Responses to Trauma

Four documented responses to trauma may appear in you or your students. The very knowledge that they exist can support you in replying to your students and remaining aware of your own responses. For our purposes here, we’ll take the concern about a grade as a case study. To be clear, the grade is not a trauma (usually). However, because students bring their whole selves into conversations, they may incorporate a trauma response to the grade that they earn without recognizing it.

A student whose trauma response is fight may fire off an argumentative email about a grade. The email may seem rather disproportionate to the grade challenge and may sound angry and aggressive.

A student whose trauma response is flight may not respond to any contacts at all, or the response may be significantly later than you wish.

Other students may respond to trauma by freezing. In order to take stock of what’s happening and to determine where safety might be, these students may ask for additional instructions or wait to approach a faculty member about a grade until the very last second.

Still others may offer to do anything to change a grade. This is the fawn response to trauma.

The more helpless students feel, the more likely they may be to use any of these responses in order to gain some control of their environments. You yourself may also want to gain some control of your environment, and these two impulses may collide. Setting arbitrary deadlines about contacting the professor in order to discuss a grade may exacerbate students’ difficult responses. So does becoming rigid and frustrated.

In contrast, indicating that your deadlines are purposeful and support everyone’s safety and equity helps students to separate the purposeful, reasonable rules from the arbitrary rules that may have led to traumatic experiences. Additionally, wherever possible, remind the students of something good that you saw in them or in their work, and avoid responding in anger or expressing frustration. If you are positive and calm, you encourage students to be positive and calm as well.

For each of these responses, faculty can express a careful curiosity.

You seem frustrated or angry or have been out-of-touch. Tell me about that?

What was going on around you as you were writing to me?

What I heard in your email is a lot of distress. Outside of our class, what else is going on?

Help me to understand where you’re coming from. Tell me why this is so important to you?

Faculty can also model mindful approaches to the situation. For example, faculty can establish in their syllabi that they have a 24-hour waiting period before discussing a grade on an assignment, an assessment, or for a course. Faculty can tell students that this policy is for their benefit as it allows the faculty to pause and reflect or simply to take a break before responding.


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