Welcome to the first post in a new blog series, ‘Ethics of Care: Supporting Students through Trauma-Informed Pedagogy’. The series aims to offer a guide for educators to support students with a trauma-informed approach. We start here by exploring the importance of trauma-informed pedagogy in higher education. In upcoming blogs we will delve into practical strategies for implementation, and share a wealth of resources to support educators in applying these practices in the classroom.

What causes trauma, and how can it affect students? 

Trauma refers to psychological harm resulting from highly distressing events threatening a person’s physical or psychological well-being (APS, 2019). Trauma can manifest at various levels – individual, community, or societal – and can be historical or intergenerational in nature. The impact of such events varies among individuals, and while some recover with support, others may experience long-term effects. 

Lived or living experience of trauma may result in academic struggles with concentration and problem-solving, isolation, anxiety, and depression. The demanding environment of university can exacerbate these issues, affecting students’ overall well-being and academic performance. This may present as disengagement with learning activities, higher rates of absenteeism or course withdrawal.

The adage “Maslow before Bloom” underscores the need to address students’ fundamental emotional and physiological needs before expecting them to engage in complex cognitive tasks. Recognising and addressing the impact of trauma on students through trauma-responsive approaches is key to creating safe and supportive learning environments. 

The growth of trauma-informed practices in education 

Emerging from mental health and social work fields, trauma-informed care has now permeated higher education, gaining traction as a concept for the sector from the early 2010s. Universities began to recognise that many of their students had experienced trauma, which impacted their academic performance, mental health, and overall experience at university. The COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden move to emergency remote teaching further underscored this importance, leading to a growing movement towards a more trauma-informed approach in higher education to support all students’ mental health and well-being. 

So, what is trauma-informed pedagogy? 

Being trauma-informed means understanding how violence, victimisation, and other traumatic experiences impact individuals. In the case of higher education, this understanding is then applied to course design and other services that meet the needs of trauma survivors to promote healing and recovery. 

Trauma-informed pedagogy is an equity-centred form of learning design that acknowledges the profound impact of trauma on learning and well-being whilst considering its intersectionality with race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Grounded in human-centred design principles, this approach focuses on creating a supportive, inclusive environment by understanding students’ diverse experiences and using teaching strategies that foster resilience, engagement, and emotional safety to enhance learning outcomes for trauma-affected students.

Adapting practices in ‘the age of trauma’

Coined the “Age of Trauma”, the 21st century is marked by a global surge in traumatic experiences due to events like the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest, and climate change. In Australia, stressors include the cost-of-living crisis, housing insecurity, food insecurity and the amelioration of historical and ongoing discrimination against First Nations people. As universities mirror broader communities, the prevalence of societal trauma is reflected in our student populations.

Trauma-informed practices are a form of anti-oppressive pedagogy that confronts and challenges discrimination and is central to creating safe and equitable learning environments for all students. These practices aim to enhance access to education, foster empathy, mattering and support for those students who have or are experiencing trauma, whilst further benefitting the entire student community.  

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that up to 75% of Australians will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, with 68% of young people having experienced at least one event by the age of 17. As we navigate this Age of Trauma, it’s crucial that Australian universities adopt trauma-informed pedagogy to foster a supportive and empowering educational environment for all students.  

The next blog in this series explores 6 pillars of trauma-informed pedagogy, introducing strategies to implement these principles in your classroom.  

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