The Need for Trauma-informed Instructional Design

Shouldn’t it be the adult learners’ responsibility to handle their mental health needs so they can access learning? Why should an ID even take mental health into consideration? Alumni, Mandy Brown, shares her answer.

 

The Need for Trauma-informed Instructional Design

 

When you design for learners, how often do you consider burnout? How often do you consider trauma? What about your learners’ survival responses? These are all questions I had to consider on a daily basis when I worked for a restorative justice center. 

 

I tend to use “trauma,” “burnout,” and the “survival response” interchangeably when I speak with mentees at IDOL courses Academy. And while there is a Venn diagram of the three, some quick definitions might help. 

 

The survival response (also called the stress response) is that deeply rooted instinct when one responds to danger, the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses. We have no control over its appearance in our lives. It shows up when we’re in traffic, when our loved one texts “Hey, can we talk,” when a loud noise surprises us. It’s a natural human response meant to keep us safe from harm by giving us a burst of energy so we can make the life-saving, split-second decisions we need.

 

For many learners, the repeated activation of the survival response has led to burnout. Sometimes what repeatedly activates the survival response is traumatic. That trauma could be one moment or prolonged and complex. It can even be perpetrated by one’s community. 

 

Trauma impacts child development in a multitude of negative ways. And trauma has the ability to create cognitive decline in adult brains. Think back on how the pandemic affected your cognitive ability. We’re going to be dealing with the effects of that collective trauma for a while. 

 

How well does a brain in trauma or burnout learn? How receptive is that person to training or change?

 

I’m not talking about creating training around the survival response, burnout, and/or trauma, though that may help. I’m talking about all our designs. 

 

How effective will onboarding be for a burned-out employee? Unless your company has new hires take vacation before they even start, you are onboarding burned-out employees. 

 

Dunning-Kruger’s Valley of Despair isn’t just frustration. For learners in trauma and/or burnout, it’s their survival response kicking in to keep them safe. That person isn’t going to learn, which is why it’s important for instructional designers to be trauma-informed in their designs.

 

I anticipate pushback to this idea. After all, shouldn’t it be the adult learners’ responsibility to handle their mental health needs so they can access learning? Why should an ID take responsibility for that? 

 

To these questions, I offer my own. Would you expect a learner to learn your language in order to access the learning experiences? Would you expect a deaf associate to get cochlear implants so they can participate? Does the company culture encourage taking all PTO? Does the leadership consider mental health days sick leave? Does your company even have any mental health benefits? Do all your learners make enough to pay for therapy? Does your company culture actively root out microaggressions, racism, and other sources of trauma in the workplace?

 

Trauma and burnout are community problems that manifest in an individual. Ignoring trauma in our designs creates inaccessibility and expands inequity within L&D

 

Being trauma-informed means recognizing that events outside of our learners’ control have influenced their ability to access the content. It means choosing to bridge that gap.

 

And here are a few ways to start:

 

  • Create learning around burnout strategies. Not burnout prevention. Not burnout awareness. If your learner is in burnout, they need strategies. They need concrete ways to come back from the brink, and their survival brain doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to know how to do it while activated. My first IDOL mentor session starts with acknowledging that my learners (transitioning teachers) are in burnout, and many of them trauma. I help them create a plan for when their survival responses activate so they can continue to learn something new and not get stuck in the Valley of Despair. Happy to chat more about this if you’re not sure where to start.

 

 

  • Train your managers to be trauma-informed. The first time I ever heard the phrase “psychological safety” was in a one-on-one with my manager. I’d handed her access to a dashboard so she could monitor my progress on various tasks (something she hadn’t asked for). “To protect your psychological safety, I won’t be logging into this unless it’s one-on-one with you,” she said. I hadn’t realized how much I had been trying to prove I was doing my job, how afraid I was of being fired, until that moment. This workplace culture didn’t perpetuate my fear. It was trauma I had internalized from a previous workplace where I was literally recorded doing my job 24/7 and my manager would review the recordings or monitor us live. 

 

 

  • Consider gamification. Games can create a safe environment in a short period of time. At the restorative justice center, my team and I iterated a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing scenario to create a space for soft skills in a low-risk environment. Our learners resented even being there but creating this game weaved in learning and raised engagement by 200%. To this day, it’s one of my proudest projects. 

 

 

  • Tell learners what they can expect and allow them to adjust their experience. I’m thinking a lot about simulations and this terrible example of active shooter training. But really, this is true for any experience. Unknowns can activate the stress response too. Mentees in my first session are often anxious and feel overwhelmed by all they need to get done. Seeing what I’m going to talk about each week lets them prepare accordingly and know where we’re headed. 

 

 

Above all, advocate cultural change within your organizations. We don’t want our organizations perpetuating the very thing we’re trying to alleviate. L&D has the potential to influence across the business and create real change, but only if we’re willing to step up. 


💜Mandy Brown (she/her) is a fiercely neurodivergent, trauma-informed, all-boats-rise kind of person. You can see some of her work here, and she’d love to connect on LinkedIn. 😉

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