Practices for Teaching Students Living with Stress and Trauma

Students experience a wide variety of stresses in their lives outside our classrooms, circumstances that affect how they learn in our courses. That is particularly true this year, given the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, as we transition back to in-person teaching. Considering ways to proactively design our classes to take that stress into account can help our students to learn and thrive in our courses. 

Students living with stress and trauma might have a harder time remembering, understanding, and staying organized. Teaching practices which promote student success in this context are, importantly, generally useful for all students, whether or not they are experiencing stress and trauma. Given that these are challenges for students even in the best of times, when used in complementary ways, the practices and strategies presented here can support students as they transition back to learning in the classroom and rejoining a fully populated campus.

If you would like to discuss ways you might apply these principles in your teaching, staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning are available to meet with you. Email CTL to set up a conversation.

Think intentionally about how to structure and clarify assignments, expectations for class time, and the overall course.

Why is structure useful?

Dealing with stress and trauma may reduce students’ working memory capacity and cause them to struggle to identify and initiate tasks. Clear, well-defined structure helps students feel less of a mental burden in trying to figure out mundane details so they can focus more on the process of learning.

Structure can take a variety of different forms (from providing staged assignments that build to a larger project to proving short, small-stakes assignments) so that students have clear guidance about what you expect and the opportunity for practice and feedback with critical content or skills.

Possible approaches for adding more structure to your course


Add flexibility to course policies to reduce students’ feelings of stress and better manage students’ needs.

Why is flexibility useful?

Building flexibility into your course allows you to intentionally put processes in place to meet students’ needs when unexpected things happen. Instead of negotiating every extension, building in extra flexibility from the start can reduce the stress levels of instructors and students alike. These policies also lower barriers for students who may shy away from asking for help when they need it.

Possible approaches for adding flexibility to course policies


Communicate regularly with students and establish clear ways that they can contact you.

Why is communication useful?

Given the complexity of students’ lives, there may be things going on that we cannot know about without establishing opportunities for communication. If you clarify how and when you want students to contact you, students who struggle to ask for help feel invited to do so.  You should also consider offering students a variety of methods (such as emails, appointments, office hours, speaking after class, and/or surveys). In addition, establishing these channels can help you learn more about your students so you can adapt your course to students’ current needs and attention.

Possible approaches for promoting communication between you and your students


Provide opportunities for student choice and autonomy (when choice supports your course goals).

Why is student autonomy and choice useful?

Providing students with choices, such as in the topics they focus on or in the format of their work, can empower, engage, and motivate them. Given that students enduring stress and trauma may lower their attention and motivation, it can be useful to provide students with options when it is feasible and aligned with your goals for the course.

It is important to note that students can feel overwhelmed if there is too much choice or not enough support in making their choices.

Possible approaches for student autonomy and choice


Connect students with campus resources to address basic needs, crises, and challenges

Why is connecting students with resources useful?

Students who are struggling with food or housing security, paying for course materials, or other everyday needs, will likely have difficulty learning or performing at their best in our classrooms. Since some students will not feel comfortable asking you about ways to meet these needs, including information about resources in your syllabus and/or on your Canvas page can raise student awareness about them and make those resources seem normal.

Possible approaches for connecting students with resources


Learn more about teaching students living with stress and trauma 

To learn more about principles and practices for teaching students living with stress and trauma or to discuss other teaching-related questions or needs, email CTL to set up a conversation with the staff from the Center for Teaching and Learning. 

You can also explore the following resources: