Leadership Skills and Implementation

What Trauma Looks Like in College-Aged Students and Adult Learners

By Angela Lehr

When we think of students impacted by trauma, we often think of younger students first. But trauma and its effects can impact students of all ages. That’s why it’s just as important to integrate trauma-informed practices in higher education as it is in the K-12 setting. As a licensed counselor specializing in trauma and grief, and as an educator working toward my Ed, I’m passionate about expanding awareness in this area.

Angela Lehr, Clinical Professional Counselor

Trauma-informed openness and growth benefit our effectiveness as faculty, adjunct instructors, and student service professionals. And, it can improve our students’ outcomes.

Trauma demystified

The most common issues in college and university counseling clinics are anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and substance abuse. In my twenty years of experience as a therapist, some form of recent or unresolved trauma is at the root of many of those presenting problems. A trauma is an actual or perceived experience that harms or threatens to harm us or our loved ones. Trauma is something that we as humans all experience, ranging in levels of intensity and effect.

Understanding the window of tolerance

Each of us has a Window of Tolerance (a concept coined and expanded upon by trauma experts Dan Siegel and Pat Ogden). It represents our optimum zone of balance and effectiveness. When we are outside of our Window of Tolerance, we feel disconnected, anxious, and/or depressed. Self-efficacy is disrupted and growth and learning are restricted. So if students are outside of their Window of Tolerance, it can be hard for them to engage, learn, and process information. When students are within their window, they feel a range of emotions and can mindfully navigate life’s many challenges through their relationships, healthy coping mechanisms, and self-care.

8 helpful trauma-informed strategies for higher education settings

Here are eight beneficial practices that can be implemented to support you and your students.

  1. Establish and maintain clear expectations, demonstrating dependability, and giving students advance notice for changes. This helps students maintain their Window of Tolerance and aids in regulating emotions that arise when their equilibrium is thrown off.
  2. Open up various channels of communication (office hours, frequent emailing, anonymous question/suggestion box) for students and members of the learning community to ask for what they need.
  3. Acknowledge that people have varied experiences and that unforeseen events can happen. At the beginning of each term or class, I pass out a slip of paper asking, “Is there something you’d like me to know or understand about you? Is there something you’d like me to cover in this class?” Each time, I receive valuable information that helps me better understand these individuals.
  4. Update syllabi and student communication platforms to reflect information, standards, resources, emotional and behavioral decision-making options, and coping tips.
  5. Take time to discuss these sections at the beginning of each term. Though it can feel repetitive, it is part of building trust. There may be students who need and will benefit from having these messages reinforced.
  6. Give students fair warning around emotionally charged or triggering material and allow students to “pass” if overwhelmed during self-disclosure exercises and encourage students to edit or adapt as needed. Plan alternate ways for students to receive credit and benefit from the lesson if they choose to opt out of an activity.
  7. Consult with trusted colleagues as needed and become familiar with the office of the Dean of Students, student welfare support programs, and reporting procedures. Many higher education institutions have Behavioral Intervention Teams that can assist with student crises and high-risk situations.
  8. Make time to care for yourself and reflect on your own limits and history. Traumatic memories from the past can resurface and natural emotions do emerge in the midst of teaching and caring for others. This is part of the developmental healing process. Seek support if you need it through your school or a local counseling center.

These strategies, in concert with clear boundaries and balanced approaches, serve as ways we, as adults and post-secondary educators and professionals, can enhance growth and academic success in our learning communities.

For more information on trauma-informed practices and initiatives in higher education, check out Education Northwest’s helpful guidebook.

Angela Lehr is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Montana and Oregon and has worked with survivors of trauma, grief, and other challenging life events for the past 20 years. She is also an educator in adult and higher education and is a consultant specializing in trauma-informed, mental-health conscious, humanistic supervision and leadership practices. Angela recently relocated from Portland, OR to a small town in Montana and is currently pursuing her EdD.

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