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ATD Blog

How Trauma Affects the Design and Delivery of Learning

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Trauma not only disrupts our personal lives; it can interfere with work performance and learning. When developing learning solutions, TD professionals must understand what trauma is (and is not), recognize how it manifests in the workplace, and prepare for its potential impact on learners.

Trauma can create a “Swiss cheese” effect in someone’s personal development—where they develop gaps and holes in their ability to prioritize tasks, manage conflict, follow directions, or evaluate something against set criteria to make decisions or good choices. For example, a traumatic or overwhelming experience might impair a person’s receptive and expressive communication. Consequently, when they are confronted by a stressful interaction with a colleague during a meeting, they may communicate less effectively.

During a learning experience, this same reaction can surface during an activity. Learners whose experiences teach them that they are safer when they are invisible may “shut down” when they feel the spotlight, such as during a role-play exercise or when asked to present the results of a group discussion.

At the fundamental level, organizations need to decide how proactive they want to be in reducing the impact of preexisting stressors from trauma and preventing unnecessary stress in the future. While TD professionals should champion how their organizations incorporate a trauma-responsive mindset into their culture and policies, they also must apply it to learning’s design, facilitation, and evaluation. For example, how will the TD function develop facilitation skills to fully accommodate different behaviors and dynamics of learners that are caused by traumatic events?


More importantly, what instructional design and facilitation strategies can TD use to create a better learning experience for learners affected by trauma? Here are some examples:

  • Overwhelming experiences can stall receptive and expressive language, which means reading and comprehension can be lessened when learners feel stressed. Be sure to use plain language in your learning content, and consider shortening or chunking content, as well as slowing down content delivery and activities.
  • Because trauma tends to increase anxiety and hypervigilance, allow more time for reflection during activities and discussion. Centers for teaching and learning recommend between seven and ten minutes for lectures or videos followed by interaction. Also, how do you review what’s been covered before moving forward? Do you focus on the learners demonstrating what they remember or the facilitator reviewing what learners should know? Finally, TD policies may need to shift to accommodate anxiety during test taking and other assessments.
  • Abrupt change can be a trigger for some learners, so be intentional when signaling transitions in content and activities. In fact, you should probably shift from the phrase “trigger alert” (trigger has become a trigger) to a movie-type rating to reduce anxiety in training settings. This dilutes the anxiety the word trigger may evoke for some people. Behind this is recognizing that every time learners are “triggered,” all learning stops because their brains become focused on survival, even in the face of imaginary dangers.
  • A known impact of trauma is difficulty making choices, so how might that change the design of your learning activities? In every learning experience, the conscious use of choice-making skills becomes more meaningful.

Bottom line: Approaching skill development through the lens of trauma’s impact means incorporating practices from the neuroscience of learning that can accommodate the impact of overwhelming experiences into the instructional cycle. When TD professionals incorporate this knowledge into their design and delivery practices, everyone wins.

About the Author

Elizabeth Power, MEd, CEO of EPower & Associates, is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, and consultant. EPower & Associates is the parent organization for The Trauma Informed Academy®.

Power develops cross-cultural adaptations of models of care for the mental health community as well as helping other countries, like Japan, develop their own models. The Trauma Informed Academy® recently released her new model, the Trauma Responsive System, which focuses on mastering 9 elements closely aligned with applied emotional intelligence.

She was recently published as third author of an article in Family Medicine about the outcomes of the NIMH research project assessing the effectiveness of the use of the core principles of Risking Connection® by Primary Care Providers in their clinical settings.

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Good read. "Traumatic experiences" obviously casts a very wide net and certain experiences may be traumatic for one person and be perfectly fine for another. Would be interesting to dive deeper into examples of traumatic experiences as they relate to events in the workplace and at home. Never really thought about these experiences and how they may affect learning. Thanks!
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Excellent article - very helpful!
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great examples of how to create a better learning environment in general - especially like the recommendation of using the movie rating scale rather than the word "trigger warning".
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