Handling Trigger Topics in the Classroom

How do you create a classroom setting that allows discussion of sensitive, triggering topics? Five suggestions.

When most people think of adolescents, they picture moody and troublesome teens, full of angst. Although I would argue this stereotype, by and large, is not true—sensitive topics like drug use, dating violence, eating disorders, depression, and suicide are topics that are important to cover in a class about adolescent development. While most adolescents come through their teenage years healthy and happy, some do not, and we can all learn from their experiences.

In most topics I cover, I encourage my students to think about real-life examples that help them to better understand class issues, and perhaps even share those examples to help their classmates better understand them as well. Usually, this adds immensely to the class discussion, and gives students very memorable illustrations of course concepts that they retain long after the tests and papers are graded. For instance, one of my students recently shared his mother’s unique approach to the “sex talk” in a class discussion about sex education. He humorously recounted how she would sandwich little sex “facts” into a wholly unrelated conversation. For example, while unpacking groceries, she would say “Did you buy some milk? Did you know that once a month women shed the lining of their uterus? The bread goes over there.” These experiences and anecdotes help the students (and me) to think about the material in new and interesting ways, to perhaps relate the material to more concrete/experiential knowledge, and to remember what was discussed in class (often these anecdotes show up in exam answers to illustrate course concepts).

There are, however, some topics that I cover for which students may not feel comfortable sharing experiences. Moreover, there are some topics that I cover which could be triggering for any students in the class who have dealt with similar issues in the past—dating violence and suicide, for example. These sensitive topics need to be addressed differently. They need to be approached carefully, with potential “victims” feelings in mind, and with plans in place for what to do if a student is “triggered.” This semester, for example, I had a student who was triggered by our discussion of dating and “hooking-ups” because of a traumatic experience she had in high school, and a student who was triggered by our discussion of depression and suicide, and actually expressed suicidal thoughts to a classmate.

What is the best way to handle these topics that can trigger?

First, I think it is important to make it clear that I do not think these topics should be avoided. That can be our first impulse, after an experience with a student who gets triggered. Obviously we do not want to upset students, and the potential to do so can scare us away from covering these types of issues. However, I think it is important to address these sensitive issues in the safe and open environment of a classroom, and the fact that it “hits close to home” for some students may only serve as evidence of the significance of these topics.

One strategy for handling these topics is to set the appropriate tone in your classroom before these topics are discussed. Maintaining a safe and respectful classroom environment will reduce the likelihood that any discussion will end up offending or triggering any of your students. If students feel that they are listened to, and respected by, not only you but also their fellow students, they will likely be more comfortable discussing (or even just listening to the discussion on) sensitive topics.

Another strategy you can employ before any sensitive topics are discussed is to clearly indicate when (on the syllabus) these topics will be covered. This gives any students who may be concerned a “heads up” about what may be discussed in class that day. One of my students shared with me that she found certain material very triggering, but that she could handle discussing it if she mentally and emotionally prepared herself. By making it clear when these topics were likely to come up, she was able to prepare herself and participate in class discussions.

On the day of a sensitive topic, it may be a good idea to set ground rules for the discussion (even if it is just a reminder to reiterate ground rules you have already established). For example, “Remember that what is shared in this class stays in this class. Be respectful of your classmates, and do not share details of their experiences with others outside of this class.” It may also be a good idea to give a “trigger warning” for things that may be upsetting to certain students. I had a crisis counselor come speak to my class recently about suicide, and she began with a “trigger warning” and explanation of what she was going to cover. She then facilitated an exercise where students could anonymously share how suicide had touched their lives. I was initially nervous about this activity, but interestingly almost every student reported that their life had been personally touched by suicide, and after that exercise no single student felt like they were the only one.

Finally, I like to end discussions of sensitive topics with positive steps that students can take if similar issues arise in their own lives. In our recent discussion of depression and suicide, for example, I set aside class time to have someone from counseling services come train my students in suicide prevention. After giving students a sense of what the warning signs may look like, she gave them specific and concrete examples of what to do if they recognized these signs in a friend or loved one.

I think that discussing these sensitive topics is important, and providing them with the tools to address these issues in their own lives may potentially be one of the most important things they learn.

By Renee Peltz Dennison

Photo by Nichizhenova Elena/AdobeStock