“I feel disconnected. I haven’t really made any friends.”
“Being isolated for so long makes it hard for me to feel motivated for school.”
I’m hurting, but I don’t know how to talk about it.
Amid the hubbub of students returning to campus, are we hearing what’s not being said? Recent investigations of faculty, staff, and students show remarkably high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from hardships related to Covid-19. Death of family members or friends, increased caregiving and household obligations, punishing economic insecurity, and fears over an uncertain future are all forms of trauma, and few among us have been untouched.
Trauma may be hard to recognize, but it changes people profoundly and permanently, rewiring their brains and leaving deep and lasting impressions on their bodies. We may not be able to see the pain our students feel. Still, we can expand our views on treating them through course policies and expectations, creating safe spaces, promoting self-care, and leading discussions that help students form meaningful connections and process their emotions.
Your syllabus tells students about yourself and your course expectations. Consider how to present course policies in ways that put the student first. Start by identifying a clear set of learning objectives for each unit and describe these in the syllabus. Then make sure that your assignments, activities, and assessments are directly aligned with these objectives. Go through your syllabus with fresh eyes to look for inconsistencies, disorganization, or language that may be punitive or confusing. Go the extra mile and fully explain the connections between concept-building work such as readings, videos, and discussions and the different assessments you’ll be using to gauge student mastery. Remind students of the benefits, besides a grade, of participating fully in the content and assignments, and explain how your course fits into bigger life and career pictures. Being completely transparent in your teaching can go a long way towards helping students step up to their role as learners. Other tips for creating a learner-centered syllabus:
- Clearly articulate class policies, deadlines, and expectations.
- Create consistency and structure with required assignments.
- Increase limits to accepting late work to provide flexibility for those who may need it, using restorative practices rather than zero-tolerance practices.
- Consider student accountability handled in a way that conveys “What’s happened to the student?” versus “What’s wrong with the student?”
- Place disclaimers in your syllabus when addressing potentially activating topics, “Some content discussed in this section may be activating for some students. Please notice how you are responding to the discussion/assignment and be intentional to care for yourself and communicate to others if you need support.”
Make time before class for music and light conversation. Lack of recent in-person learning experiences may put some students on the defensive, while others may feel shy or self-conscious. Build rapport slowly and make sure to allow space and time for all voices to be heard. Even as students look to you as the expert, they also need and want opportunities to define their expertise. Offer in-class and online activities that challenge them to integrate course content with personal and professional experiences and recognize and value individual differences. Consider alternative forms of assessment that allow different forms of expression beyond traditional papers and tests.
Be on the lookout for subtle indicators of stress. While we don’t want to coddle students, we need to honor their personal experiences to participate fully with the course, the college, and the community. One of the most significant stressors for students is feeling lonely and disconnected. Faculty can help students rebuild connections through in-class and online activities that promote meaningful conversations, support caring for oneself and others, and offers a safe space to process emotions. Additional suggestions:
- Build self-reflection and self-care into assignments such as journaling, mindfulness, grounding, or deep breathing breaks to help build emotion regulation.
- Facilitate peer activities that help students connect with classmates to provide mutual support.
- Hold office hours, even via videoconference, for students to connect and ask for personal and academic support.
- Contemplate how each student’s strengths and resilience can be recognized and mobilized through specific course learning activities and relating content to diverse experiences.
Outside of Class
Being informed about resources outside the classroom can help widen the net for students to manage and recover from recent trauma. Announcing the value of self-care to the class helps to position certain new-age practices as a mainstay of good health and good learning practices. Letting students know about reflection rooms in the library and drop-in spaces for mindfulness meditation can offer them a way to get away for a few minutes when feeling overwhelmed. So too, services like the Counseling Center and the local chapter of Active Minds, a mental-health advocacy group. Taking a few minutes to promote fun and interesting campus events and services outside of class helps normalize these resources and destigmatize conversations around personal needs and experiences. Are you looking for a way to bring leadership into conversations about personal experiences? The Leadership Center offers in-class workshops on a variety of topics.
All faculty, staff, and students have been affected by recent events. While some may have developed coping strategies that mask deeper feelings of discomfort and disconnection, trauma-informed teaching and learning strategies can help everyone become their best selves.