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Creating supportive college communities: A guide to trauma-informed practices

Creating supportive college communities: A guide to trauma-informed practices

Navigating trauma in college can be challenging, but understanding it and addressing it is crucial for building empathetic communities. In her book, Cultivating Trauma-Informed Practice in Student Affairs, Tricia Shalka, a trauma scholar and associate professor of higher education at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, shares both her personal and professional insights gained from a decade-long exploration into trauma among college students. 

Understanding the reality of college trauma

Studies reveal that a significant 66 percent of college students have faced trauma, with 9 percent expected to meet post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) criteria. Recent societal challenges—including a global pandemic, continuing racial injustices and ongoing gun violence, to name a few—add to the trauma that many students carry into college today. 

“This underscores the reality that many students enter college with past traumatic experiences, influencing the course of their educational paths,” says Shalka, “and we know from research that in some cases trauma experiences can place strains on students’ capacities to be successful in an academic environment.” 

Key themes in trauma-informed practice

A central theme in Shalka’s book underscores that while specific actions are outlined in trauma-informed practice, fundamentally, they revolve around our ways of being and how we show up in the world for others. 

“Our most impactful support can be found in the simplicity of how we engage with others and actively listen—meaningful differences happen in these simple acts,” she explains. “The fundamental aspect lies in our being and humanity; while there are prescribed actions in trauma-informed practices, it ultimately hinges on our way of existing in the world.”

Shalka suggests that engaging in trauma-informed practice requires utilizing insights and information about trauma and its pathways to shape our approach, policies and interactions. This work, she notes, must extend beyond mere surface-level efforts, and be deeply ingrained in the structure of our practices.

The volume introduces innovative concepts essential for developing trauma-informed practices in student affairs. Tailored as a comprehensive guide for supporting students, the book combines research findings with personal experiences, constructing a practical roadmap focused on cultivating empathetic communities capable of understanding and providing meaningful support to student survivors of trauma.

Importance of trauma-informed work

Trauma-informed work is important for a couple of reasons, Shalka explains. “First, it involves actively working to minimize the risk of creating new trauma or re-traumatizing individuals who have already endured trauma,” she says. “Second, the aim is to create an environment conducive to healing, allowing ample space for the recovery process.” 

While still newer in higher education settings, adopting a trauma-informed approach allows institutional members to create spaces and interactions that cultivate authentic relationships, safety, predictability and care. Although trauma-informed practice does not erase trauma from students’ lives, it significantly reduces its negative impact by providing essential support and actively avoiding actions that could add to traumatic experiences for students. Successful trauma-informed work in student affairs demands a holistic, power-conscious, and anti-oppressive approach, emphasizing relationships, a commitment to knowledge-building, harm reduction, and a dedication to wellness-centered decision-making and practice.

Practical tips for trauma-informed practices

Shalka shares the following tips for establishing trauma-informed practices in student affairs that facilitate the recovery of student survivors of trauma: 

  1. Adopt inclusive definitions of trauma:  Recognize that trauma is inherently subjective—there isn’t a universal definition that fits everyone. It is essential to embrace inclusive definitions of trauma and allow individuals who have experienced it to self-identify.  Similarly, acknowledge that support is not a one-size-fits-all concept; what may be traumatic for one person may not hold the same impact for another.
  2. Foster empathy:  Be present and actively listen to understand the unique experiences of trauma survivors without judgment. Creating an environment where student survivors feel surrounded by caring and compassionate people in their campus communities enhances a sense of belonging and safety. Empathetic relationships play a fundamental role in the healing journey of trauma survivors.
  3. Normalize seeking help and resources:  Encourage open conversations about mental health and the importance of seeking professional help when needed. However, it’s vital to avoid portraying students as "broken" in need of fixing.
  4. Honor privacy:  Acknowledge and respect survivors' boundaries and personal space, allowing them to share their experiences at their own pace. Recognize that not every student will actively seek nurturing relationships or engage in discussions about their trauma. It is equally crucial to respect their privacy and allow them the space to navigate through their trauma on their own terms. Survivors should feel empowered to disclose their traumatic experiences when they feel ready, in a safe environment, and with someone to whom they feel connected.
  5. Create safe, supportive communities:  Cultivate environments where survivors feel heard, accepted and connected to others who have shared similar experiences. Student survivors of trauma must establish connections with others in social spaces as part of ongoing efforts toward recovery. Our efforts must also be mindful of students' capacities for recovery, resilience, and growth. The healing process from trauma greatly depends on establishing meaningful connections, fostering a sense of safety, and providing spaces that encourage growth, resilience and recovery.
  6. Provide trauma-informed training:  Integrating education and training on trauma is crucial in developing a trauma-informed approach to student affairs. Provide staff and faculty with comprehensive trauma-informed training to enhance their ability to recognize and respond to the needs of student survivors. By ensuring everyone is well-equipped, they can operate in alignment with trauma-informed practices.  It’s imperative to shift from viewing trauma-informed work as the responsibility of a select few to recognizing it as the collective effort of the entire institution. Infuse this training into daily work to positively impact the lives of students. A move to trauma-informed practice extends beyond occasional workshops — it requires a broader commitment to ongoing learning. Both understanding and actively addressing trauma are equally essential components.
  7. Support student leaders:  Extend the educational efforts to student leaders who also play an instrumental role in supporting their peers.  It is essential that the knowledge informing our work also reaches student leaders who engage with student survivors. The more individuals—staff, faculty, and students—across the campus who understand the nature of trauma and its impacts, the more effective the support for trauma survivors will be. Student leaders, including resident assistants (RAs), have regular interactions with their peers and, like faculty and staff, require practical training and support to navigate encounters with the traumatic experiences of their peers.
  8. Offer resources and support:  Establish meaningful connections between students and faculty or staff to ensure they have a reliable support system when needed. It's important to note that trauma-informed work is not a substitute for counseling, therapy, or clinical practice. Therefore, provide accessible mental health resources and support services on campus, being mindful and thoughtful in the process. If student survivors of trauma are unsure where to seek help, there's a risk of experiencing the detrimental effects of isolation.
  9. Promote self-care:  Emphasize the importance of self-care and coping strategies, empowering students to prioritize their mental well-being. Through integrating personal narratives, research insights, and practical tips, Cultivating Trauma-Informed Practice in Student Affairs emerges as a valuable resource for those seeking to understand trauma and those dedicated to establishing supportive environments for survivors in college communities. Maintaining personal well-being is a fundamental piece of trauma-informed practice, as we cannot effectively support others' traumas while neglecting our own mental health. Yet, at the same time, when we engage in personal self-care, we simultaneously need to be working to change the organizational structures that create strain and harm that work against our capacities to be well. 
  10. Approach with curiosity:  Pose the question, “What else might be going on?” This inquiry is not about making diagnoses; instead, it serves as a reminder that surface observations may not be the entire story. It underscores the idea that we may not always be aware of everything happening in people’s lives. Asking this question allows us to take a moment, listen actively and create space for the potential complexities of trauma and healing.
  11. Integrate trauma-informed work at systemic levels:  A comprehensive understanding of trauma and its various paths enhances our collective ability to function and support each other with a trauma-informed approach. Organizations must commit to prioritizing wellness, equity, and healing through a trauma-informed lens. This commitment should extend to everyone, including leadership, fostering collaboration in minimizing harm. Humanity, equity, wellness, and healing should guide decision-making, practices, and policies. Deliberate efforts may involve taking moments to reflect, creating spaces for well-being and belonging, or assessing the practices and policies that shape our work to establish trauma-informed environments—ultimately enhancing the campus climate for everyone. 

Explore Shalka’s latest book, Cultivating Trauma-Informed Practice in Student Affairs, and learn how to purchase it on the Routledge website.