More Important than Ever: Trauma-informed Adult Education

January 5th, 2022 | Blogs

Perhaps now more than ever, adult educators are paying attention to the impact that personal and community trauma has on adult learners’ ability to learn and pursue their goals. While the reasons for this increased awareness are devastating, the turn toward mental health and trauma-informed practices in our classrooms and programs is welcome.

Trauma has a direct effect on our capacity to learn and retain information. In her piece “Trauma Impacts Adult Learners: Here’s Why,” Karen Gross (2019) states that we live in a world filled with trauma, and that its symptoms are often invisible or misunderstood. While trauma and its impacts are omnipresent, the recent pandemic is revealing the depths of inequality in our systems as well as the consistent trauma associated with these inequities. Losing paychecks, constant exposure to stress, unrelenting racialized violence, threat of eviction, deaths in families and communities, in addition to the consequences of persistent and continuous social inequities, are all potential triggers for heightened traumatic responses. 

Those most affected by the devastation of the pandemic are disproportionately people of color and immigrants, especially those who are women. When these adults are our students, using trauma-informed practices will increase their opportunities to learn and pursue their education and career goals. Using trauma-informed practices is an integral part of enacting our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Massachusetts’ approach to trauma-informed practices in adult education

The good news is that there are strategies to address trauma in teaching and learning, and we can use professional development in adult education to teach them. In Massachusetts, we offer sessions to help individual educators use trauma-informed practices. We also encourage leaders to take a program-wide approach,—including classroom and advising strategies, strong community partnerships and referrals, and educator self-care and boundary setting—to develop and apply trauma-informed practices. Our professional development aims to first build understanding of trauma, and then introduce instructional and administrative strategies and skill development through scenarios, group work, and reflection. The following objectives from a recent session on trauma-informed advising and programmatic practices illustrate this approach:

  • Participants will articulate the impact that traumatic experiences can have on a student’s ability to engage and persist.
  • Participants will identify program-wide procedures and referral practices to improve the physical and emotional safety of their program.
  • Participants will recognize the signs of compassion fatigue and practice self-care strategies.

Our presenters draw from evidence-based sources to educate on trauma, and facilitate peer-generated scenarios and group problem-solving to practice applying new knowledge. For example, presenters teach the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s core principles for relationship building (realization, recognition, response, and resisting re-traumatization), to establish trust and facilitate healing. When working through scenarios in small groups, we discuss how safe spaces cannot be commanded, and that people who are most impacted by the effects of trauma should be the architects or co-architects of creating safe spaces. 

The following are statements from adult educations who have participated in these sessions: 

“Becoming more trauma-informed is a question of adapting practices, not just taking in information and saying ‘Okay, I get it!’ So multiple opportunities to learn are important.”

“Thank you. By far, this has been one of the top most helpful trainings for my position. And so absolutely necessary.”

What You Can Do Now

These suggested resources and actions are curated from the SABES resource library or pulled directly from the sessions mentioned above. 


Take Action

  • Review the Trauma-Sensitive Schools Training Package to see what practices could apply to your program. The packages offer school and district administrators and staff a framework for adopting school- and district-wide trauma-sensitive approaches.
  • Use this Trauma-Informed Educational Checklist with your program staff to identify where you want to develop more trauma-informed practices. Applicable to all states and based on the Massachusetts Flexible Framework for Implementing Trauma-Informed Educational Programs. The evidence that you present in each of these areas will facilitate conversations about and creation of procedures to increase compliance with trauma-informed practices.
  • Establish clear referral practices and share with all staff. Program policies should describe a consistent and equitable process for how, when, and where to refer students for mental health support. Make sure mental health services are linguistically appropriate and culturally competent. Establish a program-wide check-in for staff well-being. Encourage self-care strategies and normalize the effects of vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue.
  • Access this Trauma-Informed Teaching Advising and Learning Resource Packet, which includes numerous links to information websites, research papers, and fact sheets on trauma and its impact on learning, and guidance on designing programming that supports trauma survivors.


Gross, K. (2019) Trauma Impacts Adult Learners: Here’s Why. Retrieved from: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014a). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach (HHS Publication No. 14-4884).


SABES is a project of World Education, Inc., funded by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Dani Scherer oversees professional development in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, career pathways, advising, and ADA resources and training for SABES. Please contact with any questions or comments.

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