Supporting Ourselves & Our Learners in Difficult Times

Educators, Learners: Humans Together

As educators, we usually interact with our learners in specific educational contexts such as class interactions, advising appointments, office hours, and research mentoring.

Of course, all of our lives extend far beyond these contexts.

Current and ongoing events can impact everyone’s experience and it is important to consider all those involved–including ourselves–as whole people.  How can we support our learners in difficult and complex times in ways that recognize our own personal needs, values, and pedagogical approaches?

What does the research say?

Learners bring not only their prior knowledge but also their emotional responses to current and ongoing events into our classrooms and other learning environments (Lovett et al., 2023; Pekrun, 2019; Cavenaugh, 2016). These emotional responses can impact learning in many ways, from enhancing interest in a specific activity to feeling unable to engage in learning at all.

It is understandable if, as educators who care deeply for our students, we may feel compelled to address student needs in times of crisis–but the question is how. What do our learners need from us? In research on the educator perspective of how to respond after a tragic event, educators often express feeling uncertain about what to do or say (DiPietro, 2003; Hosek & Austin, 2016). The emergence of “trauma-informed pedagogy” as a set of principles and practices (Harrison, Burke & Clarke, 2023) reflects a growing understanding of the need to treat school-based learning experiences as less removed from external events than we may traditionally have done.

Events impact people in different ways but some characteristics of an event increase the likeliness of distress. Among these aspects are the magnitude and scale of related media coverage and the presence of related university events, such as vigils and fundraising efforts (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

It is important to note that learners do not expect educator responses that require significant time and tailoring. For many learners, a simple acknowledgement that a tragic event has occurred and that additional support is available are sufficient (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).


Tip #1: Consider your own needs, limits, and expertise.

As you consider how you might engage with your learners during difficult times, we encourage you to first assess your own needs, limits, and expertise. Rockquemore (2015) suggests reflecting on what your own body, mind, and spirit needs. The ways in which we can best care for ourselves vary from person to person—sometimes leading us to focus on ourselves, other people, or both. Take the time to consider what’s best and possible for you.

No matter what we teach, at some level “we teach who we are” (Palmer, 2017). If current events are impacting you deeply enough that you may not be able to responsibly lead a class session, consider contacting your chair or supervisor about options to give yourself a little time to do what’s necessary so you can re-engage.

Consider also the limits of your knowledge about the events and your training and experience in leading emotional discussions with groups. The desire to listen and connect with others through dialogue is understandable, but some events are complex and nuanced enough that we risk causing additional harm if that dialogue is not led by someone deeply familiar with the issues and well-trained in managing discussions about them.

It is acceptable to say something like “I understand there is a lot of pain and confusion about recent events and I don’t want to minimize that. Out of respect for the nuances of the situation and the feelings of those impacted by it, I want to leave in-depth discussion of the topic to those more knowledgeable and trained in such discussions than I am. I would not want any helping intentions to wind up accidentally hurting people more.”

Keep in mind that you can help prepare learners to meet the challenge of difficult times without directly teaching about a given event. Cultivating capabilities such as perspective taking, critical thinking, and empathy will add capabilities to their “toolkit” of valuable skills and dispositions that students can leverage both now and when they encounter disturbing events in the future.

Tip #2: Acknowledge what is happening and its impact.

Even if you choose not to go into a discussion of a specific event, it can be helpful and important to recognize its reality and impact. Consider incorporating a brief acknowledgement and activity at the beginning of a session–for example, you may start class with a moment of silence or a brief period to freewrite. Let students know they will not be expected to share and make it clear that silent contemplation has equal merit to writing. Providing space for independent contemplation acknowledges the stress that learners might be experiencing and gives them an opportunity to transition and refocus for the learning at hand.

In the literature on how learners respond to stressful current events, most learners report a desire for their educators to respond, and gratitude when they do so (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). This aligns with the broader literature on the importance of relationships for well-being — specifically, how much learners “believe there are specific individuals to whom they matter,” including both peers and educators (Schreiner, 2010, p. 4).

Tip #3: Remind learners of the support available to them within your relationship.

Beyond acknowledgement in class, you can demonstrate your support in multiple ways. For instance, you may offer flexibility in the course, such as letting students request an extension on an upcoming assignment. You might offer expanded office hours and review sessions, letting students know they are available for support. Additionally, providing guidelines to learners about how to best communicate with you as the educator is essential for building a supportive relationship.

Be mindful that the same event can impact students differently. Likewise, what we do in the classroom can result in different student responses. Be transparent about activities and expectations, as well as any changes you make to the plans for your course or other context. Gather student input when making decisions, which can help identify difficulties to address (Jankowski, 2020).

Tip #4: Remind learners of the support available to them outside your relationship.

The learners you work with may be in need of resources beyond the scope of your particular context and expertise. Northeastern’s Center for Intercultural Engagement (CIE), the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service (CSDS), the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), and We Care provide a range of resources and support for Northeastern learners (as well as for faculty and staff). Other events may also be offered by colleges and other offices throughout the university, which you can also share. We encourage you to explore the full range of support available through university resources for teaching and learning.

Today’s upsetting events are occurring against a backdrop of great demands upon students’ mental health. Keep in mind that Northeastern has a valuable resource in its Faculty Guide to Supporting Students’ Mental Health.

Tip #5: For healthy discussions, create and enforce a culture of respect.

It is important in any course to build a supportive course climate from the beginning of the term. Consider referencing the Code of Student Conduct in your syllabus as a way of setting the stage for your expectations related to interpersonal communication.

Conduct Code Excerpt: All members of an academic community, individually and collectively, have a right to express their views publicly on any issue; however, the University insists that all such expressions be peaceful and orderly, conducted in a manner consistent with the Code and University policies, and in such a way that University business and respectful academic discourse are not unduly disrupted… Students are expected to display proper respect for the rights and privileges of other members of the University community and their guests. The atmosphere in University facilities, online, and at University events must be free from undue disruption. Furthermore, students must follow the reasonable directions of University personnel. See complete Code of Student Conduct

If you know or suspect that you may be discussing controversial topics, then co-creating a list of 5-10 ground rules or community agreements with students early in the course–and revisiting them across the semester–can build an important foundation of trust and respect. If a student says or does something that transgresses those ground rules, you can ask the class their view and other students will often help make your point because they helped come up with those agreements, too.

Even if you are not leading a discussion on a specific sensitive issue, a student might make a comment that unexpectedly brings that issue into the room. It is the instructor’s responsibility at that point to intervene to maintain a culture of respect, and this can take many forms.  A common move in this moment is to separate intent from impact: giving a student the benefit of the doubt, you might say “You probably don’t realize it, but when you _____ it can be pretty hurtful or offensive to others because _____. I know your intent was not to be hurtful: instead you can _______.”

Other responses to microaggression and bias may be appropriate. If the student persists, it may become necessary to ask the student to leave the room, and take up the matter with the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSCCR).

Tip #6: Consider how what is happening might relate to your course or context.

If appropriate, it may be worth assessing whether what is happening can become a teaching tool that relates to other topics relevant to your course or context. You may see an important connection between the event and your desired learning outcomes, such that you can engage your learners in analyzing the event in terms of related concepts, theories, and frameworks. While not appropriate in every context, this can be a powerful means of integrating real-world events with your course content or learning domain. However, keep Tip #1 in mind: the troubling events may be more complex than you expect, and centering them in your class can lead to emotional reactions that may surprise you.


Cavanagh, S.R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.

DiPietro, M. (2003). The day after: Faculty behavior in post-September 11, 2001, classes. To Improve the Academy, 21, 21-39.

Neil Harrison, Jacqueline Burke & Ivan Clarke (2023) Risky teaching: developing a trauma-informed pedagogy for higher education, Teaching in Higher Education, 28(1), 180-194, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1786046

Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring pedagogical and emotional response in higher education classrooms during the Boston Marathon Bombing crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17(1), 68-76.

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25, 207-224.

Imad, Mays. (2020, June). Leveraging the neuroscience of now. Inside Higher Education.

Jankowski, N. A. (2020, August). Assessment during a crisis: Responding to a global pandemic. University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Lovett, M. C., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Ambrose, S. A., & Norman, M. K. (2023). How Learning Works: Eight Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. John Wiley & Sons.

Reinhard Pekrun (2019) Inquiry on emotions in higher education: progress and open problems, Studies in Higher Education, 44(10) 1806-1811, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1665335

Rockquemore, K. A. (2015). Radical self-care. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Schreiner, L. A. (2010). Thriving in community. About Campus (4), 2-11.