How can we support all our students to flourish in our classrooms, no matter what current or past challenges they bring with them? In our first blog Ethics of care: understanding trauma-informed pedagogy, we explored the meaning of ‘trauma-informed’ higher education, traced its historical development, and underscored its crucial role and transformative potential in today’s ‘Age of Trauma‘.

Adult learners with lived experience of trauma may see academic activities such as assessment deadlines, exams, class participation, or peer interaction as threatening. In this second post in the Ethics of Care: Supporting Students through Trauma-Informed Pedagogy series, we look at how trauma-informed pedagogy can help to mitigate these perceived threats, using strategies based on six core principles. 

6 pillars of trauma-informed pedagogy 

 A trauma-informed approach to pedagogy is built on six core principles from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) concept of a trauma-informed approach. The goal of these six principles is to foster an educational atmosphere that is attuned to the needs of students who have undergone trauma, thereby promoting the flourishing of all students. 

A circular diagram of the trauma-informed principles as wheel of practice.
Image adapted from Thompson & Marsh, 2022

The principles encompass safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and cultural, historical and gender issues. Read on to understand what these mean in practice and explore examples of strategies for each one.

1. Safety – creating a safe environment

Safety in the classroom is fundamental to creating an environment conducive to learning and growth for all students, including those who have experienced trauma. When students feel safe and supported, they are more likely to engage in learning. In higher education institutions, the learning environment extends beyond the classroom or online classes. It encompasses email communications and the physical campus itself. In addition, subject content can potentially traumatise or re-traumatise students. Given this, it is crucial for educators to design curricula and monitor student reactions thoughtfully.

Strategies for building a physical, virtual, and emotionally safe space include: 

  • Foster a welcoming and inclusive environment using respectful language and offer content warning for sensitive topics, reserving trigger warnings specifically for content that evokes a traumatic response.  
  • Set clear rules for attendance, behaviour and participation to minimise uncertainty. 
  • Share resources to support services like UTS Counselling, UTS Accessibility, special consideration and HELPS

2. Establishing trustworthiness and transparency 

Trust and transparency are especially important in classrooms for students with lived experience of trauma. These students may find forming relationships challenging, impacting their sense of safety, support, and engagement with learning.  When students trust their educators and feel treated fairly and respectfully, they are more likely to engage in learning. When educators are transparent, students understand what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated, which can reduce anxiety and promotes a sense of fairness. By creating a safe and transparent learning environment, teachers can help students feel more comfortable and secure, which improves their ability to learn and succeed.  

Strategies for applying trust and transparency in the classroom include: 

  • Maintain consistency in interactions and response time to build trust.  
  • Clearly explain subject expectations, grading criteria and material relevance. 
  • Acknowledge your own limitations and mistakes openly. 

3. Fostering Peer Support 

Peer support, a key principle in fostering safety, trust, and collaboration, is a flexible, relationship-based strategy that enhances community and belonging among students, improving their academic and personal outcomes. It’s particularly vital for students with trauma histories who may struggle with trust and relationship-building. Educators can enhance student comfort, security, and learning success by fostering empathetic and compassionate relationships. 

Strategies that reinforce peer support in the classroom include: 

  • Promote group work and projects to build peer relationships.  
  • Facilitate sharing of student experiences and perspectives. 
  • Practice active listening and solicit student feedback on how to support them best.  

4. Collaboration and mutuality 

Student engagement, fostered by collaboration and mutuality, directly influences learning, satisfaction, and overall success. By promoting partnership and shared responsibility, educators create an inclusive environment that enhances student success. Incorporating collaborative structures for content discussion not only improves comprehension and retention but also fosters positive interactions. The ‘students as partners’ approach balances power dynamics, transforming students into co-teachers, co-inquirers, co-creators, and co-learners, leading to numerous positive outcomes. 

Strategies that reinforce collaboration and mutuality in the classroom include: 

  • Involve student decision-making, like setting guidelines or choosing discussion topics. 
  • Promote mutual learning between teachers and students. 
  • Facilitate, rather than avoid, challenging conversations.  

5. Fostering Empowerment, Voice, and Choice 

Empowerment, voice, and choice are vital for autonomy, agency and nurturing student strengths. For students who have experienced trauma, restoring control and agency is key. Educators can create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment that promotes student success by creating learning environments that encourage students to make choices, speak up, and develop confidence and competence in their knowledge and skills.  

Strategies for fostering empowerment, voice and choice in the classroom include: 

  • Offer assessment choices to cater to students’ strengths. 
  • Facilitate student-led discussions to boost participation. 
  • Acknowledge and validate students’ experiences and knowledge. 

6. Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues 

Acknowledging cultural, historical, and gender issues in the classroom is pivotal for fostering equity, inclusion, and social justice while enhancing students’ critical thinking and social awareness. By appreciating students’ diverse identities and experiences, educators can create an inclusive, supportive environment that promotes success and a sense of safety and belonging. These considerations are vital as creating a culturally responsive environment builds trust with students, particularly those who have experienced trauma.   

Strategies for acknowledging cultural, historical and gender issues in the classroom include: 

  • Include diverse identities and perspectives in subject content. 
  • Be aware of and sensitive to students’ cultural, historical, and gender backgrounds. 
  • Counter stereotypes and biases in the learning environment with inclusive language and examples. 

Trauma-informed pedagogy benefits not only those affected by trauma but also enriches the learning experience for every student. This approach emphasises safety, trust, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and recognition of cultural, historical, and gender nuances. By embracing these principles, educators can cultivate a nurturing, inclusive learning space that fosters student achievement.

Keep an eye out for our final blog post, where we’ll share resources to help you integrate these strategies into your classroom. Stay tuned!  

Thompson, P., & Marsh, H. (2022). Centering Equity: Trauma-Informed Principles and Feminist Practice. In: Thompson, P., Carello, J. (eds) Trauma-Informed Pedagogies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Join the discussion