All posts by Mary Anne Duggan

What Does It Mean to Be Trauma-Sensitive in Higher Ed?

I recently attended a professional development session on fostering resiliency in college students, and the presenter was definitely singing in my language. Concepts such as self-regulation and coping skills were dancing in my ears as a professor of psychology. As the session ended, however, a math professor in the group exclaimed, “I want to help, but I’m not a trained counselor!”

Her words zapped me out of my bubble, and yet I totally understood them. With rising levels of anxiety and depression among college students1, many professors want to help in any way possible. But most of us are not equipped to offer counsel, and those who are qualified understand that we cannot be therapists to our students. So what’s a college teacher to do?

For starters, we can look to our counterparts in K-12 education who are part of the Trauma-Sensitive Schooling movement. Teachers in this group understand that adverse childhood experiences often leave more than a physical mark. Indeed, post-traumatic stress disorder is seen in children who have experienced toxic stress stemming from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect in a variety of forms, and other household dysfunctions. And many of these students eventually enter our college classrooms.

Obviously K-12 teachers are no more counselors than those at the college level. However, from the Trauma-Sensitive Schooling movement emerged the idea of a set of universal teaching practices that promote inclusion for students who have experienced toxic stress. Since we can never know the inner lives of all our students, universal teaching practices are strategies used with the whole class in order to promote a sense of safety and well-being for all.

The good news is that universal teaching practices are not just one more thing to add to our lesson plans. They even don’t require specialized training. Rather, these practices are incorporated into our regular teaching routine. In this way, all college teachers regardless of subject area can help emotionally vulnerable students get the most out of their college courses.

Below is a sample of universal practices I use in my college instruction, (ripped from the pages of my previous work as a kindergarten teacher):

Predictability (limit unnecessary surprises)

For a student with ever-spiking cortisol levels, a certain level of predictability in a course can serve as a regulator. For example, one form of predictability is setting clear and consistent deadlines. In my classes, I have assignments due on the same day of the week, spread out over consistent intervals over the course. I include prompts in my lectures as the due dates draw near. I publish a course calendar that I advise students print out and “hang on their bathroom mirror.”

Another form of predictability is of the personal variety. I strive to be the same person today as I was yesterday (and will be tomorrow) for my students. I endeavor to model emotional stability for my students, some of whom come from more volatile home environments. Predictability can take many other forms in the classroom, wherever a supportive structure can be provided for students.

Acceptance (foster inclusion)

A feeling of belongingness can serve as a stress buffer in the classroom. Universal principles I use to welcome students involve getting to know their names and using them often, learning about them personally, and slowing down enough to listen to them when they have a question or want to share something. I stop whatever it is I might be doing and face them when they are speaking. When I cross a student in the hallway, I am conscious of my body language. Am I communicating receptiveness?

Another way to communicate acceptance can be found in the feedback process. The manner in which we respond to students in class discussions can communicate a sense of safety and ability to take risks. For me, this involves finding a kernel of correctness in all student contributions. For example, if a student starts talking about “Pavlov’s mice,” I can respond, “Yes! You are correct that Pavlov studied classical conditioning. It was with dogs as opposed to mice, but you’re on the right track.”

Co-regulation (share the calm)

When I sense a student is anxious in class, I model emotional regulation. In this way, I am inviting students to co-regulate with me. Co-regulation involves deepening my breath, slowing my speech, and perhaps lowering my vocal tone. It also involves avoiding co-regulating in the opposite direction; I strive to be mindful if my own anxiety level starts to raise in response to that of my student. Calming my own mind, therefore, is a critical first step.

Beyond bringing things down a notch, we can model a growth mindset with students. When an anxious student exclaims that they are just not a good reader, for example, we can share some strategies in this area. We can embrace failure as part of the learning process by sharing our own stories of when we fell and got back up.

Providing predictability, acceptance, and a sense of calm are not “add-ons” to our our already-packed curricula. To a certain degree, they are an extension of the person who is the teacher. More importantly, they are not direct clinical interventions. Rather, they are small steps we can take as college instructors to ensure the inclusion of all students in a safe, and thus productive, learning environment.

For more information on the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium and its Creating Trauma Sensitive AZ Schools Committee, visit https://azaces.org/

1Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2018, January). 2017 Annual Report (Publication No. STA 18-166).

This post is part of the Write 6X6 challenge at Glendale Community College.

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Teaching Inspiration En Pointe

As I push my grocery cart through Safeway, a song from The Killers pipes through the speakers:

Are we human
Or are we dancer?

As a former dancer, I am forever intrigued by those lyrics. Why can’t we be both? This song brings me back to the early 80’s when I was a dance major in college. Picture leg warmers . . . an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt . . . a super-high ponytail on just one side. The movie Flashdance came out during my sophomore year. Yeah, I was a “manic, maniac!

After just two years of twirling in academia, though, I changed my major to education and went on to teach kindergarten through college for the next 34 years. Yet, who I am as a teacher now is greatly shaped by my college dance professors who embraced both their art and their students. From them, I learned the importance of consistency, enthusiasm, and genuineness in teaching – qualities I didn’t learn in any formal education course.

First, there was Sybil. She may have had a last name, but she was simply Sybil to us. She piled her white-blonde hair in a bun and her flowy scarves trailed behind her. Most humans walk to get from one place to another, but Sybil glided. Her interactions with her students also had that same smooth quality.

My personal tendency is not-so-much to glide as to sprint through the day. But, when I think of Sybil I slow myself down. My students have stresses of their own; there is no need for me to compound what they are going through. In fact, I now recognize what Sybil was doing was co-regulating with her students. In slowing her speech and deepening her breaths, she encouraged students to do the same without uttering a directive.

Sybil was consistent, which provided stability for all of us. She once advised us to “check your troubles at the stage door.” In other words, have boundaries between the emotional drama-du-jour and the work of being a dancer. In my teaching, I release my problems at the classroom door à la Sybil. I have a much better day as a result, and I can always pick up my worries again after class if I want. More importantly, my students have a steady force in me, too.

Then, there was Donna. Donna didn’t glide, she bounced. My visions of her involve her leaping, twirling, and smiling all the while. She was tiny with sassy-short hair, but it seemed like she could stop an oncoming train if needed. Her passion and strength were and are inspirational to me. I remember what it felt like to be on the other side of that enthusiasm, and it is something I strive to bring to my class every day (even when teaching my stats students about “failing to reject the null hypothesis”).

Finally, there was Patty. Patty defied the pressures to be uncomfortably thin as a dancer. Rather, you had the sense that she could really enjoy some good barbecue. But no matter, she could launch herself through space like no other. And she used her body to not only fly but to ground herself deeply to the earth. Patty loved dance, and she wasn’t about to let anyone tell her she wasn’t doing it right simply because of her size.  She was confident and true to herself, and this is something I strive to bring to my teaching.

To be sure, not all my dance teachers were inspirations. The professor who told me to lose weight when I was already thin. The TA who literally threw a book at me when I forgot to bring mine to class. The ballet teacher who ruled cruelly . . .

In all, I learned from my dance professors that the person who is the teacher is just as important as any teaching technique. Author Parker Palmer wrote, “We teach who we are.” Sybil, Donna, and Patty were the most human of dancers, and it is that humanity I want to bring to my teaching each and every day.

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