Trauma-Informed Online Teaching: Essential for the Coming Academic Year

by Matthea Marquart, MSSW, Janice Carello, PhD, LMSW, and Johanna Creswell Báez, PhD, LCSW

     Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most educators from pre-K through higher education had never taught online, and most students had not yet taken an online course.  With a lot of effort on all sides, we made it through a rapid transition to emergency remote teaching during the spring semester, and now we have a chance to take some time to plan for the fall.  

     As educators prepare for a fall semester that will likely include expanded online courses, we urge schools and institutions to prioritize a trauma-informed approach, whether or not courses move online.  Students and educators are worried about their own health and the health of their loved ones, experiencing or witnessing increased racist attacks and police violence and other forms of institutionalized racism, grieving those they’ve lost, being stressed about the economy and the world, being impacted by extreme disruptions to their daily routines, and generally experiencing trauma right now.  

     Trauma shows up in the classroom in many ways, and for students it may lead to behaviors that challenge teachers, such as withdrawing from class participation, experiencing difficulty focusing and remembering, demonstrating anxiety about schoolwork, and missing classes or deadlines. Now, imagine that these behaviors are affecting a large number of students in one class, and the teacher responsible for dealing with them is also experiencing trauma symptoms.

     This means that everyone involved could benefit from trauma-informed teaching and learning (TITL).  TITL is an approach to college curriculum delivery that involves adopting a set of trauma-informed principles to inform educational policies and procedures. The principles are specific enough to provide a useful framework but general enough to be adapted for and operationalized within a variety of virtual and face-to-face settings. 

     The original trauma-informed principles (safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment) were developed by Roger Fallot and Maxine Harris, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) adapted the principles and added a sixth (cultural, historical, and gender issues). Each of us has further adapted the principles for use in online and seated college settings, and we recommend applying them to work with students of any age, to prevent retraumatization and promote learning and success.

     For example, teachers who want to support the principle of Empowerment, Voice, and Choice can work on building in choices where possible, such as providing a selection of readings or writing prompts about a particular topic from which to choose. Teachers can enhance Trustworthiness and Transparency by implementing realistic policies that emphasize learning rather than rule obedience and that account for justified absences or late assignments that are due to the challenges students will likely face as a result of the coronavirus. Teachers can also look for ways to provide Support and Connection through informal and formal check-ins via email, phone, or web conferencing, and convey optimism to support Resilience

     At Columbia University School of Social Work’s Online Campus and Edinboro University’s Department of Social Work, we have trained our instructors on trauma-informed teaching and learning principles using resources such as our free webinar on TITL online and our recorded presentation on TITL in times of crisis, which are designed to help educators put these principles into action.  We invite schools and educators to use these resources, which we believe will be helpful, regardless of whether schools ultimately stay remote this fall.

     As educators and as social workers, we know that our fellow educators working with students of all ages are highly trained professionals who can adapt to adverse conditions and help students succeed, whether teaching in physical classrooms or online.  As we all prepare for the coming academic year, we recommend that all of us bring these TITL principles into our classrooms.

Matthea Marquart, MSSW, is the Director of Administration for the Online Campus and a Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. 

Janice Carello, PhD, LMSW, is Assistant Professor and MSW Program Director at Edinboro University.

Johanna Creswell Báez, PhD, LCSW, is Manager of Course Development for the Online Campus and  Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.

Published 7/3/20.

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