Strategies for Creating a Safe and Supportive Classroom

creating a safe classroom

When we consider the multiple life challenges and wellness issues faced by college students, it is safe to assume that the impact of trauma is manifest in every classroom. Trauma, whether experienced as a singular event or as a chronically unsafe environment, shapes how survivors perceive their vulnerability in the world and challenges their ability to cope. When we pursue greater understanding of the effects of trauma on individuals and the systems in which they operate, there is also a growing awareness that trauma is far more prevalent than we might have imagined. In fact, recent studies indicate that exposure to trauma is a widespread experience.

The last 20 years of scientific trauma research has improved our understanding of trauma and has brought focus to the prevalence and impact of trauma in our primary through post-secondary educational systems. For example, a 2008 study, Prevalence, Type, Disclosure, and Severity of Adverse Life Events in College Students (Smyth et al., 2008) found that 20 percent of college students nationwide (N = 6,053) report “symptoms indicative of clinical or subclinical PTSD”.

Exposure to traumatic events can affect learning, behavior, and relationships. Multiple traumatic events or chronic experiences or circumstances that are experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening can impair executive functioning and can culminate in lifelong challenges. Behavioral issues, physical and/or mental health conditions, and vulnerability to addiction and substance abuse are just a few of these challenges. When we take into account that uninformed or rigid systems, procedures, and organizational structure can serve to re-traumatize victims, the mandate to cultivate a trauma-informed approach to our classrooms and institutions becomes apparent.

Educational systems are beginning to catch up with approaches currently implemented across behavioral health, medical, and criminal/juvenile justice settings. Systemic change takes time, but faculty are free to incorporate trauma-informed practices in their classrooms. At the minimum, faculty and administrators must strive to avoid re-traumatizing students with negligent approaches and policies. In other words, first, do no harm.

A traumatized student’s primary need is a sense of safety. By reframing student behaviors such as apathy, perfectionism, lack of motivation, aggression, and emotionality as possible symptoms of trauma, it allows us to defer to compassion rather than judgment and reactivity. Rather than asking ourselves, “What is wrong with this student?” we should ask “What has happened to this student?” A trauma- informed approach is one that requires faculty to put curiosity before reactivity. We are cautious about reacting to a student in ways that may appear disdainful or shaming.  We ensure that conversations about behaviors and performance take place in private. By being respectfully inquisitive about your concerns with a student, you may discover the underlying issues behind a student’s conduct or demeanor.

Traumatized students are predisposed to feel distrustful, powerless, and fearful. Remember that trauma can affect perception and memory. Therefore, it is best practice to provide students with an agenda and a syllabus that is clear about your expectations, boundaries, schedule, activities, and student rights. Consider including your rationale for these categories in your syllabus. Avoid zero tolerance policies that communicate you are inflexible, regardless of unseen circumstances.

Create room in your class activities for some flexibility. Too much rigidity in the classroom lacks consideration for the traumatized student who may struggle with some tasks. Allowing for choices when appropriate gives traumatized students the opportunity to be more successful.

It is always helpful to acknowledge that you cannot know someone’s experiences in life. So be mindful when class material covers topics that may be emotionally challenging to students. Recognize that asking students about personal experiences or discussing historical, cultural, or social/gender trauma may trigger strong emotions in some students. Consider trigger warnings on visual materials that may be disturbing.

Finally, commit to collaborating with students rather than doing things to or for them. It is easy to over-function when we are attempting to “rescue” a student from their hardships. Engage the student as a partner in problem-solving any issues that may arise. This empowers the student to take ownership in the process and builds self-efficacy in handling challenges.

Join MaryAnn Raybuck on April 23 for “Facilitating Success: A Guide to Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.” During the program, she’ll provide practical strategies for creating a safe learning environment. Learn More »

MaryAnn Raybuck is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 20 years of counseling experience specializing in trauma, grief, and loss. In addition to her private practice, she has worked for the past seven years at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).