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Universal Design for Trauma

Buffalo State College


Trauma is an epidemic in the United States. Over 60% of men and 50% of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event (National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, n.d.). “Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm….Trauma can be the result of a single event, or it can result from multiple events over time” (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014, p. 2). Exposure to trauma can lead to both short and long-term impacts on physical and emotional health, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended” (American Psychological Association, n.d.).

Impact of Trauma on Learning
Previous research has provided evidence of a negative relationship between trauma exposure and academic outcomes. Norway, Huang and Mossige (2012) found that the experience of sexual abuse before the age of 13 has a strong negative effect on educational achievement. And in a qualitative study of adult literacy practitioners, Horsman (2002) concluded that a history of interpersonal violence can negatively impact educational outcomes for adults. My research with adult survivors of sexual assault supports Horsman’s findings on the potential educational impact of trauma and adds additional understanding of barriers to academic achievement and interruptions to education and life goal-setting (Nikischer, 2018).
Ultimately, the negative impacts of trauma on educational outcomes accumulate over time, leading to a decrease in lifetime earnings and job status. Macmillan (2000) found that violent victimization during adolescence negatively impacts earnings later in life. This negative impact appears to be due to disruptions in education and career attainment post-victimization. Findings by Fernandez et al. (2015) support Macmillan’s work. Their research indicates that childhood victimization leads to lower income and job “prestige” growth during emerging adulthood. Their findings also indicate that this disparity in growth is due to lowered educational attainment among trauma survivors.

Universal Design
Universal design is a concept that began in housing construction and has since been translated into other areas, most notably instructional design. Universal design seeks to create “barrier-free” environments which are useful for everyone, including all ages and ability levels. Under universal design, user needs are considered and addressed during the design phase and accommodations blend seamlessly into the structure of the home, course, etc. “Universal design has the unique quality that, when done well, it is invisible” (Mace, 1998, p. 22).

Universal Design for Trauma
Many scholars have connected the concept of universal design specifically to trauma. Bassuk, Latta, Sember, Raja, and Richard (2017), for example, promote universal design for healthcare which includes a focus on trauma. "A need exists for a universal approach to care that encompasses compassionate, collaborative relationships between providers and service users. Person-centered care, enhanced by recovery- oriented care and trauma- informed care, forms the basis for a universal approach to health care" (p. 896).
Kostouros and Wenzel (2016) use the concept of universal design to stress the importance of addressing trauma in curriculum design. "Similar to universal design [for learning], strategies that are sensitive to individual needs will often benefit the general public. In the classroom, curriculum design that is sensitive to the student who might experience suffering due to having witnessed the course material will benefit all of the students" (p.1).
The notion that a curriculum designed to address trauma will ultimately benefit both students with a history of trauma and those without is important and in line with the original vision of universal design for housing. Byron (2017) argues, "Creating classroom spaces that are shaped by the experience of traumatized students not only benefits unhealed students but also provides a more meaningful academic experience for the class as a whole" (p.123).
The urgency to address and plan for trauma history in the United States has significantly increased due to the global COVID crisis. Adding planning for trauma history into previous recommendations for universal design for learning will positively benefit all students. The following are my recommendations for a Universal Design for Trauma (UDT):

#1- Strategic Content Planning
When planning to include content that may be distressing and/or may trigger past trauma, educators must ask themselves an important question: “Is this content central to the learning objectives of the course/program?” The first step in the process of UDT is to audit course content and supporting materials.

#2- Trigger and Content Warnings
Students who have experienced trauma may find it difficult to participate in courses or programs with potentially distressing content, as that content could act as a trauma “trigger.” A trauma trigger is a “…sight, sound, or smell that conjures up an emotional reaction to a past traumatic event” (Lyford, 2016, p.11). When educators chose to include trauma topics in their courses and programs, they must recognize and prepare for potential student distress. Trigger and content warnings are an integral part of UDT and should be considered an educational best practice.

#3- Alternative Readings and Assignments
Even when trauma content is directly related to course outcomes, there are often opportunities to allow all students choice in how much content they consume and how their learning is assessed. These alternative readings and assignments should be built into the course and available to all students without having to request a special accommodation.

#4- Access to Campus and Community Resources
Educators teaching trauma topics must provide students with access to campus and community resources, such as the campus counseling center and local crisis services organization. Educators should publish such resources in their course syllabus and online course platform. In addition, educators must be knowledgeable about local resources and understand their own responsibility for reporting disclosures of interpersonal violence and/or suicide ideation/attempt.

#5- Instructor Protections
UDT must take into account the potential for compassion fatigue and/or vicarious trauma among educators (see Nikischer, 2019). In addition to caring for the emotional health of students, institutions and programs must recognize and address the risks to educators, and educators must purposefully plan for their own self-care.

Additional Metrics:

UDT has the potential to improve student satisfaction, persistence and success.

28 reviews of this entry
5.0 rating based on 25 ratings
5.0 rating based on 25 ratings

  1. The best practices described in this submission can be utilized in both virtual and traditional learning environments. Universal Design for Trauma can be an excellent tool to better serve all students, not just survivors. I love the idea of a “self-care plan” and I plan to implement this in the future.

  2. This is important and timely research. As educators, it’s important to keep the universal design process in mind as we create programs and courses to support students who have been impacted by trauma.

  3. I’ve been teaching about differentiated instruction for years and have to admit that I had never considered those who experience trauma as being members of a group that instructionally required differentiation. This offering opened my eyes to the notion that it is, indeed, an important consideration.