The start of the fall semester that may — masks aside — resemble a traditional, pre-pandemic return to campus, but there's one significant change that won't show any outward signs: the lasting effects of trauma.
Students, faculty, and staff are continuing to experience not just the physical, mental, and emotional fallout of the coronavirus pandemic but the rippling effects of social injustice and economic insecurity. Trauma is the emotional response to a disturbing event or series of events, according to the American Psychological Association.
“Our goal as educators is to help students learn and succeed in college, and trauma can get in the way of that goal,” said Kaitlin Clinnin, an English professor who teaches trauma-informed pedagogy. “Trauma literally changes the way that people think.”
As a result, many UNLV community members need support to find a new normal after returning to campus. Trauma impacts all aspects of an individual’s life including health, relationships, and classroom performance.
“Students may have shortened attention spans and difficulty retaining information,” Clinnin said. “Students may appear unprepared, disengaged, or distracted in our classes. They may miss class, miss assignments, or turn in work that is below their normal performance.”
Faculty and staff can use a trauma-informed educational approach to recognize trauma’s effects on student academic performance and to offer accommodations to support student wellness and success.
“Trauma-informed pedagogy provides the essential understanding of trauma and its impacts on our physiology for faculty to learn first the effects of trauma in their own lives, then how this impacts the students they will be teaching," said Anne Weisman, director of wellness & integrative medicine in the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV. "We hope to create a safe and supportive space for the exchange of ideas, knowledge and growth."
Trauma-informed education can begin with simple practices that all faculty and staff can integrate into their work and lives.
Take care of yourself
In the event of an emergency, airline passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen mask first before assisting anyone else, and the same is true for trauma-informed education. Prioritize your own self-care, which may include setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, engaging in a hobby, exercising, attending therapy, or engaging in other restorative practices. UNLV offers a number of resources for coping with high stress and trauma such as UNLV Faculty & Staff Wellness, the RebelReset program, UNLV Employee Assistance Program, and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
Establish personal connections with colleagues and students
After more than a year of videoconferencing, many people are in need of more human connection. Checking in with colleagues and students with a simple “How are you?” is one way to begin developing or re-establishing a relationship. Maintain the connection through periodic follow-ups, especially if you notice signs of trauma or distress.
Learn and recognize the signs of trauma in yourself and others.
Trauma manifests in different ways; a seemingly distracted colleague or resistant student may actually be someone in need of support. UNLV community members can use this list of common trauma symptoms from the Institute of Education Science to identify those who may benefit from additional support.
Carlton Craig, director of the School of Social Work, emphasizes the need for therapy and counseling in some cases
“It is perfectly normal to experience a number of symptoms after exposure to a trauma. However, if symptoms are impacting a person’s major functioning — difficulty working, attending classes, disruption of social relationships, having trouble with self-care, or feeling suicidal — then they should seek therapy or counseling. If a person expresses suicidal intent they should be referred to university resources immediately, especially if they detail a plan. This person should not be left alone and this constitutes an emergency 911 crisis, if for some reason immediate help is not available. ”
UNLV CAPS offers services for students experiencing urgent symptoms.
Access campus resources and refer others.
It is not your job to diagnose, treat, or solve a colleague or a student’s problems. Instead, connect people to relevant campus resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Employee Assistance Program, Student Recreation and Wellness Center, Faculty and Staff Treatment Center, the UNLV Care Center, or other campus wellness programs. Faculty can also refer students of concern to the UNLV Support Team.