It doesn’t take a trained mental health professional to notice the rise of anxiety-ridden students in our classrooms. I’ve just finished my second year of teaching at a rural college in Canada. By and large my students come from stable, two-parent, Christian families. Still, anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) seem to be at an all-time high. Now and then, a student has a panic attack during my class. Far more frequently, a student struggling with chronic depression just doesn’t show up, or a student freezes on a test and leaves a whole section blank, even though they studied hard. Several have withdrawn altogether because of mental health concerns.
According to a 2008 study cited in Faculty Focus, 20% of college students report “symptoms indicative of clinical or subclinical PTSD.” 1 Although mental health is not my area of training, I’m sensing the need to understand my students so that I can help them succeed. One illuminating book is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. A distressing number of us have experienced sexual trauma or other physical violence, very often within families. Van der Kolk recognizes that “it takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.”2
I’ve learned a few things about trauma this year from van der Kolk’s book, as well as a seminar I attended on our campus. What I’ve learned is changing the way I run my classes. Here are some key things to know:
- Trauma is a matter of perception. Psychologist Susan Brandt shared with our campus, “What the brain perceives, the brain believes.” Someone need not have been the victim of violent crime to have experienced debilitating trauma. Even the fear of potential violence can induce trauma.
- Trauma disconnects brain and body, hijacking the body’s response system so that it’s out of tune with its environment. This is a survival mechanism during the traumatic experience, but the effects persist into non-traumatic settings. A student may be physically sitting in your class, but an unwanted memory may suddenly hijack their brain and stimulate a full-scale panic response that makes it impossible for them to hear what you’re saying.3
- Triggers for traumatic memories can be anything — a smell, tone of voice, change in weather, a color, a certain word, etc.4 In other words, you have no control over whether a student will experience a flashback in your classes. But you can try to create an environment where such a student feels safe and stays engaged.
- A student who seems disengaged or apathetic may be affected by life situations outside their control. Giving students the benefit of the doubt is a good way to begin. Don’t assume they don’t like you or your class or that academics are not important to them. Recognize that you are not seeing the whole picture.5
I have a long way to go, but here are some small steps I’ve taken to make my class a safer place for students:
- Teach from a place of calm. If I’m rushing to class late or scrambling to get organized, my frenzy is contagious. My goal is to arrive in the classroom 20 minutes early so that I can have my materials in order, technology up and running, and music playing to set the tone. That frees me to calmly take attendance as students arrive and make eye contact with them if possible. Welcoming them with a smile puts them at ease and helps us start on the right foot.
- Begin class with prayer. That may not be possible in your context. If that’s the case for you, you could begin class with a moment of silence, a deep breath, feet flat on the floor, and a calm invitation for all to be present and ready to learn. This helps with the brain-body connection. Even taking the time to begin with a moment of prayer and silence on your own, before students arrive, will affect the learning environment in a positive way.
- Help students put this class in perspective. Occasionally I tell stories of people I know who struggled in school and are thriving in life. I want them to know that not everything rides on their mastery of this material. I also try to acknowledge their strengths and service to the campus outside of the classroom. You can acknowledge students individually if your school is small and you’ve seen exemplary behavior (“Thanks for organizing that event!”), but in a larger setting you can mention your observations of the student body more generally (“I’m really impressed with the warm welcome you’ve given to prospective students this week!”) It’s important for me to see them as whole people and recognize that their worth is not tied to their performance in my class. Similarly, reassure students that their performance on a test does not define them. Explain that finishing a test first is not a predictor of high marks, nor is finishing last a predictor of low marks. Encourage them to work at their own pace and not worry about what anyone else is doing.
- Don’t grade with red pen. No one wants a “bloody” assignment returned, full of criticism. I’ve asked our office manager to order green gel pens for me. Green is a much friendlier color, encouraging growth. If you have TAs grading student assignments, make sure they know this as well. (I’m told counselors are advised not to wear red for the same reason. I like wearing red, but try not to do so on days when we’re reading a particularly violent text.)
- Pursue students who struggle academically or seem overwhelmed. I’ve recently instituted a new policy – emailing every student who fails a test to invite them to come see me during office hours to look over their test together. I want them to know that I’m here to help them get the most out of the class as well as to help them take responsibility if they need to study differently next time. This may take more time than you have in a context with larger classes, but consider ways to make this work for you by enlisting the help of TAs, identifying students who might be willing to offer tutoring services, or setting up a meeting with a study group.
- Practice good boundaries and refer when necessary. If a student approaches you to talk about their personal crisis, don’t try to help them without a clear understanding of what you are offering and what they want. Help them help themselves. Connect them with the appropriate campus or community services. Don’t work harder than they do to help them pass the class. Empower them. Most colleges and universities offer services that will help students with academics and mental health — familiarize yourself with what your school has to offer and encourage students to seek the accommodations or professional help they need. Reassure them that you’re on their team and want to help them succeed.
- Wherever possible, be flexible with deadlines for students in crisis as long as the work gets done. (Note: Having a small penalty for late work will motivate perfectionists to submit their work on time.) Flexibility and choice will ease anxiety and prevent panic before it starts. This piece has helpful suggestions.
- Be approachable. In addition to office hours, I have lunch in the cafeteria once a week with my students. They know they are welcome to join me and we can talk about class or whatever is on their minds. If this is impractical in your context, consider an alternative — host a monthly cookies-and-milk afternoon break, invite students to join you for coffee in the student union, or schedule office hours to take place outdoors on a particularly nice day. Having that connection outside of class facilitates stickier learning.
- Give students permission to leave class if they need some fresh air, especially when the subject matter might hit too close to home. I teach Old Testament, so we often come up against tough stuff – rape, mistreatment of women, violence in war, dysfunctional families, natural disasters. When discussing painful subjects, acknowledge aloud that these things may be hard to hear. Saying this in class sets the tone for the conversation and discourages insensitivity. This may be a good place to pause, take a deep breath, and exhale together. Slow your voice. Breathe slowly for them. Staying present is key. You can even add a note in the syllabus if you know ahead of time that a particular topic may be difficult for some students. A student struggling with PTSD will appreciate being able to mentally prepare for it.
- Model healthy vulnerability. I share struggles and successes with my classes when it fits with the subject matter we’re discussing. The class is not all about me and I don’t begin with a newsreel every day, but when it’s appropriate, I find that students appreciate knowing that I’m a real person. I do not use my classes to process raw emotion, but I do let them in on my life. Sometimes students end up in my office later to ask my advice about how to handle a similar situation in their own lives.
It takes courage for students who’ve experienced trauma to show up and keep engaging in life. Let’s celebrate their growth rather than shaming their struggles!
1. See MaryAnn Raybuck, “Strategies for Creating a Safe and Supportive Classroom,” Faculty Focus, April 1, 2019.↩
2. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 2.↩
3.van der Kolk, 2.↩
4.van der Kolk, 44 , 60.↩
5. See MaryAnn Raybuck, “Strategies for Creating a Safe and Supportive Classroom,” Faculty Focus, April 1, 2019.↩