A classroom full of students

As a campus community, we should all strive to foster trauma-informed, resilient and inclusive classrooms and communities. When difficult topics come up in class or discussions, content warnings may feel like an obvious solution or a default strategy to prepare students. 

Here are a few things you should know about content warnings and how to implement more trauma-informed practices within your classrooms. 

1. What are content/trigger warnings? 

Content/trigger warnings include any verbal or written notices that precede potentially distressing content. In the context of classrooms, these warnings are sometimes used to cover things like reading materials, lecture content, videos, homework assignments or topics that may come up in classroom discussions. 

These types of warnings make assumptions about what kind of content will be triggering and how students may react or respond to that content. When trigger warnings are used in this way, it often overlooks the range of ways trauma responses show up for people.  

Additionally, trigger warnings rarely help individuals avoid certain content because, in practice, they are given within a moment’s notice. Additionally, research indicates they sometimes heighten feelings of distress or fear for some individuals.

2. Why are content/trigger warnings used? 

Trigger warnings are often used with good intentions. In many cases they are meant to: 

  • Provide emotional support 
  • Help individuals prepare for or avoid material that may remind them of traumatic experiences 
  • Alert individuals that content relates to the experiences of historically marginalized groups 
  • Validate strong emotional responses or dysregulation related to difficult topics 
  • Show solidarity with marginalized communities and/or trauma survivors 

While it is vital to recognize that students each have unique lives, histories and struggles, saying “trigger warning” right before discussing a topic is not a trauma-informed or inclusive approach to sharing class content.  

3. How can we implement more trauma-informed practices? 

The best way to prepare students for your courses is to be transparent about what content you plan to cover, and when. Try to make this a regular practice for all content and assignments (not just those you believe may be distressing). This allows students to build self-awareness and strengthen their decision-making skills. 

Use your syllabi 

Use your syllabus as a guide to let students know what content you plan to teach. Your syllabi should include a timeline for assignments, course discussions and other materials you plan to cover.  

Provide timely reminders 

Reminding students about upcoming assignments and lecture topics can help them better prepare for class. You can give them a heads up in class, through Canvas or regularly refer them to your syllabus schedule. Because we can’t know what kinds of content will be distressing to students, consistently reminding them of upcoming topics gives them the best opportunity to engage in self-care and self-advocacy. 

Focus on content over impact 

Regardless of the content you plan to cover, it’s important to avoid making or communicating assumptions about how students will respond or react to specific topics or materials. Instead, you should focus on being upfront about all themes and topic areas. Here are a few examples: 

  • As I shared on Canvas, I will be covering [topic/theme] in class today. 
  • Next week, we will be covering [topic/theme]. 
  • This video covers [topic/theme] and contains scenes and images that show [topic/theme]. 

Be mindful of unexpected responses 

No one can predict what might or might not be triggering for individuals. For instance, certain smells, sounds or images may be distressing to some trauma survivors, but not others. 

It’s also important to avoid assuming a student is having a triggering response or singling them out based on their response. Instead, try to check in with your entire class. For instance, you could ask things like, “How are we feeling about this content?” or “Should we take a quick break?” Asking students to give a thumbs up or thumbs down is a great way to gauge overall sentiments without forcing anyone to self-disclose their own reaction. 

Demonstrate an openness to feedback 

While we all want to support our students, you may need to provide them with consistent reminders that you’re open to feedback. Here are a few strategies that can help students know they can approach you with feedback: 

  • Provide ongoing reminders about office hours and what students can expect when they meet with you. 
  • Solicit student opinions on assigned readings or lectures. You can ask things like, “Did you find this article helpful?” or “Do you like when I post the full slide deck on Canvas?” 
  • Share changes that you have made based on other students’ feedback, so your class knows that their input matters. 

Engage with student feedback 

If a student shares that specific content has impacted them, take them seriously. Be sure to thank them for sharing their feedback and validate their feelings.  

Brainstorm with them to find ways they can be accountable for your course’s learning objectives while taking care of themselves. You could use strategies like providing an option to do an at-home assignment instead of in-class participation, allowing flexibility for missing a class or the opportunity to take in the content through a different medium (e.g., a student could read about a subject instead of watching a depiction of it). When possible, let the student take the lead. They are best attuned to know what aspects of assignments or content are distressing or push their own emotional limits.  

Take advantage of resources and training opportunities 

Staff and faculty can take advantage of a variety of support resources and training opportunities on campus that will help them improve their classroom practices. Here are a few to check out. 

Professional development resources

Trauma-informed presentations

OVA provides a variety of trauma-informed presentations covering topics like trauma support, self-care for vicarious trauma, making referrals, working with trauma and more. 

Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL)

The CTL provides consultations, resources, programs and workshops for staff and faculty who want to improve their teaching practices, pose questions and have brave conversations within the classroom.

Supporting Student Resiliency Trainings

Health and Wellness Services offer a free three-part training series that covers student mental health, responding to trauma and motivational interviewing. 

Classroom practices support

The Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) offers a free guide and resources to help staff and faculty navigate course expectations and manage difficult classroom dynamics. 

Don’t Ignore It

Learn about confidential support resources, ways to report concerns, how to make referrals and skills for helping others. 

Referral and reporting resources

Student Support & Case Management (SSCM)

If you are unsure if a student needs support or don’t know where to refer them, SSCM is a great place to start. You can fill out an online referral form, email them or call to share your concerns. SSCM case managers provide personalized support and help connect students with campus partners, community resources and other support systems. 

Office of Victim Assistance (OVA)

Staff and faculty can refer students, as well as their colleagues, to OVA for confidential support, consultation, advocacy and short-term trauma-focused counseling services. They also offer support for those who are helping someone through a traumatic experience

Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC)

OIEC implements and enforces university policies related to discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, intimate partner abuse, stalking and conflicts of interest.  

If you or a student has been impacted, reports can be filed online. Anonymous reporting is an option as well. 

Mandatory reporting

All employees with the authority to hire, promote, discipline, evaluate, grade, formally advise, or direct faculty, staff, or students are considered “responsible employees” and must report alleged discrimination and sexual misconduct to OIEC.

Published: April 4, 2024