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Teaching During Traumatic Events:
Natural Disasters, War, Campus Tragedies

In this section:

General Advice

War, terrorist attacks (and threats), natural disasters, tragedies on campus—traumatic events in general, generate a wide variety of feelings and reactions in different people. Individuals react and cope in many different ways. A person's prior life experiences, social support networks, temperament, and coping skills influence their specific reaction. It is important to remember that even students, who do not express verbal concern, still may have strong internal reactions.

Tips for VCU faculty for dealing with students in and out of the classroom setting during traumatic events:

  • Individual response to traumatic events varies considerably from person to person (e.g., anxiety, fear, anger, feeling depressed, feeling numb, withdrawing, etc.). It is important to be accepting of this individual variability.
  • Traumatic events often impact an individual's typical coping mechanisms (e.g., increased moodiness and anxiety, changes in appetite and sleep, increased use of alcohol/other drugs, decreased concentration, etc.).
  • Responses to traumatic events are often impacted by previous (and possibly unresolved) events from the past (e.g., death of significant others, victim of crime, loss of relationships, etc.).
  • It is important to validate concerns of individuals rather than talk them out of them.
  • Listen to students carefully and respectfully. Encourage them to utilize their support systems.
  • In dealing with traumatic events, it is helpful to attend to individual's affective states and assist them with problem solving. A problem solving approach entails assisting with identification of issues and reviewing possible solutions.
  • It is important to let students know about the resources available to them on campus and in the community. These resources include faculty, advisors, residence life staff, counseling center staff, campus ministers, departmental administrators and other students.
  • Your actions at this time are probably more critical than finding the "right" words. Connection to others during traumatic times is important to recovery.

Teaching Tips: Things to Consider doing in class

  • Try to avoid “business as usual.” Students often express resentment when faculty ignore traumatic events. If you are not ready to talk about it, then say so. But pretending as if nothing happened can do more harm than good.
  • Acknowledging current events as they unfold in your classroom setting.
  • Setting aside some class time to allow students to share their thoughts and feelings. Integrating current events with class curriculum as appropriate.
  • Acknowledging the absence of some students due to family concerns.
  • Making clear statements about class attendance and absences due to family crises. This information decreases student's anxieties.
  • Recognizing that for many persons continuing with their usual routines is helpful. Encourage students to keep up with assignments, classes, and other activities as much as possible.
  • Sharing your own thoughts and feelings with your class in a manner that facilitates shared dialogue. This serves as important modeling.
  • Acknowledging that individuals may feel distracted, have trouble concentrating, and experience more difficulty with information recall. Let students know that you are willing to be patient and work with them.
  • Consulting with University Counseling Services staff if you have particular concerns about students. We can be contacted at 828-6200 (Academic campus) or 828-3964 (Medical campus).

Attached is a research study conducted by faculty after the 9-11 attacks in 2001. The study looked at:  a) what students said their faculty did following the attacks, and b) which faculty actions students found helpful following the attacks." I think you will find the results of the study very helpful in dealing with just about any type of traumatic event that affects a large number of people

In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy, by Therese A. Huston and Michele DiPietro

It is also critical during a time such as this that you take advantage of ongoing consultation and support for yourself to be maximally helpful to students. Practice good self-care and encourage students to do this as well.

 VCU Resources:

Online Resources:

American Psychological Association

National Mental Health Association

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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