Using Trauma-Informed Teaching to Handle Sensitive Topics in Online Teaching: A Case Study from Divinity

How can Christian faith influence the practice of mental health care? How do we define mental health and mental illness — and what are the limitations of these concepts? How can Christian theology provide us with tools to ethically engage with challenges related to mental health care? When developing their new graduate-level course, Christian Approaches to Mental Health Care, Professors Warren Kinghorn and John Swinton created a course where students could explore these questions.

“Theology provides us with a language, a worldview and a set of practices that are vital for mental health care,” Swinton said. “The intention of this course is to help people to think theologically and provide people with other ideas and tools to help them care more fully and more faithfully.”

A hybrid, nine-week course, Christian Approaches to Mental Health Care is part of a new mental health track in the Divinity School’s Certificate in Theology and Health Care. Students attended an immersive week on Duke’s campus where they were introduced to key concepts; they attended course sessions the following eight weeks via Zoom.

“In the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative, we invite students into deep engagement with the practices of health care in light of Christian theology and practice,” Kinghorn said. “This class is a natural extension of that aim, but now focused specifically on the practices of mental health care.” 

This Divinity course was aimed at both professionals who work in any context related to mental health care (e.g., counselors, social workers) and those who may have a personal interest in the material. First taught in Spring 2024 to over 30 students, the course covered a wide-range of topics that needed to be handled with care, including trauma, anxiety, and dementia. 

Challenges and Affordances of Teaching Online

How does one approach teaching sensitive topics online? Are there challenges unique to this environment? 

Swinton noted that the structure of a course using a web conferencing software like Zoom can present challenges.

“When you are in a standard class situation and difficult issues come up, people have the opportunity to find immediate support either from us as tutors or from classmates,” he said. “When you are doing a course online, that support is often not available. You switch off the camera and you are on your own.”

That being said, knowing this can be an issue without the buffer space at the beginning or end of the class session, Swinton and Kinghorn have worked to ensure their online sessions do offer support. Kinghorn noted that during his first foray into online teaching during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was concerned about engaging with sensitive topics in a virtual class setting.

“But I learned that if the class is structured in a way that leaves time and space for self-care, Zoom-based instruction has advantages,” he said. “Students generally join class from a space where they feel safe. They can titrate their own exposure in class, shifting position or even briefly turning off camera or microphone if necessary. If done well and in a trauma-informed way, I think that even the hardest topics can be addressed well through online pedagogy.”

Strategies to Teach a Trauma-Informed Course

What does it mean to be a trauma-informed instructor? How can Kinghorn and Swinton’s course act as an example for other courses?

“Adopting a trauma-informed approach is not accomplished through any single particular technique or checklist,” the CDC’s 6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach reminds us, “It requires constant attention, caring awareness, sensitivity, and possibly a cultural change at an organizational level.”

Kinghorn and Swinton, however, do have specific strategies that worked for the specific context of their course. Given that this course covered topics such as depression, suicide, substance use issues, and more during the online weeks, the instructors informed students about upcoming content and encouraged them to approach these topics with care for themselves and for others. While there are different approaches to creating a trauma-informed environment, Kinghorn and Swinton focused on harm reduction in suggesting how instructors can think about this during a live course.

“My belief (as others have argued in the trauma-informed teaching literature) is that it should be a last resort for professors to invite students to opt out of a class due to difficult past experiences, as this kind of approach (if made systematic) can compound educational differences and marginalization— effectively giving educational access to those fortunate not to have particular trauma histories and excluding (even if student-driven) those who do,” Kinghorn said.  “I would much rather structure courses (as I think we did this semester) with the goal that every student, including those with recent loss or difficult trauma histories, feels a sense of welcome and belonging that enables them to participate in the good, hard work of the course.”

Swinton shared that choice is important to him in thinking about student participation.

“For example, if an online student has had someone close to them die by suicide either recently or historically and they feel that a class on this subject could be problematic for them, we would want to make sure that the person involved does not feel compelled to participate in the class if it is going to be harmful,” Swinton said of a hypothetical scenario. “It’s always going to be difficult with sensitive issues online, but we do the best we can to minimize the possibility of harm.”

Other strategies to help students feel like the course was a safe place for student learning included:

  • Focusing on helping students create a connected community, which included putting them in consistent breakout room groups of 5-6 students for the semester
  • Modelling honesty and humility as instructors  when receiving difficult questions during the immersive week
  • Starting each class session with grounding practices (e.g., reading a psalm and pausing in silent reflection)
  • Staying after class in Zoom to be available to students and ensuring presence and privacy by turning off recording features
  • Providing clear guidelines about evaluations and deadlines, as well as sharing how students should communicate with faculty and teaching assistants
  • Granting structured flexibility (e.g., offering a no-questions-asked 72-hour extension for one assignment over the semester)
  • Respecting students’ privacy (e.g., not asking students to disclose why they need to turn in late work)

Teaching with Care

How might you begin to integrate trauma-informed practices into your own teaching? 

The first step, Swinton said, is to recognize that this is an issue instructors should take note of in all of their teaching.

Using Duke as an example, Kinghorn elaborated that while instructors should not be asking students to disclose their trauma, they can assume “that a majority or near-majority of every class of Duke students have survived trauma of some sort (recognizing the challenges of defining that term).”

“Assume that all students, including trauma survivors, are at Duke because they want to learn, want to engage difficult material well, and generally want to do good, hard work together,” he said. “Then ask: how specific to my subject matter can I invite students to do good, hard work in a way that respects their lived experience? That’s going to differ by class and by student but is the place to start.”

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about trauma-informed teaching, here are a few resources where you could start are:

If you’d like to learn more about Warren Kinghorn and John Swinton’s work, here are a few places to start are: