Can Online Learning Be Trauma-Responsive?

By Karen Gross

With the growing number of colleges moving to online learning, I have been asked: Can online learning incorporate trauma-responsive strategies? The short answer is yes.

Before turning to specific pedagogical approaches, it is worth reiterating why trauma-responsiveness is so critical to learning at this moment. Pre-pandemic and before the current racial tensions and economic uncertainty, we were living in a world in which trauma abounded. While often not recognized or incorporated into our pedagogy, students arrived at educational institutions having experienced trauma and displaying trauma symptomology.

Current events, including the lack of an endpoint in terms of the pandemic, have heightened the stress that students, faculty and staff will feel when colleges and universities reopen. In the COVID-gap (the time between when educational institutions shut down to when they reopen in fall 2020) many students experienced trauma. So did faculty and staff.

The trauma experienced was not uniform. Some students were traumatized by school closure and the absence of a clear pathway forward to their getting a degree and entering the workforce. Some struggled with being separated from campus friends and faculty. For students who returned home (assuming they had a home), there may have been tension with family members, perhaps struggling with job loss and economic constraints, or illness and death. The wearing of masks and social distancing have  been difficult for many, sometimes activating past negative experiences of separation and isolation. Online learning was not optimal for many students; it was not consistent with their learning style and they missed in-person engagement and academic support.

The racial tensions following the killing of George Floyd also affected many students; some participated in protests and others had opportunities to reflect on embedded systemic racism in their educational institutions and in American culture. Some participated in online hashtag conversations detailing incidences of campus racism. The #Blackat ______ (name your educational institution) movement created ongoing efforts to address racism in the absence of on-campus presence due to the shuttering of institutions.

In a nutshell, the COVID-gap has produced trauma and its accompanying symptomology for many students. Faculty and staff experienced many of the same traumatic events as students, and some had to deal with job termination or furloughs, threatening their economic viability. Other faculty and staff, given their age and stage, worried about their own personal health and the implications of returning to campus. Some faculty and staff tried to improve their online skills so they would be ready for a non-brick-and-mortar education in fall 2020. Still other faculty and staff witnessed a changing world where the patterns of their lives were disrupted significantly and with literally no end in sight.

Trauma-responsiveness does help

In this context, educators need to be prepared to handle their own trauma and that of their students. And trauma-responsiveness can be adapted to the online environment if we work at it and reframe how we approach students and conduct classes online.

Lest there be any question, student trauma and its symptomology does affect learning, memory and concentration. And if educators do not have their own trauma under control, that can affect the quality of their teaching, their capacity to engage and their own physical well-being. One added complicating factor: Trauma is catching; educators can become secondarily traumatized through their students. So it makes enormous sense of educational offerings online to be trauma-responsive.

To think about online strategies that restore what trauma takes away, we can put on a trauma lens through which we can see what changes can be made. One reality: We need to think beyond the classroom to the whole academic enterprise, even if it is occurring online. From classes to communications, we can identify specific strategies that can promote student success.

While these efforts require attention and a shift in focus, they are not hugely expensive and not beyond reach in the near term. They are valuable for many students and will assist all students—even those not traumatized—on the theory that rising tides lift all boats.

Some specific suggestions

Here are a set of strategies (not listed in order of importance) that can be deployed to ameliorate trauma symptomology in the context of online learning, remembering that all suggestions need to be adapted to the culture, location and climate in which learning is occurring.

1. Within the online environment, it is highly beneficial if professors create breakout rooms and meeting rooms where students can work together on presented issues. Rather than one big online classroom, it is worth enabling project learning through students working with one another and then reconvening as a large group. Professors could have their own breakout room to talk to students or could pop in and out of the breakout rooms as if roving across a set of groups of students working together in in-person physical space.

2. If we were talking about a brick-and-mortar institution, we’d be discussing what would be at the entryway upon return and what would be in the halls and on the walls and in the classrooms. Even online, we should not ignore the physical environment in which learning takes place. Start with where the professor is sitting or standing. What is behind and beside them? What can be seen on the screen? What is it messaging? Consider objects that have meaning that can be shared with students and may (or may not) have relevance to the learning. Consider what is on the screen itself. Are there ways to make it more engaging and inviting? Perhaps some graphic designers can make this happen—even in the school colors if those are important to students and the community. Consider what students looking at the professor actually see: Food? Eyeglasses? Jewelry? I am not suggesting these items disappear; I am suggesting that we think about them and how to use them more effectively to help students engage and receive powerful messages. I have taught wearing a colorful wig; I have taught with colorful streaks in my hair that match my clothes. These are points for talking and engaging. I don’t wear dark, sad colors when teaching online; I make sure the background is upbeat and real—not a plastic fake palm tree scene of a beach. More recently, I have had a magic wand and a trauma-responsive toolbox at my side and some books, all of which I share. Space and place speak louder than we often recognize.

3. Professors, especially those for whom content is supreme, need to consider different ways to begin classes to get all of the students settled in and ready to learn. Think about it this way: If young students have not had breakfast, even the best first grade teacher cannot teach them reading. So if students have been distracted by the world outside school, entering the online classroom does not mean they are ready, willing and able to learn. It just means they are present on the screen and being present is not enough.

We need to consider specific strategies that ameliorate the effects of the autonomic nervous system. Many of these involve using the senses in different ways to create new and clear neural pathways that are not crowded with trauma. These approaches can be done in under five minutes at the start of class online. Some professors may worry about “giving up time” to “silly” “non-academic” exercises. But without these exercises, many of the students may not be able to learn. So five minutes of these exercises enables an hour or so of online learning.

4. Create opportunities for dialogue among students and between students and the professor. This can occur in the breakout rooms suggested above. Also, try polls (which are part of many online learning platforms) and discuss the results. Try having students “ask the professor” questions, whether prepared in advance or developed in class. For example, just stop after teaching a set of material and say to the students online, “Take 45 seconds and develop a question to pose to me now. And we’ll take some of the questions and answer them right here on the spot.” Professors can also create non-classroom time in which they can speak to students privately—say, call-in hours or online chat hours that ensure privacy.

5. If ever there were a time to learn student names, it is now. Yes, it is hard with large classes (and harder as professors get older in my personal experience). But students online will do better if they know the professor knows who they are and can refer to them by name. For example, why not add into the conversation: “As Sara just pointed out, there is a vast difference between …” or “Warren asked an excellent question a few minutes ago which we can now revisit …”?

6. Professors can try out new teaching approaches and bold online exercises, even if not all of them are successful. Students will know you are trying something different to maximize the learning and encourage engagement and interaction and personalization within the online setting. Ask them to comment on the strategies. Consider if there is a way to incorporate virtual experiences or music clips or film clips (as opposed to wordy PowerPoints). Try illustrations instead of words. Consider an exercise in which the professor reads a short passage and asks students what three words they did not recognize or understand in the passage (without a negative judgment being communicated); after all, not all learners are good listeners. Try wearing appropriate costumes to engage students differently. If you are teaching about medieval times, why not dress in medieval garb? There are some professors known for this even before the pandemic, but now, it is a wonderful way to enable students to create “open” brain space needed for learning.

7. One idea to reflect upon is the changing role of professor and student in this era of COVID. In many situations, professors make sharp dividing lines between their personal and professional lives and share little with students, except perhaps an anecdote here and there or a photo in their office (which students cannot now visit). One impact of COVID is that there is a shared experience that affects students and faculty alike. This may break down that firm dividing line between the personal and the professional, a blurring reported poignantly by therapists in the post-Katrina era, when the patient and the therapist all had experienced massive disruptive, change and trauma.

8. One strategy to identify students struggling is to enable them to show a red block on their screen if they don’t want to participate on a particular day. This is a recognition that students may have other things happening in their lives that are intervening. Rather than looking out the window or staring at the screen when called on, students can message the professor through the block. Now, if a red block appears for several classes in a row, that professor can reach out to that student privately and ask whether everything is alright and whether there are other ways in which the professor can help. Imagine the relief when the student sees that a professor actually noticed them and cares.

9. In his powerful book, Wait What?, James Ryan develops a set of questions we should all be asking each other and ourselves. Some are clearly questions professors can ask of their students. My favorite: What can I do to help you? My personal adaptation: What can I do to make your life better? Now, in an online environment, asking these questions can become impersonal and not effective when done with the class as a whole. But when there are breakout rooms and the professor can wander into a group of six to eight students, it is possible to be more personal and to ask questions that can enable students to get a sense that the professor cares.

10. Turning to institutional trauma-responsiveness, we can focus on improved communication between the administration and students and between the administration and faculty and staff. What if the president sends a short daily email to each group? What if it discloses any issues that have occurred as to which there may be rumors on campus—so there is transparency and factual accuracy and a sense that people in charge know what they are doing to protect the community academically and psychosocially. This is needed even in an online environment. This is a time when honesty reigns supreme and hiding information (an outbreak of COVID for example) is unwise. The messages can also be aspirational and upbeat. They can convey “welcome back; we are so glad you are here learning with us.” The messages can recognize the difficulty of the current state of the world. Honesty, truth and trust are all ways of restoring what trauma takes away.

To provide an example of what not to do, one institution issued a broad proclamation about creating a new Culture of Care. In the description, there were abundant details about physical safety but nothing about psychological wellbeing, including the types of resources that would be available to all members of the community. Recognizing that there will be anxiety and concern about a myriad of issues that affect students, faculty and staff is helpful. It is a way of recognizing reality and that folks are not alone in their feelings.

I am reminded of the institution that was unable or unwilling to acknowledge in its communications to students that the head of mental health on campus committed suicide. In this day and age, hiding information is not a strategy. It is a pathway to making things way worse. Communications teams need to reflect in advance on how they will address COVID outbreaks or possible shutdowns. They need strategies for how to report deaths, if they occur. They need to message about the uncertainties with which we are dealing and the plans for reopening with all the needed caveats and disclosures front and center. Now is not the time for hyperbole or fake news. Now is the time for honest, open assessment and clarity of communication.

11. I want to stress several complex issues for institutions as they pivot to online learning and eventually (most likely) pivot back to in-person learning. Change is hard for people. So is uncertainty. But recognizing that these are difficult issues and difficult times is way better than pretending that all is well and announcing plans that are surely likely to be changed or adapted. If anything is certain, it is that we are living with uncertainty. Involving numerous folks in the decision-making process helps; so does making sure there are no surprise announcements, absent some emergency situation. Next, it is likely that members of the college/university community have passed away during the COVID-gap and thereafter. Some beloved faculty or staff members may have passed on. Some family members of students, faculty or staff may have been ill or died. Perhaps some students and alums have been ill or passed away. For deaths that have occurred before a return to the restart of the fall semester, there needs to be a trauma-responsive strategy for communicating about and dealing with the impact of these deaths. Might there need to be a Zoom memorial service? Might there be some written document to which folks can both contribute and access online? Deaths that occur once the fall semester has restarted raise other issues. Now is the time to plan for these issues, not in the middle of the events occurring. Consistency in approach, thoughtful and non-panicked responses, ways to engage in a world without hugs and in-person connection are all needed.

A few added reminders: Trauma can be retriggered. This is not a one-off set of activities; there is an ongoing need to remain trauma-responsive for the foreseeable future. Also, trauma isn’t a trend; its symptomology is real and has been proven to affect our brains, bodies and their functioning. Trauma responsiveness isn’t coddling; it is caring for others and activating empathy. Our task as educators is to help our students thrive, not just survive, academically and psychosocially. We can do that.

Karen Gross is former president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She specializes in student success and trauma across the educational landscape. Her book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK-College, was released in June 2020 by Columbia Teachers College Press.





One Response to “Can Online Learning Be Trauma-Responsive?”

  1. Karen Gross

    I have been asked for more trauma responsive strategies for asynchronous online learning. This is harder obviously than such strategies in a synchronous environment. That said, they are doable with effort and focus. Here are some to try.

    1. There can be questions posed and activities offered in the asynchronous class and then intentional pausing by the instructors (as if students were right there), asking participants to post what they created or answered in the chat room. The students know instructors will see what they do and can comment on it in a subsequent class … as Juan pointed out …

    2. Instructors can put up polls and then, without interpreting that actual poll, reflect on what different answers/percentages might mean. In other words, reflect on what answers would demonstrate — even if actual poll is not used.

    3. Instructors can literally pretend there are students out there — and act as if they were there. Asking questions like: Are you with me? Are you following? If not, reach out and contact me at … This gives a feeling of normalcy. In real life, give students your email and work cell.

    4. The instructor can set a welcoming tone and then provide a recognition that while we all aren’t here together, we are learning together. Message that one is teaching as if students were there — chatter, pauses, questions.

    5. Enable students to participate and turn in responses and show that you as instructor will review the chat room and any questions. When you do, refer to students by name.

    6. Instructor could periodically and randomly show up into the online class or announce a time or two when they will be there.

    7. Try not to lecture the whole time. Like sports, instruct as if fans are there. Act like they are there. Pretend to call on someone. Pretend there is a good response.

    8. Make sure students k ow when you are spreading so it contextualized. When was it taped? What events mark that day … I just read this or that. Contextualize even if students aren’t there. Today I read that or I learned that …

    9. Ask students if there are others online with them — even one or two. See if they can coordinate and share with each other during class or via phone. They can wrestle with the material together. Or there might be a designated time for showing video a couple times.

    10. Be light and deliver humor — so they see you are human and care.

    11. Ask the participating members to provide feedback and suggestions weekly — what was good and bad about class and what would improve it.

    12. Consider quizzes with answers onscreen so students can see their progress. And quizzes can be deemed exam prep. Give them again to show improvement on the same day.

    Hope these help. The key? Being engaged at location of learning — even if asynchronous.


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