Module 4: Facilitating for inclusivity

4.4 Trauma-informed approaches

Key principles: Trauma-sensitive communication and collaboration

Some of your learners have experienced trauma. The prevalence of college and university learners who have experienced trauma is estimated to range from 60–85% (Read et al., 2011; Smyth et al., 2008). While PSE instructors are not expected to be counselors for their learners, taking steps to foster safer learning spaces through sensitive communication and collaboration strategies can help those learners feel comfortable, and help to reduce the chance of triggering or re-traumatizing those learners.

Traumatic experiences occur when an individual’s internal ability to cope with a difficult event or circumstance is not sufficient or unable to deal with the external source of stress (Hoch et al., 2015). Trauma can be the result of a single traumatic incident, long-term or ongoing situation, and/or can be passed down from generation to generation (Brave Heart, 2003; Denham, 2008). Whether a particular event is traumatic for an individual is not determined only by an event or situation, but rather results from a combination of personal, cultural, and societal factors (Elliott & Urquiza, 2006).

Some learner populations are at a higher risk for experiencing trauma (Davidson, 2017), such as

  • learners who have been raised in foster care,
  • Indigenous learners,
  • 2SLGBTQ+ learners,
  • refugee learners, and
  • nontraditional adult learners.

Trauma-informed teaching has a lot to do with creating safe learning spaces, both for your learners and for yourself as an instructor. People feel safe when our needs are met and we feel protected from harm (Huguenin, 2020). It is relatively common to have general “netiquette” rules associated with a virtual course; sometimes these guidelines for appropriate online behaviour are even provided by a program or faculty. Creating clear guidelines for students can be a helpful first step towards creating a safe learning environment. There are several other ways in which instructors can build on this, by becoming more trauma-informed and adopting some more trauma-informed course facilitation strategies. Trauma-informed strategies are beneficial to learners in all courses, not just those courses that engage in well-known sensitive or controversial topics.

Principles of trauma-informed teaching


Please read the following excellent (and short) resource “Trauma-Informed Teaching in Remote Courses” (PDF), authored by Mitch Huguenin at Trent University, which provides an excellent and quick overview of some key principles of trauma-informed teaching.

This resource provides some general guidance on how instructors can take steps to incorporate the following principles into their online course facilitation:

  • predictability
  • connection
  • flexibility
  • safety
  • self-awareness

Strategies in action: Cultivating a safe space

Creating a learning space where learners feel safe showing up to learn, supports authentic and significant learning not only for learners who may have experienced trauma, but for all your learners. As discussed in 1.4 Learner–Instructor Connection: Designing Courses With Personality, when engaging in authentic and transformational learning, learners make themselves vulnerable (to making mistakes, failures, and difficult emotions such as frustration, confusion, self-doubt, and even shame). Showing up to learn, engage, participate, and put in effort takes courage. You can help your learners be courageous in their learning by creating spaces where they feel safe.

Some strategies that can help to foster safe learning spaces include

  • inviting learners to be cocreators in designing the “ground-rules” for communication, collaboration, and how the class should handle difficult topics or tense situations throughout the term. This co-creation can help learners feel involved, accountable, and invested in the learning community and also helps to set expectations and awareness;
  • allowing learners to brainstorm topics that may be triggering. This is not an activity of self-disclosure, but rather an invitation for the class as a whole to think through topics and actions that can be hurtful or re-traumatizing if there is someone in the course who has experienced trauma or forms of implicit or explicit discrimination, such as prejudice, sexism, or racism; and
  • modelling authenticity and vulnerability. When instructors model for learners what caring, thoughtful, sensitive communication looks like, it will be easier for them to see and understand how to do so themselves. As the instructor, you play a critical role in setting the tone for your course and the degree to which your learners will feel safe and comfortable. One strategy that can help put learners at ease is when you share authentically, which helps learners to see you as a person and that you see them as people. You do not need to disclose deeply personal things about yourself, but letting them into your world a little helps to break down barriers between you and your learners. The more authentic, open, honest, and caring you are, the more at ease and safe learners tend to feel and the more likely they are to mirror you and feel comfortable doing so.

Strategies in action: Building safe spaces with collaborative charters

A collaborative class charter is a class-wide set of ground rules and expectations that learners and instructors create together, which is best situated early in the term (first couple of weeks). This can be used as part of an introductory activity discussed synchronously or asynchronously. If you do decide to have a synchronous discussion about this, it can be helpful to allow for asynchronous contribution, for those learners who may not be able to attend, who may need time to think and process, or who don’t feel comfortable speaking up (or typing in the chat) during a synchronous video session. Course-level and group-level charters can be a particularly helpful addition to a course that includes class discussions and group work in the design. Guidance on creating Collaborative Class Charters is provided below.

  1. Some suggested topics to discuss and include in your Collaborative Class Charter include the following questions:
    • What is a barrier to your online learning?
    • What is a solution or what can we do as a class (instructor and learners) to remove barriers to online learning?
    • What can you do to stay engaged and connected throughout the term?
    • What would make this course feel un-safe? (You may want to explore specific topics, modules, assessments, group work).
    • How are we going to deal with conflict?
    • How should we deal with disclosures?
  2. Then summarize the class discussion and outline the terms and ground rules the class landed on in a charter/agreement document that outlines how the learning community will work together throughout the term and ask learners to all sign and agree to the charter.
  3. Keep this as a living document, refer to it and return to it throughout the term.
    • Consider doing an anonymous evaluation (survey) part-way through the term to obtain learners’ input on how they feel the class is doing in terms of following the charter. Does anything need to be changed or updated?
  4. Ask the class to do a self/class/group evaluation at the end of the year, on how well the class/group followed and implemented the collaborative charter. If you have some control over the grade breakdown in the course, you might want to include a participation mark for this evaluation, which can motivate more participation but can also serve as an additional motivator or mechanism of accountability that might keep them referring back to the charter and reflecting on their own behaviour throughout the term.
  5. If/when conflict or a difficult interaction arises between learners or between yourself and a learner go back to the charter, which can help to de-escalate the situation and de-personalize it. If a difficult situation does arise, say in a course discussion or during group work, that is upsetting for a learner, it is important that you step in as this helps to build trust. Instructors should protect learners from personal attacks and emotional harm in their courses.

Going deeper

To learn more about trauma and trauma-informed practices in postsecondary education see the following resource by Shannon Davidson (2017):

Key principles: Facilitating sensitive topics

Content warnings are

verbal or written notices that precede potentially sensitive content. These notices flag the contents of the material that follows, so readers, listeners, or viewers can prepare themselves to adequately or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing.

(University of Michigan, n.d.)

A trigger warning is a

a specific type of content warning that forewarns learners of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.

(University of Michigan, n.d.)

As briefly noted in Module 2, a content warning might help some, but it might trigger others (or make them think they should be triggered), and there are lots of times when a seemingly straightforward topic can bring up unanticipated yet painful associations for someone. The idea of a content warning is not to censure or omit challenging material from a course but to forewarn learners of potentially sensitive topics, giving them autonomy over their learning, and signalling that the instructor respects their wellbeing.

While there is an active conversation critiquing the content or trigger warning for “coddling” students or restricting academic freedom, generally Canadian students appear to hold a moderate position on the issue. A 2015 StudentVue survey from Academica Group of 1,500 Canadian students found that

over two-thirds of respondents agreed that trigger warnings should be issued in the classroom – within reason… [such as] limiting trigger warnings to any material that is commonly recognized as disturbing or related to traumatic events – war, abuse, graphic images and videos, etc.” [Furthermore, respondents encouraged] professors to be judicious with warnings… and to present these warning with a casual ‘just so you know’ tone instead of a formal one when announcing them in class.”

(Academica Group, 2015; emphasis added)

Finally, 85% of students surveyed “agreed that discussing difficult material in class provided important learning opportunities, and many did not want their curriculum to be curtailed for the sake of those who would rather step out” (Academica, 2015).

What learners have to say:

“I have experienced a traumatic event and would appreciate if I were not blindsided by encountering relevant material again. However, especially in a postsecondary context where academic freedom, challenging your thinking, and encountering uncomfortable ideas are critically important, they should not be used to avoid assignments/classes/ideas, etc.”

(StudentVue Panelist)

Strategies in action: Providing content warnings

Depending on the context, a few different types of content warnings are possible:

Blanket warnings

Blanket warnings are used when the nature of the course will necessitate an ongoing discussion of emotionally challenging and difficult topics; this would often appear in the course syllabus or in a welcome announcement/content page of the course.

Example 1:

“The content and discussion in this course will necessarily engage with racism every week. Much of it will be emotionally and intellectually challenging to engage with. I will flag especially graphic or intense content that discusses or represents racism and will do my best to make this classroom a space where we can engage bravely, empathetically, and thoughtfully with difficult content every week.”

Example 2:

“Our classroom provides an open space for the critical and civil exchange of ideas. Some readings and other content in this course will include topics that some students may find offensive and/or traumatizing. I’ll aim to forewarn students about potentially disturbing content and I ask all students to help to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and sensitivity.”

In-syllabus/course content warnings

When warnings are needed for specific course material, the simplest way to include a warning is right beside the resource in question in the syllabus or where it is listed in the LMS. Tagging themes and topics is one option, or contextualizing the resource is another.

Example 3:

  • August 16 – Read: Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, Chapters 1-4
    Tags: Race, Racism, Racist Slurs, Violence
  • August 18 – Read: Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, Chapters 5-9
    Tags: Race, Racism, Racist Slurs, Racial Violence (graphic scene pgs. 82-96, will be discussed at length in the discussion section)

Example 4:

“The following reading includes a discussion of the harsh treatment experienced by First Nations children in residential schools in the 1950s. This content is disturbing, so I encourage everyone to prepare themselves emotionally before proceeding. If you believe that the reading will be traumatizing for you, then you may choose to forgo it. You will still, however, be responsible for material that you miss, so please arrange to get notes from another student or see me individually.”

Going deeper

For more findings from the StudentVue survey of Canadian students, refer to the following article:

Two helpful resources for learning more about content warnings are presented:

Strategies in action: Additional strategies for facilitating sensitive topics

In addition to preparing students with content warnings, and cultivating a safe space, you can continue to build trust among learners by easing into more difficult conversations if possible, and by scaffolding the skills required.

For example, in a global health course, you may spend the first few weeks getting learners more comfortable with concepts such as equality, equity, and intersectionality, and with practice in self-reflection, examining one’s positionality, as well as engaging in reflexive practice individually and in small group settings. Then in later weeks, more complex topics such as systemic racism or settler colonialism and impacts on public health can be explored in a more meaningful and safe way.

We conducted similar scaffolding of knowledge and skills (through Reflect and Apply activities) in the context of course design throughout Module 2 where we carefully organized and scaffolded content from more broad and familiar equity and inclusivity concepts to some that might be more challenging or unfamiliar to those newer to the course design space. Review the menu headers for Module 2 to see this scaffolding in action.

Consistently engaging learners’ own experiences into the discussion allows greater exposure to different points of view and facilitates skills in adopting different perspectives. Asking learners to adopt differing perspectives and then comparing back to their own experiences and integrating them through assimilation or adaptation, can help generate rich and valuable discussions of difficult topics.

The University of Waterloo offers additional strategies in dealing with sensitive or challenging material, some that we’ve highlighted are as follows:

  • Allow students to interact with disturbing material outside of class. A student might feel more vulnerable watching a documentary about sexual assault while in a synchronous space compared to asynchronous study time.
  • Provide captions when using video materials: some content is easier to watch while reading captions than while listening to the audio.
  • When necessary, provide written descriptions of graphic images as a substitute for the actual visual content.
  • Advise students to be sensitive to their classmates’ vulnerabilities when they are preparing class presentations.
  • Help your students understand the difference between emotional trauma and intellectual discomfort: the former is harmful, as is triggering it in the wrong context (such as in a class space rather than in therapy); the latter is fundamental to post-secondary education – it means our ideas are being challenged as we struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance.

Going deeper

This resource, Guidelines for Talking about Difficult Topics in a Remote Course, from Trent University provides an excellent summary of how we can teach controversial and sensitive topics in our virtual spaces. This resource consolidates many of the themes discussed in this module. We recommend this resource for further learning.

To summarize the approach:

  1. Prepare for discussions
    • develop content/trigger warnings
    • know yourself
    • recognize the diversity of your students
    • establish discussion guidelines in advance
    • assign a pre-discussion task
    • begin with a “warm-up” discussion
  2. During discussions
    • set an objective for the discussion
    • establish a safe environment
    • be an active facilitator
    • address the difficulty
    • foster civility
  3. Follow-up
    • summarize discussion and gather student feedback
    • reflect

Even with your best efforts, it is still possible that a learner may not be able to effectively engage in a particular piece of sensitive, challenging, or provocative content in your course for a number of valid reasons. If a learner reaches out, try to provide a way for them to contribute to the academic discourse on the same topic but using a different source if the one you provided proves too overwhelming for them. Your flexibility in this respect would also depend on how central this particular resource is to your learning outcomes.

The next section elaborates further on learner disclosures.

Key principles: Understanding and responding to learner disclosures

It is very common for learners to reach out directly to you, their instructor, once they sense, predict, or experience a significant barrier to their continued success in your course. This could be related to their health status, events in their personal life, or even their relationship to the course material (if it covers sensitive or controversial topics, for example). There is a dual need for empathy and authentic engagement with learners to understand their needs as well as balancing your responsibilities as an instructor in your institution and fairness to other learners in the course when devising a solution for the issue at hand.

It is important to understand the policies around academic accommodations at your institution and department. Often learners with chronic or ongoing mental health challenges or health problems, or disability needs need to go through a formal process and receive an accommodation letter that they, or the associated office, forwards to the instructor. Becoming familiar with these policies and how you are expected to respond are important to know. The level of disclosure (e.g., details) a learner is required to give may be much lower with a letter than without. There may also be processes where learners can self-declare an accommodation need and receive a short extension on assignments, for example.

Strategies in action: Responding to learner disclosures

It is impossible to cover all the ways one might respond to disclosures, however, take the time to listen to your learner. Often through simple conversation, empathy, and a little compromise, reasonable plans can be put into place to accommodate the learner and support them to get back on track in their studies. A brief list of potential solutions include

  • providing a simple extension for an assignment;
  • providing alternative means for participation;
    • learners could review a synchronous session recording and write a reflection rather than attend the session for a topic that might be challenging for them to face due to personal history,
    • learners could submit an assignment in a different modality (e.g., audio or video podcast) instead of a traditional essay, or
    • learners use different source material but complete the work in the same modality as the rest of the class.
  • omitting, in extenuating circumstances, their grade for that assignment and reweighing the remainder of the assignments  (note: consider if any core learning outcomes will be compromised as a result).

Strategies in action: Sexual violence disclosures

Often there is a mandatory requirement to report a sexual violence disclosure to a sexual health or equity office at the institution; in some cases, reporting is required by law. You are expected to respond to such disclosures in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Often times you will not be able to keep this information confidential but you should use discretion in your reporting through the sexual violence reporting mechanism at your institution. It is strongly recommended that you complete sexual violence bystander intervention training (or similar training) offered at your institution so you can appropriately support your learners.

Going deeper

Responding to disclosures on campus is a website designed to support all employees of colleges and universities in Ontario. Along with myth-busting educational material and resources, the website provides a 7-module training course. The outcomes of the training are to be able to

  • respond supportively and effectively to disclosures of sexual violence;
  • know where to seek tangible support and resources in your institution and communities;
  • examine one’s own attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs; and
  • learn about professional and institutional initiatives in education around the province.

Strategies in action: Disclosures from Indigenous learners

It is relatively common for Indigenous learners, especially first-generation post-secondary Indigenous learners, to feel lost or overwhelmed on a settler-dominated campus or virtual LMS environment, especially if they are far away from home. Course topics or current events related to Indigenous issues can also cause distress as learners may be away from their communities and may feel unable to contribute to solutions or participate in community activities or ceremonies; if they are learning from home, they may feel isolated from the perceived indifference of their peers. It is important to show compassion for their situation and also connect them with culturally appropriate campus supports (e.g., Indigenous student centre or Indigenous student associations) so they can engage with resources that will provide them with the most appropriate support and a community to convene with.

In 2018, Indspire, Canada’s only Indigenous-led national charity dedicated to advancing the educational outcomes of Indigenous peoples, produced the report Truth and Reconciliation in Post-Secondary Settings: Student Experience (PDF).

In this report,

students shared the weight of being one of few Indigenous students in a post-secondary classroom. They addressed the emotional pressure of instructors and professors’ expectations for them to be experts and speak on behalf of all Indigenous peoples; others spoke about a welcoming and supportive educational experience. Students expressed the importance of culture, identity and belonging in classrooms, on campus and within Indigenous student services. Many spoke about the impact of not having these things and the experience of feeling marginalized, isolated and at times, the sting of racism and discrimination in classes and on campus. In many cases, they expressed how the lack of Indigenous curriculum and knowledge of instructional staff contributed to many of the concerns they raised.

(Roberta Jamieson, President and CEO of Indspire
in Truth and Reconciliation in Post-Secondary Settings: Student Experience, p. 4)

a circle with a feather within
University of Waterloo

Going deeper

To learn more about the experiences of Indigenous learners in PSE in Canada, we encourage you read the Truth and Reconciliation in Post-Secondary Settings: Student Experience (PDF) report, as well as a more recent 2021 Indspire Research Knowledge Nest report:

Strategies in action: Respectful discussion of populations experiencing marginalization

Whether your course explicitly takes up concepts of social marginalization or not, it is sometimes necessary to discuss groups that experience marginalization while teaching. And, whether or not a particular group is represented amongst the learners in your class, it is important to be able to reference any group that experiences marginalization in a way that conveys respect and the inherent dignity of persons.

Some “do” and “don’t” strategies and points of understanding for discussing groups that experience marginalization:


Communicate about marginalization in ways that emphasize that it is a social process that members of particular groups experience

We have been intentional in this section in referring to “groups that experience marginalization” rather than “marginalized groups” this is a subtle and in some ways semantic distinction, but we make it because of the importance of recognizing that marginalization is not a positioning that is inherent to any individual or group based on traits, but rather a social process that is enacted upon people and groups by the broader society which produces real or potential disadvantage (von Jacobi et al., 2017). Focusing language on marginalization (a process) rather than marginalized people or groups (a state of being) can help emphasize that marginalization is socially produced circumstance and not inevitable.


Call out members of groups experiencing marginalization to describe their experience or speak for the group they identify with.

People experiencing marginalization are often called on, particularly in groups dominated by people with privileged identities, to describe or explain their experience of oppression, or otherwise to speak on behalf of the marginalized group that they have identified as being part of. This is especially problematic in instances where a learner is or appears to be a member of a visible minority and is called on by an instructor or another member of the group without having already named themselves as a member of a marginalized group (e.g., racialized learners, learners who wear visible religious symbols).

The kind of “calling out” referenced here might take the form of questions like “Tell us about what it is like to be disabled?” or “Could you offer us an Indigenous perspective, Sarah?” These examples are especially problematic because they assume that there is a universal experience of disability and Indigeneity, respectively. While some readers who live with privilege may feel shock at the obvious level of insensitivity conveyed by these examples, we include them here because they are paragons of the kind of experiences that people experiencing marginalization can face in PSE learning environments.


Use person-centred language in reference to all identities of marginalization.

Refer to individuals and groups who experience marginalization in ways that emphasize the person first, and not their group identity. So, for instance, “people with disabilities” is more person-centred than “disabled people.”

Likewise, unless you personally identify membership with a particular group, take care in using “in-group” references or reclaimed terminology to reference groups experiencing marginalization. For instance, the term “queer” or “queer community” may be used by members of that community to refer to themselves, but unless you have community-acknowledged status as an ally, it is probably best to maintain a more respectful address like “2SLGBTQ+” or “sexual and gender minority.”


Invite/encourage members of groups experiencing marginalization to share their experiences when there are windows of opportunity to do so.

As you become more comfortable facilitating discussions that involve identities of marginalization, you may begin to notice opportunities where people share aspects of that experience; in such instances, it may be appropriate to invite them to expand or deepen what they have shared. Inquiries such as “Would you like to say more about that?” can be helpful, and might be extended with “I understand if you would prefer not to.”

Invitational approaches can signal to learners that the instructor is interested in exploring experiences of marginalization without calling out a marginalized person to speak of their experience or for a group.

Going deeper

Shaista Aziz Patel explores and reflects on the challenges she encounters when, as a racialized scholar, she teaches students about Indigenous resistance and how she must carefully reflect if she is invertedly causing harm and perpetuating colonial harms. Her article provides many points of reflection for any instructor and their own facilitating strategies in their own discipline.

References and credits

Academica Group. (2015, November 12). Respect, not censorship: Students weigh in on the trigger warning debate.

Brave Heart, M. Y. (2003). The historical trauma response among Natives and its relationship with substance abuse: A Lakota illustration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35(1), 7–13.

Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Trigger warnings.

Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-informed practices for postsecondary education: A guide. Education Northwest.

Elliott, K., & Urquiza, A. (2006). Ethnicity, culture, and child maltreatment. Journal of Social Issues, 62(4), 787–809.

Hoch, A., Stewart, D., Webb, K., & Wyandt-Hiebert, M. A. (2015, May 26–30). Trauma-informed care on a college campus [PowerPoint presentation]. American College Health Association Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL, United States.

Indspire. (2019). Truth and reconciliation in post-secondary settings: Student experience.

LSA Inclusive Teaching, University of Michigan. (n.d). An introduction to content warnings and trigger warnings.

Read, J. P., Ouimette, P., White, J., Colder, C., & Farrow, S. (2011). Rates of DSM–IV–TR trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder among newly matriculated college students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(2), 148–156.

Smyth, J. M., Hockemeyer, J. R., Heron, K. E., Wonderlich, S. A., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2008). Prevalence, type, disclosure, and severity of adverse life events in college students. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 69–76.

von Jacobi, N., Edmiston, D., & Ziegler, R. (2017). Tackling marginalization through social innovation: Examining the EU social innovation policy agenda through a capabilities perspective. Journal of Human Development and Capabiliites, 18(2), 148–162.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Humanizing Virtual Learning Copyright © by University of Waterloo; Trent University; and Conestoga College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.