With contributions from 2020 - 2021 CITLS Student Fellows: Anna DeVault '21, Sharon Engel '22 & Hamna Younas '22

Individual sitting on the floor in a state of distress

Image source: Pixabay.com


To provide guidance for instructors teaching during or after a distressing event.


Students and instructors can be differentially impacted by current events whether they be local, regional, national, or international. Examples are injustices occurring within the United States as well as political polarization, in addition to conflicts or wars in one’s home country or one with close ties. Below previous CITLS student fellows provide recommendations for what professors can do to facilitate trauma-informed, respectful classroom dialogue when such an event occurs. This resource, originally developed around the time of the 2020 U.S. election, has been adapted to be expansive of any event that students might find distressing. 

Student Recommendations

  • Acknowledge what is happening  – One of the most important things professors can do in any course is to verbally acknowledge that they recognize students might be experiencing a range of emotions about the event. Some students may be scared, others worried or anxious, and some may not be as impacted emotionally. Making a statement to the class towards these regards can be especially important when the event is occurring.  
  • Be flexible and compassionate the week of the event and days following – How students process the event and its evolving results may affect their engagement in class. Students may, for example, be more withdrawn, sullen, or not seem like themselves. Recognize that this may occur and have nothing to do with students’ motivation to do well in class. Where possible, be mindful of major assignments such as exams or other assessments due around the time of the event. They may not be reflective of students’ best work given the circumstances. 
  • Ensure that any classroom dialogues are well-moderated with clear ground rules – Take the pulse of the class and if it seems appropriate, check in with students and invite them to share how they are feeling, but not necessarily their opinions about the event. Be clear that the goal is not to debate which could lead to different sides arguing against each other.  Also consider other options:
    • Have students go around the classroom and share one word about how they feel about what is happening right now, and pass if desired. This way all students have the opportunity to share if they would like to and class is less likely to become disruptive.
    • Give students 5 minutes to write or type out how they feel about what has happened to allow them to process their emotions without having to share them with the class.
  • If a student says something that could potentially be offensive to others, acknowledge it – Straddle carefully between not ignoring what was said – be sure to address it – but not attacking or being critical of the student.  Such a scenario could be designated as an “oops” or “ouch” teachable moment and allow students to practice social-emotional learning and increase their awareness of the perspectives of others.  
  • Do not put students in groups to discuss the event without appropriate moderation – This dialogue needs moderation and professors to act as social buffers. Professors should be present to make sure that dialogue is respectful. 


Lafayette College Counseling Center

Supporting Student Well-Being