Adding Trauma Glasses To Teaching Toolkit?

Glasses on wood setting

Faculty members have a lot of responsibilities in addition to teaching, like planning, prepping, and advising. With enough time, I’m sure that l could add a considerable number of other duties to this list. We love the job because it is rewarding and challenging, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought on new challenges, such as work from home requirements, social isolation, and trying to get through these last few academic years with our physical and mental health still intact.

Well, if you thought the slew of challenges was coming to an end, think again.

As higher education enrollment numbers decline, Covid relief funds dry up, inflation continues to rise, and labor shortages grow—pressure is building on many campuses. This sounds like an introduction to an essay about self-care or ways to avoid burnout, but it isn’t. Self-care and wellness are essential for faculty, but this is about our students, how we see them, and how to see them through trauma glasses.

What are trauma glasses?

Trauma glasses are a way to conceptualize how we view and interpret student behavior, and we all need to add them to our teacher toolkit.

To understand trauma glasses (sometimes described as looking through a trauma lens), we need to understand what trauma is, how it manifests, and what we can do when our students display trauma symptoms.

SAMHSA describes trauma as an event or experience that causes physical, emotional, and/or life-threatening harm. Trauma can adversely affect all dimensions of a person’s life, including behavior, academic work, attendance, participation, etc.

When a traumatic event or experience occurs, the brain detects a threat and signals to the body to prepare to defend itself. The nervous system responds by releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones. The body produces a flight, fight, freeze, or fawn response. Once the threat is gone, our brains and bodies return to stable levels of functioning, and over time the memory of the event/experience fades or disappears.

However, not everyone resumes brain-body stability and forgets stressful or adverse moments. Some people, especially those who experience long-term and childhood trauma, develop trauma responses that occur and persist even when no obvious danger is present.

To endure traumatic experiences and other events that are viewed as threatening, individuals enter into survival mode. When they are threatened, triggered, or experience retraumatization, their brain and body try to protect themselves in the best way they know-how, through trauma responses and any other coping techniques that have served them in the past.

Problems arise when these responses are expressed through overactive, unexpected, and socially or developmentally inappropriate behaviors. Over time, trauma can have lifelong effects on the brain and social/emotional development, presenting challenges and barriers to achieving one’s goals.

Data shows that this probably applies to your students. As a matter of fact, 40% of students in the US have been exposed to some form of trauma in their lives, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

One-third of children living in our country’s violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, which is two times the rate reported by troops returning from war zones[1].Trauma experienced in childhood, the time that the brain is still developing, may produce even more negative side effects. The stats are grim, representing millions of children likely to have adverse experiences, many of which will result in trauma. These children eventually grow up to be our students.

Even for the brightest and most well-prepared students, college can be stressful. As the higher ed landscape becomes more diverse, we need to adapt to support our students who have experienced trauma. Being inclusive is not only about being an SAT-optional institution or updating the language in our syllabi. It is also about recognizing and responding to differences in the best way we can, while promoting recovery and success.

Trauma doesn’t present the same way for everyone.  Even two people with the same or similar experiences with trauma will be impacted in different ways. This makes recognizing the effects of trauma more difficult, but not impossible.

As educators, we need to keep our trauma glasses on hand so when we encounter a student who displays unexpected, emotional, or avoidant behaviors we can stop scratching our heads while squinting, and instead put on our trauma glasses and look again.

Putting on trauma glasses is a way to stop, think, reflect, and ask yourself: What am I really seeing? What is this student really in need of? Do I see a way that I can support this student?

Some common trauma-related effects you may encounter include:

  • Memory issues
  • Difficulty starting/stopping/transitioning between tasks
  • Excessive absenteeism/tardiness
  • Decreased attention
  • Missed deadlines
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Perfectionism
  • Poor academic performance
  • Poor hygiene
  • Excessive sleepiness

Trauma glasses are not magic; they do not heal trauma and they cannot absolve a student from having to meet academic and behavioral standards set by our institutions. But they can help us to recognize when a student is struggling as their body and brains engage in an automatic response that has helped them to survive right up until the moment they use these survival skills in your class, at which point rather than helping, these responses cause them to suffer academically and socially.

Trauma glasses help us consider an alternative that we may not have otherwise thought of and encourage us to ask, “What is really going on here?” instead of “What is wrong with this student?”[2]

This approach reminds us that our students need to know they are safe. They need and want to be seen, heard, and respected. They need empathy, validation, and recognition. They need monitoring, reminders, and referrals. They need us to guide them and support them, not just in their academic success but also in their recovery.

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