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Accessibility Training for Teaching Assistants at USC: Trauma-Informed Pedagogy and the Classroom

Organized and developed by a collaboration between Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Graduate Student Government (GSG) and USC Libraries as a resource for acccessibility training for teaching assistants.

What is trauma and how does it affect learning?

What is trauma? 

Trauma is the body’s protective response to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening to an individual. Although there are some incidents or events that are more likely to result in trauma (i.e. accident, sexual assault, natural disaster), any incident or series of events can be a traumatic event. 

How common is trauma? 

Trauma is a lot more common than we think. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.

What are the effects of trauma?

Trauma can result in lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

How does trauma affect learning?

  • Individuals who experience(d) trauma can live in a near-constant state of fight or flight, with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flowing. Excess cortisol is toxic to the brain and primarily damages the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
  • As a result, even events that may not seem like a real threat to others (like a loud noise, or not understanding what’s going on in classrooms) may trigger intense emotions and fear. When individuals are overwhelmed with stress chemicals, they may not be able to control their emotions or reactions. This may inhibit their ability to learn due to symptoms like intrusive thoughts, dissociations, flashbacks, or an under/over-active limbic system.
  • With fight or flight responses over-activated in the brains of students of trauma, the learning and memory centers of the brain are conversely turned down. An individual may become forgetful, disengaged, or unable to concentrate. Over time, the effects can actually permanently alter the brain, making it increasingly difficult for them to learn when it’s constantly fighting for survival.

How can I be trauma informed in my classroom?

How can I be more trauma-informed in my classroom?

Being trauma-informed means that you are approaching your classroom with an understanding that many in your class have experienced trauma in their lives. Here are some ways you can prepare yourself and your students ahead of time:

  • Providing content information in advance (classroom materials and reading, talking points, what to be expected, etc.) 
  • Using content descriptions, especially for potentially triggering media
  • Provide an opportunity for students to opt out and allow for multiple ways to engage with course content
  • Build flexibility into your assessment and absence policies so students can opt out, no questions asked
  • Create a safe learning environment by building community, demonstrating empathy, and valuing student opinions
  • Affirm student input and feedback by reflecting back using students' words throughout the discussion.
  • If you feel like the discussion is becoming unproductive or spiraling out of control, pause the discussion and take time to ground/settle everyone. 
  • Check in on students if they didn’t seem like themselves during the discussion

What do I do if a student directly discloses to me that they experienced a traumatic event?

What do I do if a student directly discloses to me that they experienced a traumatic event? 

  1. Thank them for sharing their personal experiences
  2. Do not ask for more information. Only let them share what they want to share 
  3. Do not question the validity of the statement nor label the experience (if they haven’t) 
  4. Inform them of your responsibility to report to the Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX office, but reassure them that you will be keeping their experience as private as possible.
    1. “I need to tell one person in the Title IX office. This does not mean you’re in trouble. They will share resources with you that you might find helpful.”
    2. Give them as many options as possible. Do they want you to call or email EEO-TIX? Do they want you to inform EEO-TIX in their presence or away from them? Do they want tissue or water? What can make this experience better for them? 
  5. Inform them of RSVP - RSVP is a confidential resource.
  6. Do not force the student to seek services that they are not ready to seek.

What to do if someone reaches out about an experience of gender- and power-based harm

What do I do if someone reaches out to me and tell me that they experienced/are experiencing gender- and power-based harm?

  1. Thank them for sharing. It is not easy to verbalize a traumatic event
  2. Do not pry or ask additional questions. You are not an investigator nor a therapist. 
  3. Do not label their experiences for them. It’s okay to not have a name for everything.
  4. If you are a responsible employee, let them know of your obligations.
    1. (faculty and Teaching Assistants) “As part of my responsibilities as a University employee, I do have to let the Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX (EEO-TIX) office know about this incident. However, this does not mean that you are in trouble or that you will start an investigation. They will share resources with you and see what may help you.” 
    2. (Residential Assistants) “As part of my responsibilities as a University employee, I do have to let my Residential College/Community Coordinator (RCC) office know about this incident. However, this does not mean that you are in trouble or that you will start an investigation. They will share resources with you and see what may help you.”
    3. At this point, the student may be feeling betrayed since they only intended to share this information with you. This is why it’s important to give them as many options as possible, whilst still fulfilling your responsibilities.
      1. “I have the option to email them or call them - what would you prefer?”
      2. “Would you like for me to delegate this information (to EEO-TIX or others) in your presence?” 
      3. “Is there anything I can do at this point to make this easier for you?” 
  5. Offer additional resources. Get them to start RSVP
    1. “I also want to share a confidential (meaning no one else will know) resource with you. Have you heard of RSVP? RSVP provides confidential counseling and advocacy. They are in the Student Health center, Room 356. 
  6. Do not force them to seek services if they don’t want to. It is important for survivors to seek services at their own pace. 

RSVP Information

Location: USC Student Health Center, 1031 W 34th Street Room 356

Phone: 213 740 9355 (WELL) - this is Student Health’s phone number. Call to be transferred to RSVP office

Email: eshcrsvp@usc.edu (do NOT refer students to this email address. This email is for questions or presentation requests only)

What does RSVP provide?

  1. 24/7 Confidential counseling and advocacy for students who have experienced sexual & gender-based harm
  2. Prevention education to promote respect, healthy expression of gender, and gender equity 

Who can seek confidential services at RSVP? 

Any USC student who experienced gender- and power-based harm can seek confidential counseling and advocacy at RSVP. Some examples are

  • Stalking 
  • Sexual assault
  • Relationship abuse 
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Sexual and or gender harassment 

If a student is not sure of how to categorize or describe their experiences, they can still reach out to our office. We will support them or connect them to the right campus resources. Students can receive confidential services by making an appointment by calling Student Health (213 740- 9355) or scheduling an appointment on MySHR (usc.edu/myshr)

Who provides what types of confidential services?

  1. Clinicians are licensed clinicians and therapists who can provide individual and group counseling
  2. Advocates are state certified individuals who can assist in various areas that may be impacted due to a traumatic event related to gender- and power-based harm. Some examples of advocacy are 
    1. Informing student of their options and what the processes look like 
    2. Visiting rape treatment centers and medical centers with the student
    3. Arranging academic accommodations and communicating with professors
    4. Helping student obtain restraining orders and stay-away orders
    5. Support students at Title IX hearings (not legal support) 
    6. Connect students with specific services, including housing, medical, legal, etc.