Acknowledging the New Normal: Helping Students Weather Pandemic-Induced Trauma

It’s hardly a secret that our students have endured a great deal over the last few years. Experts are calling it collective trauma, or the impact of a harrowing occurrence that affects an entire community and that can change policies or social norms. College learning most definitely qualifies as one of the institutions profoundly affected by the pandemic. So how can instructors acknowledge this new normal and help students?

Experts point to pedagogical strategies especially helpful at the beginning of a new semester.

  1. Emphasize safety. Many young people have felt unsafe during the pandemic, but they typically have a hard time admitting their vulnerability. One of the ways to address this reality is to remind students that the classroom is a safe space, that while learning may not always be easy, instructors consider students’ mental health when creating and teaching the course. It also helps for instructors to show their own vulnerability to be more relatable.
  2. Be transparent and predictable. People who have experienced trauma require predictability to avoid triggers that stoke their fragility. A clear syllabus that spells out the instructor’s expectations about participation, deadlines, and policies helps students grasp onto something solid.
  3. Encourage peer support. One of the worst by-products of the pandemic has been isolation. Whether a class is fully or partially remote or if it is face-to-face, students need to interact with one another. Some instructors allow 5-10 minutes at the beginning of class for students to talk about what’s happened in their lives. Instructors can create groups of 4-5 or open the discussion to the entire class. The point is for classmates offer solutions to problems their peers face. Not only does this exercise allow students to disgorge difficult experiences, but it encourages problem-solving, always desirable in the business communication classroom.
  4. Include students in (some!) classroom decisions. Many students consider their teachers authority figures and are resigned to following instructions without offering their own input. But students affected by trauma especially need collaboration. Instructors can include students in certain decisions. For example, at the beginning of the course, students can weigh in on which classroom behaviors should be adopted and how breaches should be dealt with.
  5. Foster student voices. Trauma victims tend to experience low self-worth. Such feelings impede learning, but they can be countered with activities that build classroom camaraderie while reminding students about their skills and attributes. One such exercise that is especially helpful at the beginning of a new term is to have students work in pairs to answer questions such as What are you good at? How can you add value to our class, How can we support one another? before opening the conversation to the entire class. Some students may be hesitant to share such ideas with a large group and may require an alternative such as e-mail to voice their responses.
  6. Provide a welcoming atmosphere. Our diverse students come to college with a multitude of experiences and cultural backgrounds. When welcoming students on the first day, instructors should discuss inclusivity and make sure that all students feel they belong to the classroom’s learning community.

No one is immune to the difficulties the pandemic has foisted on us all. By showing our students that their collective trauma is acknowledged, we create a supportive learning space they will appreciate.

Source: Herr-Perrin, A. (2021, November 15.) Six tips for cultivating a trauma-informed higher education classroom at the beginning of each semester. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

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