dancer as they pass. Then we pause our walk at the moment of making eye contact, holding the integrity of our own personal boundary and simultaneously sensing and respecting someone else’s boundary. After 5-6 exchanges we take our final pause with a partner, and I call for a break. We all emerge from this practice as if we have been deep sea diving for pearls; our smiles radiate sunshine at the surface. 

Using grounding exercises with graduate students (including during comprehensive exams)

Dr. Maile Hutterer, Associate Professor, History of Art and Architecture

My introduction to trauma-informed pedagogy coincided with a terms that were focused on graduate seminars and graduate student advising. In particular, all of the students for whom I serve as primary advisor were going through program milestones.  

Talking about trauma-informed pedagogy with this group of students allowed me to normalize feelings of overwhelm that are woven into our current model of graduate education. We practiced visualization and embodiment together in group meetings.  

I also found embodiment practices to be helpful tools during points of high stress. For example, I integrated a short grounding exercise into a student’s comprehensive exams. This is a tool that I will definitely use again as I work toward finding ways to decouple assessment from anxiety.  

I imagine myself also integrating short visualizations into undergraduate classes, potentially as a way to come together at the start of each class period. 


Description of grounding practice, used during comprehensive exams 

I used a grounding practice to mitigate feelings of overwhelm during a doctoral student’s comprehensive exams. In essence, this was a 5-minute guided exercise, that can be used to reduce anxiety through an intentional slowing down of the nervous system by drawing attention to the body. I used this practice as a break between the minor and major examination areas. My intention was to give the student an opportunity to refocus, center herself, and the return to the exam with an enhanced sense of ease. 

I began the practice by congratulating the student on making it to the midpoint in the exam. I then informed her that I was going to give her the opportunity to recenter herself before moving to the next session. I invited her to close her eyes with me, and I asked her to bring her attention to the lower part of her body, focusing on the contact between her back and the chair. I then slowly drew her attention down the lower part of the body, ending with her feet and the pressure between her feet and the floor. This took about 3 to 4 minutes. I then asked her to open her eyes with a soft focus and awareness of the space between objects. After 30 seconds or so I thanked her for participating in the grounding exercise and asked if she was ready to resume the exam. 

In an subsequent debrief of the oral exam, the student reported that the grounding exercise was helpful in two ways. First, it affirmed that I, as examiner, was attuned to the stressful nature of the examination process. Second, it allowed her to detach from the previous minor field section of the exam so that she could be more fully present and focused on the major field section. As the examiner, I observed a reduction in the anxiety of the student following the grounding exercise. Ultimately, I found it to be helpful and I plan to repeat this practice in similar circumstances (oral examinations and defenses). In the future, I will forewarn other committee members of this practice so that they can choose to participate or abstain. 

Becoming more aware of our own--and our students' sensory experiences during class

This post describes using two grounding practices in two different contexts:

  1. Practice used during in-person meetings with individual students before anxiety-triggering situations and in the classroom: Grounding practice 
  2. Practice used during Zoom class meetings: Grounding and Orientation-in-Space practice 

I implemented those practices that have felt both beneficial to myself, and simple enough to be easily done without my needing a lengthy ‘script’ to lead them. Because I initially felt anxious about the reaction of an entire class to the introduction of any practice, I first experimented with a grounding exercise when meeting with teams of students who were about to lead class discussion. They reported that the practice made them feel less anxious while still allowing them to acknowledge their own state of activation (nervousness). I had the impression that the practice made them feel comfortable in their own skin as discussion leaders. In Fall quarter, I would like to implement this practice before every student-led discussion, and do it with the entire class instead of only with the discussion leaders. 

The second practice I implemented was a grounding and orienting-in-space exercise during one week of class meetings on Zoom. It is so easy to forget our physical body and its positioning in an environment during Zoom meetings…  I have found it particularly rewarding to be aware of my entire body during a virtual meeting, to be allowed to close my eyes for a few minutes and then orient myself in the physical space around me afterwards. I am planning to integrate this practice into every synchronous Zoom meeting of my summer class. 

On a more general note, I would say that engaging in the Trauma-Informed Teaching CAIT has increased my awareness of students’ bodies: the way they sit, move across the room, hold their head, gesture when speaking, and much more. I have been more aware of the physical needs of students without them needing to express those needs explicitly themselves. For example, I had a student who cannot process information in an environment with auditory overload, so they often had to leave the classroom during group discussion. While in the past, I would have been mostly focused on maintaining the intellectual quality of the discussion in the classroom, I regularly went to see that student outside the classroom for a few minutes, or asked whether another student would like to join them in the hallway. 

Spiral journaling exercise for  classroom mindfulness, reflection, and brainstorming 

Dr. Kristy Bryant-Berg, Senior Instructor, Department of English

Instructor Planning: Decide whether or not you will ask your students to share their journaling (either in small groups or with the whole class) at the end of this activity or not, and let the students know before they begin; also, when it comes time to share, give students the option of taking a pass on reading their writing to the class since this journaling can tap into more private feelings and experiences than most academic writing. Remind students who opt out that they are still included and the journaling they did is valued. Create four simple questions about a single topic/moment that you would like your class to reflect upon. Strive for balanced combinations of questions so that they help students observe your chosen topic/moment from four different angles, like the four directions found on a compass. Dedicate these questions to observations rather than analysis and craft them to help students consider your topic/moment more fully, authentically, and openly.  

Suggestions for Balancing Questions: If one question asks about an obstacle currently being faced, include another question about a resource that might help address this challenge. If one question asks for personal perspective, offer another focused on the larger community. If one question prompts consideration of a regret or feeling of discomfort, create another question sharing a gratitude or feeling of comfort. If one question asks for recollections about influences from the past, include another question describing experiences in the present, and a third question inviting anticipations for the future. Including a prompt that allows students to pose their own questions is also a helpful choice for one quadrant of the page; like drawing spirals, our questions can keep our focus going and growing.   

Tools Students Will Need: Piece of paper (preferably unlined), a writing implement of their choice and proximity to a writing surface, like a desk or table.  

Initial Prompt: Once you have your piece of paper and writing tool at the ready, find a place at a desk or table where you can sit with both feet firmly planted on the ground and lean into your writing with comfortable posture. Then, fold your piece of paper in half twice, smoothing it flat each time to form two creases in your paper. For example, if you have a rectangular piece of printer paper, fold lengthwise and widthwise making clear creases as you fold. Unfold your piece of paper and find the natural center, the place where the two creases intersect, and mark this center with a dot.  

Spiraling Prompt: Next, starting from your dot, draw a deliberate and even spiral, noticing the spaces in between each line and focusing on keeping them clear and even. No need to rush, take your time drawing this steady spiral. Feel your writing tool in your hand, and watch your lines gradually build on your paper, moving from the center of your paper slowly toward the edges. Taking your time, keep your gradual line growing outward, until you sense you have reached the outer edge of your paper. (You may want to pause your instructions here for three to five minutes for spiraling.) Once you run out of room to draw, stop there to observe your spiral. No two hand-drawn spirals are exactly alike, so pause a moment to notice this spiral.   

Writing Prompt: (Remind your students about whether or not and how they will be asked to share what they write before asking them to start journaling.) Notice that in addition to your spiral, the creases divide this piece of paper into four sections. Dedicate each of these sections to answering one question. These responses can be single words, bullet points, full sentences, even whole paragraphs, whichever best your ideas and most comfortably fills the spaces on your page.  

Tips: This spiral journal writing feels especially helpful when starting out on a new topic, class or undertaking and when classroom discussions or work have come to a sticking point. It can help broaden the scope of discussions, acknowledge ideas and experiences coming from outside the classroom, add further perspectives, and encourage reflection. This experience will be most effective if the instructor joins the students in the drawing and journaling, modeling focus and openness rather than watching or judging.   

Acknowledgements: This spiral journaling concept derives from combining an exercise demonstrated by Maha Bali and Mia Zamora of Equity Unbound on the OneHE (a global collaborative of educators) website along with mindfulness exercises in the Trauma Informed Education, Accountability, and Antiracist Practice CAIT led by Anita Chari at UO in Spring 2022.