On October 26, 2021, we hosted a talk by Dr. Mays Imad on Trauma-Informed Teaching. Dr. Imad’s talk built on neuroscience research on trauma and learning and her experiences using trauma-informed teaching practices in the classroom.
Background: Our Shared Traumatic Stress
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has had disparate impacts, it has generated a particular combination of stressors that are consistent across students and educators. Dr. Imad began her talk with a poll to illustrate this fact, asking whether attendees found themselves feeling overwhelmed recently and what they were struggling with most. The results did not surprise her. Like the thousands of educators and students she had polled since the pandemic began, most attendees said they were overwhelmed and struggling with factors such as motivation, anxiety, and workload.
Dr. Imad named four shifts in particular that have contributed to this stress: changes to physical activity, loss of meaning, isolation, and uncertainty. These factors were added on top of growing concern about poverty, racism, and the climate crisis.
The Neuroscience of Traumatic Stress
Traumatic stress impacts a person’s sense of agency and shocks the system to the point where it is difficult to rebound. The limbic system processes sensory information entering the brain, placing emotional significance on that information and assessing whether the situation is safe and beneficial. In the case of significant negative emotional significance, the limbic system becomes hyperactive and survival instincts kick in, preventing information from moving on to the prefrontal cortex. This state is referred to as an “amygdala hijack,” and it impairs the brain’s ability to pay attention, make decisions, learn, and remember.
The amygdala’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response can help a person react quickly during a temporary crisis. During prolonged periods of uncertainty and stress, however, this response can make it challenging to react in more deliberate and rational ways. Dr. Imad explained that while the brain is trained to take in data and make predictions about our survival, the brain struggles to do this when there is too much information or the information changes frequently. As a result, people often feel tired in uncertain times, not realizing that their brain is using excess energy trying to resolve uncertainty in the background.
Dr. Imad emphasized that developing awareness of the neuroscience of traumatic stress can help students feel that they are not alone in their struggles with wellbeing and academic engagement.
Though trauma makes learning more difficult, students can still learn effectively under certain conditions. Dr. Imad advocates for treating the classroom as a “sanctuary” where students can feel safe, connected, and empowered to learn. She notes that the emotional state of the instructor is an important part of that environment. Instructors should take time to tend to their mental health; students can and will pick up on the instructor’s stress.
She also notes that relationships are core to how people experience trauma. While trauma can shatter one’s sense of belonging and belief in the benevolence of the world, safe and interdependent relationships can help people heal. Building connection in the classroom has pedagogical value as well. Research has found that relationships, either among students or between students and teachers, are the one common factor in what students classify as meaningful learning experiences (Felten & Lambert, 2020).
Dr. Imad highlighted three preconditions for every student to thrive: feeling safe, experiencing meaningful connections, and having support and resources. She shared several strategies to achieve specific goals that create these three conditions, emphasizing practices that create transparency and a predictable structure to reduce barriers to engagement. The strategies she shared are listed below, organized by the goals they address and conditions each goal is designed to create. More information on these strategies, including concrete examples, can be found here.
To create a safe environment by reducing uncertainty for students:
- Communicate “You are more than a number” to help students feel values in the classroom
- Reduce and focus the information
- Create a predictable structure
To create a safe environment by leveraging communications with students:
- Connect with students and invite participation regularly
- Model empathy and reassure students in times of uncertainty
- Be transparent about why students should complete work and what they will learn or gain
To develop a sense of connection amongst your students by cultivating community:
- Leverage students’ cultural capital by inviting them to share their stories
- Reflect, wonder, and read together
- Check in with your students and encourage them to check in with each other
To develop a sense of connection amongst your students by identifying meaning:
- Reaffirm the goals and value of class activities with clear purpose for learning
- Identify why the class matters in relation to the outside context
- Celebrate the journey of learning
Care and support
To provide your students with a caring, supportive environment by centering on wellbeing:
- Ask students how they are doing
- Provide and normalize mental health breaks
- Intentionally engage positive emotions by communicating care for students
To provide your students with a caring, supportive environment by pausing to reflect:
- Encourage students to listen with compassion to the challenges of others
- Foster discussions of how to transform oppressive systems
- Cultivate hope and moral imagination
Dr. Imad emphasized the importance of communicating care to students and making space to celebrate the joy of learning by “intentionally ruminat[ing] on positive experiences.” She emphasizes the communal nature of learning to her students, noting that students are more likely to engage when she explains the science of why connection matters to learning. Particularly in STEM fields, where many students are conditioned to restrain emotions in the pursuit of objectivity, students can find it challenging but rewarding to rekindle the emotional aspects of learning.
According to Dr. Imad, one of the most important things instructors can do is cultivate a sense of hope among students. She expressed concern about the widespread hopelessness among young people, noting that hopelessness can lead to loneliness and despair. Though instructors cannot cure students’ traumatic stress or eliminate existential threats like climate change, instructors can connect with students and promote the belief that students can and should work for a better future.
In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Imad has been a prominent advocate for hope and trauma-informed pedagogy in the higher education press. Her articles below, written at different points during the COVID-19 pandemic, offer valuable insights and strategies for faculty:
- Seven recommendations for helping students thrive in times of trauma (June 2020)
- How faculty can support college students’ mental health this fall (opinion) (July 2021)
- How faculty can impart hope to students when feeling hope-depleted themselves (opinion) (March 2021)
Mays Imad, Ph.D.
Professor of Pathophysiology and Bioethics at Pima Community College
Mays Imad received her undergraduate training from the University of Michigan–Dearborn where she studied philosophy. She received her doctoral degree in Cellular & Clinical Neurobiology from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. She then completed a National Institute of Health-Funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona in the Department of Neuroscience. She joined the department of life & physical sciences at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona as an adjunct faculty member in 2009 and later as a full-time faculty member in 2013. During her tenure at Pima, she taught Physiology, Pathophysiology, Genetics, Biotechnology, and Biomedical ethics. She also founded Pima’s Teaching and Learning Center (TLC).
Dr. Imad is a Gardner Institute Fellow and an AAC&U Senior Fellow within the Office of Undergraduate STEM Education. Dr. Imad’s research focuses on stress, self-awareness, advocacy, and classroom community, and how these impact student learning and success. Through her teaching and research, she seeks to provide her students with transformative opportunities that are grounded in the aesthetics of learning, truth-seeking, justice, and self-realization.
Outside of the classroom, Dr. Imad works with faculty members across disciplines at her institution and across the country to promote inclusive, equitable, and contextual education–all rooted in the latest research on the neurobiology of learning. A nationally-recognized expert on trauma-informed teaching and learning, she passionately advocates for institutions to make mental health a top priority and to systematically support the education of the whole student.
Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Written by Kate Weishaar