Increasing Trauma-Informed Awareness and Practices in Higher Education

Increasing Trauma-Informed Awareness and Practices in Higher Education

Kristen Doughty (Delaware Technical Community College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2177-9.ch002
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Traumatic experiences across the lifespan impact an individual's physical, social and emotional health, and cognitive development. The effects of childhood trauma carry into the educational environment and impact the functions necessary to learn and achieve academic goals. There is an increased focus on trauma informed initiatives in various public and healthcare sectors, but these initiatives are lacking in higher education. A foundational understanding of trauma and trauma informed educational practices is necessary in supporting students. This chapter provides an overview of the impact of trauma, what it means to be trauma informed, and outlines trauma informed educational strategies.
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There are many initiatives in higher education that focus on strategies to optimize student success and achievement of educational goals. Initiatives often focus on the concepts of resilience, grit and mindfulness. While all of these concepts are important in education, an understanding of trauma and trauma informed practices are the foundation upon which all other initiatives and strategies should stem from. Over the years, there has been an increase in the recognition and understanding of the long-term effects of trauma on health, social and cognitive functioning. In the 1970’s, in response to the Vietnam War and the increased awareness of domestic abuse and child abuse, there was a movement towards diagnosis and treatment for those who experienced and were negatively affected by traumatic events (Friedman, 2016; Wilson, 1994). This was the beginning of trauma informed care and practices. Now, trauma informed care and practices have begun to transcend from health and social service settings into governmental and educational settings.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2014) defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (p.7). Anyone can experience or be impacted by an event. Trauma does not discriminate; it affects people of all cultures, races, gender, backgrounds and can occur at any stage in life. (SAMHSA, 2014). Types of trauma can include sexual, physical, mental abuse, neglect, and witnessing abuse. Incidences such as terror attacks, school shootings, school violence and natural disasters have increased significantly and are also types of trauma (Lambert, Lambert, & Lambert, 2014).

An event becomes traumatic when it overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope, resulting in fear, feelings of vulnerability and helplessness (DeCandia, Guarino & Clervil, 2014). Most individuals process the event and develop a sense of resilience that mitigates the long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences. However, those who cannot effectively process the experience may have long-term consequences.

Traumatic experiences across the lifespan can impact an individual’s physical, social and emotional health, cognitive development, and overall well-being. Research has demonstrated the impact of trauma on the development of the brain and nervous system. At birth, there are parts of the brain that are underdeveloped. The brain continues to develop into early adulthood, with the peak occurring during early childhood and adolescence. Normal brain development is sequential, with the bottom regions developing first, followed by the upper regions. The bottom of the brain includes the brainstem and midbrain regions, responsible for basic functions such as heart rate and breathing. The upper brain includes the limbic and cortex regions, responsible for higher-level functions including emotions, thinking and reasoning. Exposure to trauma can disrupt normal brain development in the mid and upper brain regions, negatively impacting development of emotional regulation, response to stimuli and sensory input, and cognitive function (Perry & Marcellus, 2018).

The response to stress is an instinct of survival. There is a normal physiological response to a perceived threat, where the body prepares to fight or run, also known as the fight or flight response. The brain has an innate system in place, and it is a total body response to the perceived threat. All physiological systems required to survive are initiated, such as heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and major muscles, all with the intent to either fight or flight (Child Trauma Academy, 2002). An individual that has not been impacted by trauma can turn off this response when necessary. An individual impacted by trauma is in a constant state of alertness and unable to turn off the response (Fallon, n.d.). The stress response is over-stimulated, which in turn impairs memory, impulse control, and emotional control.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Triggers: An event experienced by an individual that is perceived as a threat, which in turn puts that individual in survival mode.

Trauma-Informed Educational Strategies: Techniques and methods used in teaching and learning that support the student’s feelings of empowerment, safety, trust and collaboration.

Trust: A feeling of confidence in another’s overall character and integrity.

Safety: Being in an environment or circumstance where there is a sense of control and no fear of harm.

Adverse Childhood Experience: An event(s) that occurs in childhood that overwhelms an individual’s coping system and has long-lasting effects on overall health and well-being.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Organization: A federal organization that provides research and resources on a multitude of mental health/ substance abuse topics.

Empowerment: The feeling of control over one’s decisions, actions and environment.

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