What is trauma-informed teaching and learning?

What is trauma-informed teaching and learning?

Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning (TITL) is a term I coined to refer to a trauma-informed approach to college curriculum delivery. To become trauma-informed in the context of college teaching and learning means to understand the role that violence and victimization have played in the lives of students and educators, and to use that understanding to inform educational policies and practices in order to prevent retraumatization and promote academic and professional success (adapted from Carello & Butler, 2015; Harris & Fallot, 2001).

A trauma-informed educator, program, department, or school:

  • Realizes the likelihood that many students and educators have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime
  • Recognizes signs and symptoms of various forms of trauma (e.g. PTSD, complex trauma, vicarious trauma, intergenerational trauma, collective identity trauma) and understands distinct vulnerabilities of special populations (e.g. children, veterans, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ community members, religious and racial/ethnic minorities, people who have disabilities, people who live in poverty)
  • Respects students and educators by supporting their resilience and learning
  • Responds empathically, using trauma-informed principles to inform all policies and practices
  • Resists policies and practices that are retraumatizing (Adapted from SAMHSA, 2014)

Despite movement toward trauma-informed approaches in child welfare, behavioral health, and K-12 education, trauma-informed approaches remain more the exception than the rule in higher education, including programs that train professionals for clinical practice (Lewis, Kusmaul, Elze, & Butler, 2016). The movement toward trauma-informed approaches in K-12 schools but not in higher education may be explained in part by differences in institutional purpose and structure. Colleges and universities are often expected to perform a gatekeeping function and weed out students, so to speak, whereas K-12 schools are compulsory and try to ensure no child gets left behind.

Also, becoming trauma-informed involves change at every level of the institution in order to be successful, and colleges and universities—as well as the individual programs, departments, and schools within them—have organizational and governing structures and answer to accrediting and governing bodies that differ from K-12 and that present additional challenges to adopting and implementing an institution or system-wide trauma-informed approach.

Creating trauma-informed colleges and universities need not be a top-down only approach, however. Individual educators such as myself who are interested in creating trauma-informed classrooms (traditional and virtual) can and do work as trauma-informed champions to help effect macro-level changes within the systems in which they work. TITL provides a flexible framework for college educators and students to collaborate and cultivate trauma-informed teaching and learning environments one class at a time.


Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278.

Harris, M., & Fallot, R.D. (Eds.) (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, L. A., Kusmaul, N., Elze, D. & Butler, L. D. (2016) The role of field education in a university–community partnership aimed at curriculum transformation. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(2), 186-197.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA14-4884/SMA14-4884.pdf

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