A popular live course on building safe learning communities in the face of trauma

  • Self-paced courses are valuable; they fit into the nooks and crannies of our lives, waiting for us when we’re busy and being there for us when we have time. But there’s a loss, too, sometimes, when you really yearn for the interaction of a live teacher and other students learning along with you.

    Compassionate Classrooms: A Guide to Building Safe Learning Communities is a six-graduate-level credit course at Dominican University Online that takes place in live weekly classes for 10 weeks this spring. It was originally offered as a two-week workshop in the summer of 2020; it was popular, and there was demand to bring it back. It has now been reframed into a weekly, faculty-led live course with assignments and readings taking place on days in between.

    The focus of the course is creating trauma-informed classrooms, spaces in which students can feel safe, welcome, and capable of learning even if they have suffered trauma or chronic stress. That trauma or stress could be caused by events such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; violence in the home; the loss of a parent or caregiver; alcoholism or drug addiction of a parent; financial worry and food insecurity. But almost a year into COVID-19, trauma and stress may be increasing among all students. Children who live in volatile homes have not had the escape of going to school. And recent surveys have shown that more than 40 percent of all children under age 12 in the United States have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.

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    “Students who experience traumatic stress perform worse academically and cognitively, and their teachers report that they behave worse in the classroom,” writes Education Week in a special project on students’ well-being. “And teachers themselves can experience secondhand stress as they struggle to deal with their students’ intense emotional and learning needs. Now a growing number of regular schools are adopting trauma-sensitive practices to better serve distressed students. What does a trauma-informed school look like in practice? And how can schools gear up to provide it?”

    A 2020 study titled “The Complex Trauma Spectrum During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Threat for Children and Adolescents’ Physical and Mental Health” by two faculty members at the University of Ottawa, Jude Mary Cénat and Rose Darly Dalexis, found many aspects of trauma related to the pandemic:

    “From a mental-health perspective, fears that family members or oneself may be infected, social isolation, significant changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of grandparents and other family members, parental job loss and multiple interpersonal traumas to which millions of youth are exposed are likely to have both immediate and long-term impacts,” they write. “In the short to medium term, these children may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, dissociation, depersonalization, emotional dysregulation, etc. In the long term, these traumas can cause physical, social and intellectual development problems, violent and risky behaviors (self-harm, unsafe sexual practices, etc.), alcohol and drug use, and altered relationships with others that may put youth at greater risk of experiencing violence in romantic relationships. In terms of physical health, complex trauma is associated with somatization symptoms among youth, with complaints of chronic stomachaches and headaches. In long-term, complex trauma is associated with impacts on the brain and nervous system, a weakened immune system, risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, cancer, and premature death.”

    That is a substantial list. So what can a teacher do, especially when her students are not in the actual classroom? That’s partially what this course will address.

    “In this workshop, educators will collaborate with colleagues while learning how to create environments that promote trusting relationships and social-emotional development. Teachers will experience what it’s like to be in a classroom where students feel welcome, safe, and ready to learn. Through powerful readings, dynamic discussions, and hands-on projects, educators will walk away from this workshop invigorated and ready to build safe learning communities for their students.”

    Some of the material includes:

    • Learning how trauma and chronic stress affects your students;
    • Learning strategies for teaching children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs);
    • Participating in projects, activities, and lessons on creating compassionate curriculum.

    Between lectures, books, articles, and videos, this course’s objective is to present a 360-degree view of a compassionate classroom, one in which students learn well because they feel safe and comfortable. You can check out the syllabus here.

    “I have taken this workshop three years in a row and learn something new each year. I love sharing with teachers in other grade levels and getting different perspectives. The articles are always timely and well planned. The assignments are manageable and provide opportunity to reflect, grow, and learn.” – Michelle Hutton

    There are three weekly times to choose from:

    • Tuesday afternoons/evenings from Feb. 23 to April 27, two hours beginning at 4:30 p.m. PST (5:30 MST, 6:30 CST, 7:30 EST). Instructor: Jana Palmquist.
    • Thursday afternoons/evenings from Feb. 25 to April 29, two hours beginning at 3:00 p.m. PST (4:00 MST, 5:00 CST, 6:00 EST). Instructor: Kathy Smith.
    • Thursday mornings/afternoons from Feb. 25 to May 8 (no class April 3), two hours beginning at 9:00 a.m. PST (10:00 MST, 11:00 CST, 12:00 EST). Instructor: TBA.

    To learn more about the course or to register for EDUO 9944: Compassionate Classrooms – A Guide to Building Safe Learning Communities, visit Dominican University Online and click on “course overview,” “view the course syllabus,” or “Register.”

    Photo from iStock images