Trauma-Informed and Equity-Centered Pedagogy

Our global, multicultural student body–as well as faculty and staff–continue to experience the compounding impacts of COVID-19 (and other public health crises), war, natural disasters, race-based traumatic stress, and other life contexts that differ from regular stress because they are unrelenting. In a community such as ours, it is important to remember that any geopolitical crisis or natural disaster may have local and lasting repercussions among students and faculty.

Learning routines and retention abilities are challenged by, or even lost, due to such trauma. Combined with situations that may place family members or countries of origin in harm’s way, the general stress of student experiences can impact their abilities to self-regulate learning behaviors and focus on their work. At NYU Abu Dhabi many of our students experience complex trauma (multiple sources of trauma at one time) due to their diverse backgrounds and specific challenges. For instance, COVID fears in Abu Dhabi likely overlap with constant fears for loved ones at home for international students, particularly when families are in war zones or without COVID vaccines that are available in the UAE.

Trauma-informed approaches to teaching strive to understand how various forms of trauma may have impacted the lives of learners and use that understanding to accommodate learners’ needs, prevent further or retraumatization, and promote resilience and growth.

ALA American Library Association

Trauma-informed and equity-centered practices are universal and benefit everyone. Beyond supporting community members with compassion, these practices also ensure improved learning outcomes. There is no perfect implementation or checklist to be completed. The resources provided here are a meant to guide enhancements for faculty practices and pedagogy to provide support to students and themselves. They are meant to support your action in the classroom and your involvement in university-wide procedures and responses.

Faculty can play a positive role in cultivating student resilience by building respectful places for learning. This involves facilitating relationships of trust with your students and among them. Being trauma-aware and equity-centered will improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Trauma-aware teaching is relevant to all disciplines, regardless of whether or not your course content is directly related to trauma and equity itself. There is also information here relevant to courses that do have trauma-related content.

A first step to being trauma-aware and equity-centered

Ask yourself

Do the policies in my course take into account the different challenges students may encounter, especially during a pandemic or ongoing situations of global conflict? Do they account for students who may have suffered trauma due to geopolitical conflict, dislocation, racism, or sexual violence?

Learn about the effects of trauma on student learning

Students may…

  • Find it hard to focus and think deeply.
  • Have trouble retaining and recalling information.
  • Have difficulty taking risks like responding to questions, starting new tasks, or considering alternative viewpoints.
  • Become withdrawn and disengaged.
  • Be irritable or have difficulty regulating their emotions.
  • Overread nonverbal cues (tone, facial expression, posture, etc.) negatively.
  • Struggle with attending class and completing assignments regularly and on time.
  • Hesitate to reach out for support, even when they need it most.

Source: Adapted from ALA, cited as Davidson, 6-8; Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 55-88, 145-150

Recognize that trauma is both real and pervasive. We won’t know, and can’t assume, which of our students have been impacted by trauma and must ensure that our teaching practices are consistently trauma-informed and empathetic.

 

Source: Fiona Rawle, A pedagogy of kindness: the cornerstone for student learning and wellness, THE Campus,, August 2021

Racism and Trauma

Trauma-informed education is anti-racist and against all forms of oppression (Alex Shevrin Venet, 2021, p21). Race-based traumatic stress includes emotional or physical pain or the threat of physical and emotional pain that results from racism in the forms of racial harassment (hostility), racial discrimination (avoidance), or discriminatory harassment (aversive hostility). The target may experience significant emotional reactions, and symptom clusters emerge that reflect that reaction, but the racial component is important in recognizing and connecting the racism to the emotional distress and pain.
 
The events that may produce race-based traumatic stress reactions occur in many different forms. Racial encounters may be direct or subtle and ambiguous. They can occur on an interpersonal level (microaggressions, verbal assaults, use of symbols, or coded language), and can be the effect of structural or systemic acts. Racism may occur on an institutional level, as an application of racial stereotypes, or as encounters and assault, and it may occur through cultural racism. (Robert T. Carter, 2007)

Develop deeper knowledge about equity

For additional information related to inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging at NYUAD please visit The Office of Inclusion and Equity faculty resources page.

Four structural teaching supports for trauma-impacted students

All academic policies related to teaching are laid out in the Academic Policies of NYU Abu Dhabi. The following structural supports are optional and at the discretion of the faculty member responsible for the course.

Strategies for Approaching Challenging Material

Instructional strategies such as the following can also help students approach challenging material:

  • Give your students as much advance notice as possible about potentially disturbing content. A day’s notice might not be enough for a student to prepare emotionally, but two weeks might be.
  • Try to “scaffold” a disturbing topic to students. For example, when beginning a history unit on the Holocaust, avoid starting with graphic images. Instead, begin by explaining the historical context, then verbally describe the conditions within the concentration camps, and then introduce the photographic record as needed. Whenever possible, allow students to progress through upsetting material at their own pace.
  • Allow students to interact with disturbing material outside of class. A student might feel more vulnerable watching a documentary about sexual assault while in a classroom than in the security of their dorm room.
  • Provide captions when using video materials: some content is easier to watch while reading captions, for both trauma and translation purposes, than while listening to the audio.
  • When necessary, provide written descriptions of graphic images as a substitute for the actual visual content.
  • When disturbing content is under discussion, check in with your students from time to time: ask them how they are doing, whether they need a break, and so on. Let them know that you are aware that the material in question is emotionally challenging.
  • Advise students to be sensitive to their classmates’ vulnerabilities when they are preparing class presentations.
  • Help your students understand the difference between emotional trauma and intellectual discomfort: the former is harmful, as is triggering it in the wrong context (such as in a classroom rather than in therapy); the latter is fundamental to a university education – it means our ideas are being challenged as we struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance.

Source: Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Waterloo, https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/trigger

Avoid Harmful Interactions

  • Do not ask students for whom you know traumatic material is relevant to their identity to comment for the benefit of the class.
  • Do not ask students to answer questions from other students related to that trauma or their identity
  • When tensions are high, and trauma is coming to the surface, avoid using humor to diffuse the situation.

More resources on managing difficult conversations can be found here.

Fostering Trustworthiness, Connections, and Peer Support in the Classroom

The goal is to create consistent and sustainable standards that build community and support deeper learning. A key pedagogical practice is to provide flexible opportunities for access and expression. The challenge is to balance being predictable with being flexible. (Venet, 2021, p77)

In order to build peer support from the first day of class consider activities such as having students get to know one another through small group discussions or collaboration (breakout rooms if on Zoom). Further, invite them to create a WhatsApp group amongst themselves, and encourage them to support each other.

Source: Karen Costa, "Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist," https://bit.ly/traumachecklist

Karen Costa's Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist includes strategies on fostering trustworthiness between students and faculty in the classroom. Strategies for fostering connections and peer support are included. More resources on how to build community in the NYUAD classroom are available here.

Teaching Methods that are trauma-aware and equity-centered

  1. Offer multiple modalities for learning - when students work with new material using different kinds of media, they are better able to learn that material. (Bruff, 2019, p110) Technology can be helpful in creating multiple opportunities for sharing. Deploy the discussion forum in Brightspace for synchronous idea sharing. Use Jamboard for collaborative brainstorming. Allow students to create content in NYU Stream to share with each other about course content.
  2. Consider alternatives to high-stakes exams - you can offer take-home exams, offer longer-time frames to complete exams, or make the final exam include group-work components. More resources on alternative assessments. (Handelsman et al., 2007)
  3. Provide transparent grading schemes - Be as explicit as possible about grading processes and how they relate to learning objectives. You can post details in Brightspace or on the syllabus, and these should be done according to a rubric. (Handelsman et al., 2007)
  4. Foster critical wellness (See Howard, 2019) and avoid viewing students from a deficit perspective:  you can actively seek to learn about the strengths, capacity, and potential of each student. This also involves understanding the sociopolitical and historical contexts that may create barriers and challenges for our learners. (Venet, p88)
  5. Be a connector - Learning objectives for your course or lesson plan can explicitly pursue skills in reflective listening, collaboration and teamwork to help students build connections through their learning. You can also facilitate relationships that help address trauma (Venet p115), this includes crafting activities for relationship building between students, and being a bridge to resources available throughout our living and learning environment such as the Writing Center, the Academic Resource Center, Academic Technology, Librarians, Student Success and Wellbeing, and the Wellness Center. Connecting students to the right resources also helps faculty maintain appropriate boundaries.
  6. Disrupt Harmful Narratives - Design classroom activities that help students develop structural awareness. This is as relevant in econometrics as it is history, in electrical engineering as it is psychology. We can always discuss issues of power and representation. You can foster critical thinking skills, and agency by allowing students to explore the history of your discipline.

Distressed Student Protocol

When a student's behavior causes concern or alarm it is important to provide appropriate referrals. NYU Abu Dhabi maintains a Distressed Student Protocol and faculty are encouraged to keep a copy on hand. This protocol can be accessed here. Knowing where to refer students for professional help is important, for example, refer them to Counseling for mental health issues, or to the Moses Center for Student Accessibility services, etc.

Key contacts for student referrals include:

  • Dean of Students (nyuad.dos@nyu.edu)
  • NYUAD's Health Center (nyuad.healthcenter@nyu.edu)
  • NYU's Wellness Exchange (wellness.exchange@nyu.edu)
  • NYUAD Moses Center for Student Accessibility (CSA)
    The Moses Center provides services for undergraduate and graduate students with hearing and visual, mobility, learning and attention, chronic illness, psychological and temporary needs. Trauma-aware pedagogy offers flexibility inclusive of, but also, beyond the accommodations provided by the Moses Center and are at the discretion of the professor.
    Contact Aisha Al Naqbi (aha5@nyu.edu) if you have questions related to academic accommodations.

Resources