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U of T prof puts students' well-being into the syllabus

Frances Garrett, an associate professor in U of T's department for the study of religion, employs an emerging method called trauma-informed teaching to address students’ well-being (photo by William Pocock)

Sila Usta, a third-year student at the University of Toronto who is studying cell and systems biology, says she knew she was going to enjoy one of her electives – a course in the department for the study of religion that explores Buddhist practices of manipulating the body’s breath.

One of the first assignments was to go for a walk outside while listening to an audio recording about the class readings.

“It pushed me out of the house,” Usta says. “The simple act of getting out of my chair and away from the screen gives your mind a break. I needed that.”

Walking with an audio file was not a random, one-off assignment from Associate Professor Frances Garrett, who teaches the course, called “Biohacking Breath.” With her students’ mental health top of mind, Garrett says she is very deliberate about how she teaches and employs an emerging method called trauma-informed teaching to address students’ well-being, putting nearly as much emphasis on that as the academic curriculum she covers.

“Learning happens when people feel safe,” Garrett says. “If students are suffering then they’re not remembering and processing information.” 

Trauma-informed teaching does not diminish academic rigour, says Garrett. “They have to write and think and read and do assignments,” she says of her students.

Usta agrees. “It’s not a bird class,” she says. “There is a lot of reading – it’s hard.”  

In addition to class assignments based on theories of human anatomy and physiology, as well as Buddhist approaches to philosophy and medicine, Garrett has her students observe their bodies and emotions, track their moods and submit written reflective journals.

“Trauma-informed teaching offers a different style of class and set of assignments, so they’re able to learn better. It's about effective learning,” Garrett says.

The approach is becoming more common among educators who recognize that their student's mental well-being is essential to their success in the classroom.

“There is a relationship between mental health and learning,” says Dawn Shickluna, who graduated last year with a PhD from U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “We can’t underestimate the power of feeling safe and seen and heard in our learning environments.”

Drawing on the growing body of neuroscience research that examines how people learn, Shickluna says “the experience of trauma can affect our ability to be present, and to learn.” She adds that being aware of – and addressing – the effects of trauma through choice, voice and collaboration fosters an environment that helps students participate in learning.

At a time when mental health is an ever-growing concern, Shickluna stresses that trauma-informed teaching is more necessary than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing relations of colonialism, the prominence of white supremacy and anti-Black racism among many other forms of systemic oppression are all taking a toll on a student population that finds itself isolated and spending more time than ever on screens, Shickluna says. 

“Trauma is so prevalent and it's not visible to many people as such, so we often don’t know what our students are experiencing.” 

Garrett says the approach has been a success in her class, and that she is designing more of her courses to directly address what students are going through.

“Students in my class this semester are expressing how grateful they are to be learning more about racism and anti-racism, for example,” she says. “These topics are responding to student needs right now.

 “I generally get good reviews [from students]. But not like this. I've never had so much positive feedback.”  

 

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