Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Responding to Distressing Events


The guidance below suggests ways that you can acknowledge events or circumstances with your students, whether you decide to engage in conversation or not, as well as resources for conducting conversations or classroom activities related to distressing events.  

When distressing events occur on campus, in the surrounding community, or at a broader level, it is important to think deeply about how these events impact the learning experience and may harm students that are personally affected. On the one hand, conducting conversations in the classroom around distressing current events can lend needed support and lead to learning and growth. On the other hand, if these conversations are not carefully planned, they can be difficult to manage and have potential to harm, rather than support, students personally affected by the events in question. For all conversations in which you might engage with your students, it is important to consider the effects of trauma, particularly on students from minoritized groups, and to take care to create an environment that is mindful of student identities and the range of emotions that students may be experiencing.  

Acknowledging the Situation and Students’ Feelings 

Regardless of your opinion or stance on a given event, acknowledge the distressing event and promote a space in which understanding and empathy can flourish for your students. To do so, you may decide to reserve some time at the beginning of class or to send a communication to students by email. Existing research (Huston and DiPietro, 2007) on the topic of whether and how to address distressing events on the national level in classrooms (done in the wake of 9/11) suggests the power of even briefly acknowledging the circumstances with your students during a class session. As Jamilah Pitts (2016) says in the article Don't Say Nothing, “when you don’t have the words and can’t plan the lessons, don’t just say nothing; say exactly what you are feeling. That will mean more to your students than you may ever know.” 

Whether you address the situation in class or by email, we recommend that your acknowledgement:

  1. names the event or circumstance;
  2. acknowledges the range of emotions students may be feeling; 
  3. provides support to your students (for example, if you are continuing with class, you might let students know how they can access additional opportunities to review the material you will cover if they are feeling distressed, you might offer opportunities for extended deadlines, etc.); 
  4. directs students to further resources (this can include campus resources—such as the Cross Cultural Centers, Black Academic Excellence Center, Dream Center, Counseling Services, Student Ombuds Services—as well as an offer to talk one-on-one with any students who would like to discuss the issue with you or who would benefit from help seeking assistance processing their emotions).

If you are writing an email acknowledgement, you may choose to draw from statements of support or solidarity made by the University, colleges, or departments.  

There are several options for how to proceed in the classroom after acknowledging a distressing event. Many faculty elect to continue class as it was originally planned; others offer students a moment to reflect (this can be a moment of silence, time for students to jot down their feelings, or an opportunity for students to voluntarily name how they are feeling) before transitioning to the scheduled lesson plan. In cases where you choose not to engage in discussion about a distressing event in class because of your concern for students and your knowledge that many students are feeling emotions such as anger and grief, you may want to let students know that you are open to talking one-on-one outside of class. 

Conducting an Inclusive Conversation  

If you feel well prepared to engage in a deeper conversation with students about the distressing event, you may choose to dedicate the entire class session to the conversation. When conducting any in-class discussion around distressing events, it is important to carefully plan and prepare for the discussion. The resources below can support you as you plan and prepare to support students and respond to distressing events: 

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High Stakes Topics (University of Michigan CRLT) 

Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion (University of Michigan CRLT) 

Making the Most of “Hot Moments” in the Classroom (University of Michigan CRLT) 

Teaching in Tumultuous Times (University of Michigan CRLT) 

Affirming Black Lives Without Inducing Trauma (Teaching Tolerance) 

Teaching About Race, Racism, and Police Violence (Teaching Tolerance) 

Strategies for Equity and Inclusion in the Virtual Instruction (CTLT) 

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