How Trauma-Informed Care Principles Can Help You Better Support Students

The word “trauma” is not a foreign concept to most student affairs professionals.

We talk about the traumas that our students experience after sexual assault and we discuss the impacts of trauma (resulting from many different types of experiences) on students’ pre-existing mental health. We ourselves may also experience secondary or vicarious trauma when supporting students impacted by bias crimes. 

But what many of us have not cultivated is a well-rounded understanding of what trauma is and how to create an environment that is trauma-informed. 

As a victim advocate who has worked extensively with survivors of crime, I’ve learned that trauma can come in many shapes and sizes. I’ll share a few key elements that can help you better understand what trauma is, along with some specific recommendations that you can all incorporate into your work (and daily life) to support anyone who has experienced trauma.

What is Trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) eloquently describes the concept of trauma with the Three E’s: The Event, the experience of the event, and the effect. Let’s break those down.

The Event

Probably the most recognizable component of trauma is that which results from a specific event. It could be any event that causes (or is a threat to) the person’s physical and/or psychological safety.  This may include a natural disaster, a sexual assault, a car accident, or literally any other adverse event. In the world of a student affairs professional, trauma may also manifest in the form of job loss, an abusive supervisor, or the death of a student. 

The Experience of the Event

How someone perceives the experience of an event helps determine whether or not it is traumatic, and not everyone will perceive the same experience in the same way.

For example, while we should all understand that catcalling is a form of sexual harassment, one person who experiences this behavior may perceive it as “normal” while another may feel that it is deeply troubling,  causing them immense fear or anxiety. The way the latter person experiences and characterizes the event is where the manifestation of trauma may stem from. 

The Effect

The final component of trauma is the effect — the lasting impacts that may occur after an event.

These effects may develop shortly after an event or be significantly delayed. They may include hypervigilance, trouble developing relationships, lack of trust, or avoidant behaviors, just to name a few common possibilities. The effects of trauma can be long-lasting, particularly for someone who continues to exist in environments that are not trauma-informed.

6 Key Principles

Experiencing a trauma is, well, traumatic. But there are things we can all do to contribute to the healing and well-being of our students, coworkers, and loved ones.

Luckily, SAMHSA and the CDC have defined six key principles to help guide us on how to incorporate trauma-informed practices into our personal and professional lives.  This helpful infographic refers mostly to creating trauma-informed systems (such as your institution as a whole), but I’ll also be talking about the ways you can incorporate these principles on an individual level.

It’s important to remember that yes, you are a student affairs professional, but you’re also human. When you go home at the end of the day, that doesn’t mean you leave behind the potential for tough conversations. The people you care about may need your support just as much, if not more than, the students you serve.  

Every single person you encounter can benefit from the implementation of these practices. This can feel like a heavy burden at first, but you can keep it simple. Let’s discuss how.

1. Safety

It’s no surprise that after Maslow’s physiological needs are met, physical and emotional safety are up next (and they’re first on the list for trauma-informed care). Without a sense of safety, the effects of trauma can be prolonged, and healing can be delayed.

You can incorporate this principle into your work life by creating a welcoming, comfortable environment for students and allowing your colleagues to confide in you knowing that their privacy will be respected. 

Consider putting up some decorations and adding some personal touches to your office (such as photos, posters, or other things that interest you). This will help students see your human side behind the name tag.

And whenever you have colleagues enter your space presenting with some level of discomfort, ask if they’d like to close the door for this conversation or if they’d prefer to get a cup of coffee instead of staying in the office. Keep in mind that the building or office space itself may be a component of the trauma they’re experiencing — if, for example, they have a difficult supervisor or are experiencing compassion fatigue from the work they do supporting students. 

Emotional safety can also be developed by letting others know that they will not be judged by you and that their feelings are valid. Saying things like, “I understand it may be tough to talk about it, but I’m here if you think that will help” or, “If you’re not comfortable sharing the details, is there anything you’re comfortable sharing that will allow me to better support you?”

2. Trustworthiness and Transparency

By being transparent about goals, expectations, and system procedures, you’ll reduce the potential for someone to feel duped, let down, or lied to.

Avoid making promises about privacy because, depending on the circumstances, you may not be able to keep your word. Title IX incidents and safety concerns may readily be disclosed when someone feels safe with you.  Then, after a trauma, when someone you trust has to do something unexpected (like filing a Title IX report), this can  greatly reduce those feelings of trust and increase reluctance to engage with the system they are working within. 

Fortunately, trust can be developed with students by discussing expectations early in the semester or with colleagues by having honest communication about respectful, professional boundaries. Post a notice in your office indicating that you are required to report incidents of violence. If someone asks you if you can keep something private, choose words like, “There may be some things I’m not able to keep to myself because I care about your safety” or “I can promise that if it’s something I do have to disclose, I will only tell the people who absolutely need to know.” 

Trust is not always given automatically and may be particularly difficult to earn from someone who has experienced trauma. But by following through with what you say and continuing to create safe spaces, you can build trust over time. Be patient. 

3. Peer Support

Peer support is essential for encouraging feelings of safety and building trust.

This may mean encouraging students to check out group counseling options or student organizations focused on similar experiences of trauma (such as sexual assault awareness groups).

Or, you could set up recurring lunch groups for colleagues who may be struggling with similar challenges, such as those supporting marginalized student populations or those who face continued bureaucratic challenges at the institution.

You could also encourage staff members that you supervise to have get-togethers without you, giving them the opportunity to speak to peers without fearing your unintended oversight. 

4. Collaboration and Mutuality 

Collaboration is a common buzzword in student affairs but it isn’t always cultivated in practice. Many folks prefer to be consulted when it comes to changes about their supervision, adjustments to a syllabus, or new requirements for student organizations. But are they? While we know collaboration is a powerful tool when done well, we need to prioritize collaborative campus efforts even more when working with anyone who is experiencing trauma or healing from it. 

By sharing power and reducing the divide in hierarchical structures, you can promote opportunities to heal. This could be enacted by working alongside students to create new options or to brainstorm ideas, rather than simply listing the options that already exist. You could also create opportunities for students to collectively speak with administrators or departments about their needs.

And to support your colleagues along this principle, consider making additional efforts to validate and uplift others’ ideas, particularly from those who are not at the same hierarchical level as you. You must remember the power you hold in certain spaces (due to your age, sex, race, gender presentation, and other factors) and how that power may take away from authentic collaboration.

Check out SAMHSA’s guidance for more information on the intersection of power dynamics and trauma.  

5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice

Building on the importance of collaboration, a trauma-informed community also works to empower all members to speak up and be supported in doing so. Employees and students alike often fall victim to coercive leadership,  which may lead to a lack of self-authorship. 

Although student affairs professionals, by the very nature of our roles, play an important part in the lives of our peers and students, a trauma-informed approach necessitates that we inform individuals of their rights and focus on developing the skills for decision-making and goal-setting. This can often come in the form of discussing someone’s strengths (don’t we all love our StrengthsQuest experiences?) or supporting an individual in creating personal action plans (consider how you can gear SMART goals toward student empowerment). 

It is also important to remember that everyone can heal fully and completely from trauma. Healing may happen quickly or take countless years, it may require the support of professionals, it is unlikely to be linear, and you will likely come out on the other side different. But it does happen and “different” doesn’t mean “less than”.

To work from a place of empowerment, a belief in resilience must be an integral part of your ideology. 

6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

Lastly, you must continually acknowledge the diversity of lived experiences that exists around you, including historical traumas.

Remember that even if you’re great at acknowledging the beauty of a diverse student body, the student in your office may have worked with another professional who displayed less accepting views. While you may value the ideas of your colleagues because of the diverse backgrounds of each individual, that doesn’t mean they have always worked in environments that hold those same values. And while you may be someone who can be trusted with emotionally charged topics, they may have a history with someone who abused that trust. 

On a systems level, this means that an organization should work to create policies and procedures that are responsive to the needs of its diverse community. Healing can come from offering trauma-specific support services, providing opportunities for identity-based connections, and creating easy access to report continued concerns. 

On a personal level, this may mean taking responsibility for the trauma that was caused by your past biases (both conscious and unconscious) and exclusionary behavior. Being trauma-informed requires continued evaluation and a persistent willingness to listen to the needs of others. 

Current Implications

As we enter a fall semester fraught with uncertainty, please consider that the COVID-19 pandemic can be a source of trauma for many people. It can involve each of the Three Es:  an event (the diagnosis of a loved one), the experience of the event (for someone who is immunocompromised), or the effects of the event (ongoing fear, hypervigilance, and other impacts on emotional well-being). 

If you are able to work from an approach that recognizes the possibility that every individual you encounter may be experiencing a certain degree of trauma, you can then create environments that offer support and healing. You can create plans for social distancing in your office to help reduce students’ fears related to physical safety.

If your institution has flexible policies about wearing masks, you can communicate what the expectations are in your office. You can also build trust by being sure to follow through with your institution’s procedures for addressing non-compliance with the mask policy. We can be transparent about our institution’s expectations wearing masks and follow through with those procedures to build trust.

We can provide virtual peer support groups for students and colleagues to discuss their concerns about returning to campus or their struggles with accessing certain resources. 

We can call on our students, faculty, and staff to actively collaborate with upper administration to promote mutual decision-making by hosting regular town halls or distributing COVID-19-specific questionnaires. We can empower our students and staff to develop goals and plans that are in line with their work while also acknowledging the new environment we all live in. 

And lastly, we can take the time to acknowledge that COVID-19 is impacting historically marginalized members of our communities at disproportionate rates and work to actively address this concern at the institutional level. 

Whether a trauma is from an organizational cause (such as systemic racist or sexist practices) or it is something people are carrying with them from their personal lives (such as a sexual assault or family crisis), we all have the ability to create supportive environments and relationships.

Trauma may result from a far broader scope of events than you previously thought, but a trauma-informed approach can help your students, colleagues, and friends as they navigate the exhausting efforts it takes to heal. 

What additional questions or tips do you have about working with students experiencing trauma? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Megan Deremiah

About the author: Megan Deremiah (she/her) is the Assistant Director of a university victim advocacy office. She is a fierce advocate for survivors of violence, passionate about LGBTQ+ inclusion and an avid explorer of local breweries. Learn how we can help get your students involved.