Teaching and Learning Resource Center

Using Content Warnings in Your Course: A Trauma-Informed Approach

It’s fall semester and Jordan just started their undergraduate career at Ohio State. They’re enrolled in a full course load and working part time—by mid-October they already feel burnt out. 

Imagine that Jordan then encounters some material in your class that upsets them. Not sure if other students had the same experience, they hesitate to speak to you. Jordan recalls seeing a vague mental health statement in the syllabus but doesn’t really know where to turn for support. For several weeks, their work suffers and they wonder whether they are cut out for college.

Now imagine you had notified the class in advance about the sensitive content, explaining its connection to course learning outcomes and encouraging students to seek support if needed. If Jordan had a warning, perhaps they’d have felt prepared to successfully engage with the content.  Or, they may at least have felt encouraged to speak up about the difficulty they were having in class.

As educators, we want to challenge students to think deeply and critically about the content in the courses we teach. We strive for our classes to be transformative experiences and know that shaping a positive learning environment is essential to making that happen. 

One way to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment is to use content notes—commonly called trigger warnings—to alert students to potentially traumatic material. This is not about creating a so-called “safe space”; rather, it is about supporting all of our students. Research shows that the majority of students have survived a traumatic event—warning them about content that may be distressing is a pedagogical practice that lies at the intersection of accessibility, inclusive teaching, and universal design for learning.

This guide will address when and how to integrate content warnings in your syllabus, Carmen course, and discussions to better support students to engage and succeed in your course.


In psychology, a “trigger” is an experience or stimulus that recalls a traumatic event from the past for an individual. To understand the impact of trigger warnings, we must first understand that our students are real people with feelings and unique experiences—thus, they may be triggered by difficult content in our classes. 

Students might be triggered because:

  • The content we teach speaks broadly to traumatic events,
  • They have survived similar trauma in their lives, and/or
  • We are teaching the content in a way that is traumatizing or re-traumatizing for students.

To create a welcoming environment for all our students, we want to be mindful about the content we teach, how we introduce it in the classroom, and how we teach it in real time with our students. 

What is a trigger warning?

The practice of using trigger warnings began in the early 2000s on feminist websites “to warn readers of fraught topics like sexual assault, child abuse, and suicide, on the theory that providing warnings would reduce the risk of readers experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D.” (Gersen, 2021). Throughout the early 2010s, trigger warnings became almost standard practice in certain social media spaces. You might not expect to see “fraught topics” as you scroll through your newsfeed or timeline. So Influencers, activists, or everyday users would start their post with “TW” for “trigger warning” and then list out the topics their post covered. If the platform allowed, they would include several carriage returns before the post began so the upsetting content could only be read after the reader clicked “See more...”. 

In the early 2010s trigger warnings began to migrate from online spaces to college classrooms. In 2014 there was pushback against a trigger-warning policy that was included in Oberlin College’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide (Flaherty. 2014). The policy advised educators to “understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings.” (Gersen, 2021). A survivor of a traumatic experience, however, could be triggered by anything, and often something completely unrelated to the experience itself. Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to predict exactly which content each and every one of our students would find triggering. For example, a survivor of sexual assault might be triggered when they hear a certain song or smell a specific scent, but not necessarily from encountering a narrative account of sexual assault in literature, scholarly articles, or autobiographical material.

As the trigger warning migrated to university spaces, it transformed from warning readers about upsetting content so they could skip a post to warning students so they could safely engage with course content. From a trauma-informed approach we can understand that while “[t]eaching about trauma is essential to comprehending and confronting the human experience,” we need to “proceed with compassion and responsibility” for “both trauma’s victims and those who are learning about them” (Carello & Butler, 2014, p. 164).

Before we explore practical ideas to implement in your classroom, we will dive deeper into understanding trauma-informed pedagogy as a foundational methodology. 

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

One of the roots of trauma-informed pedagogy is trauma-informed care, which is a framework developed by mental health care providers. The idea behind being “trauma-informed” (whether providing social services or instruction) is that we should “understand how violence, victimization, and other traumatic experiences may have figured in the lives of individuals involved” (Carello & Butler, 2014, p. 156). 

As teachers, this means we should treat our students as whole people with unique histories and lives beyond our classroom and understand that these may, unfortunately, include traumatic experiences. If we begin by recognizing students’ humanity in this way, we can help them succeed in class by minimizing “the possibilities for inadvertent retraumatization, [and/or] secondary traumatization” (Carello & Butler, 2014, p. 156). Retraumatization happens when a past trauma is triggered or reactivated. Secondary or vicarious traumatization happens when we hear, read, or see upsetting content, such as narratives of victimization, and respond with empathy (Carello & Butler, 2014, 156).

Research shows that students who have survived traumatic experiences are more likely to drop out of college (Duncan, 2000). As educators, we strive to help our students succeed in many ways. Adopting a trauma-informed approach to education is one more way we can support all of our students.

"Higher education should be challenging, not traumatic: 
a period for growth and self-transformation.” 

                                                           (Goddard et al., 2021)

Do Trigger Warnings Work?

Recent research has shown that trigger warnings may not work quite the way we hope they do. On the bright side, studies have demonstrated that the use of trigger warnings does not result in students avoiding the course material, as opponents of trigger warnings have argued for the past decade. However, a series of studies out of Harvard have shown that trigger warnings have little to no effect on trauma survivors; unfortunately, the “little” effect is in the negative or harmful direction (Jones, Bellet, & McNally, 2020). 

Since research into the impact of trigger warnings is still evolving, we should proceed with caution when teaching potentially traumatic materials and be thoughtful about how we frame and introduce these materials to students. 

Below we provide practical guidance for how to carefully introduce material in your course while maintaining a welcoming environment in which all students have the best opportunities to succeed.

In Practice

Before you dive in, it’s important to keep a few things in mind—namely that trigger warnings are a matter of accessibility, and that they foster an environment based in empathy. Our students enter the classroom space with their own personal ways of knowing (experiences, histories, and struggles). We can’t expect them to leave this and their emotions behind. While we cannot always know or understand the various mental health conditions of our students or what will trigger them, we can try our best to identify potentially triggering content. 

Consider if your course includes any potentially sensitive or traumatic topics, and how you may want to flag them for students.

Below is a list of common topics you might flag. This is not an exhaustive list—there may be additional topics in your course that warrant a content warning.

  • Abuse
  • Animal cruelty or animal death
  • Blood
  • Child abuse/pedophilia/incest
  • Classism or elitism
  • Death or dying
  • Eating disorders, body hatred, body dysmorphia, and fatphobia
  • Hateful language
  • Homophobia, queerphobia, or heterosexism
  • Immigration, refugee, or border-crossing narratives
  • Kidnapping and abduction
  • Mental health struggles, mental illness, and ableism
  • Pornographic content
  • Poverty, homelessness, or financial struggle
  • Pregnancy, miscarriages, abortions, or childbirth
  • Racism and/or racial slurs
  • Religious persecution (e.g., Islamophobia, anti-Semitism)
  • Self-harm, suicide, or suicidal ideation
  • Sexism and/or misogyny
  • Sexual assault or rape
  • Torture or cruelty
  • Transphobia or transmisogyny
  • Violence
  • War

By creating trigger warnings, instructors create a more inclusive space as potentially triggering content is clearly and explicitly sign-posted for students. Moreover, when students are made aware about specific course materials, they are empowered to choose how they want to engage with them. 

Below we explore how to implement trigger warnings in your next course—from prepping for the semester, to facilitating class, to evaluating the success of your course.

Review, Reflect, and Plan

There are a number of content considerations to take into account as you prep for the semester and plan your coruse. Check off the following tasks before your course goes live. 

Review course materials.

Give yourself ample time to review your course materials, including readings, videos, podcasts, and lecture materials, as well as your activities and assignments. 

As you review, consider the following questions:

  • What materials or elements of my content were challenging to review? Why?            
  • Might this material also be challenging or triggering for students to engage with?
  • Which content or materials should I provide students an advance warning about?
Choose "content warnings" or "trigger warnings."

Do you think you should use content warnings or trigger warnings in your course?

  • Content warnings are more general, and typically forewarn students of potentially challenging moments or subjects they may encounter in your class materials. 
  • Trigger warnings—which are a subset of content warnings—are based in trauma-informed pedagogy and designed to sign-post specific materials that may cause psychological or physiological symptoms in those who engage with them. 

You can also use alternative language to warn students of potentially upsetting content. Perhaps “content note” or “disclaimer” feels more appropriate for your course content than content or trigger warning.

Make an action plan.

Create a plan of action for how you will support students. 

Here are some ideas:

  • Offer office hours as intentional time to debrief with and hold space for students. Be non-judgmental and practice active listening.
  • Know the campus counseling, emergency, or other support services you will refer students to, if needed. 
  • Build in processing time before and/or after potentially troubling in-class videos and discussions to give students space to process.
Identify institutional supports.

Consider the following questions as you prepare to incorporate content or trigger warnings into your course and support your students:

  • What does your teaching workload look like?
  • Do you have a physical space to hold office hours, or should you consider virtual?
  • What support and resources do you have from your department? From the university?

Create and Integrate

Now that you’ve identified topics that might warrant a content or trigger warning, decide how you will integrate those warnings into your course and where they should be placed within your materials. There is no “right way”—it’s up to you to determine what will work best for your class and your students. While we recommend preparing your content warnings before your course begins, there will be opportunities to add them during the semester as well.

Below are some recommended approaches to including content warnings in your course. You can use one or a combination of these techniques. 

Blanket warnings

If most of your course will include emotionally challenging or potentially triggering content, you could provide a blanket warning statement in the syllabus or as part of the course description. You can also add a blanket warnings to your Carmen course, on the homepage, a separate dedicated page, and/or at the start of particular modules.

Syllabus or schedule warnings

You may use one or more of the following strategies for adding content warnings to your syllabus or course schedule:

  • Include a personalized statement to acknowledge that you have done your best to identify potentially triggering content and encourage students to reach out to you if they have concerns
  • Mark individial readings, lectures, discussions, or other course materials with detailed warnings about specific content.
  • Including “tags” next to assigned course materials or learning activities in your syllabus . For example, you might have tags for “abuse,” “violence,” or “hateful language.”
Email or in-class warnings

If you don’t get a chance to create blanket or syllabus warnings, you can email your class in advance of emotionally challenging or potentially triggering content, or address it during class. Clearly outline your expectations for engagement and practice trauma-informed pedagogy. Recognize that students will benefit from an overview of what they will be learning. 

The following example provides a template of what an overview might look like:

“This week, we will cover and discuss [insert topic]. We’ll engage with [insert potentially distressing course materials]. I expect our conversation will take [estimated amount of time]. My hope is that we will reflect and learn [insert learning outcomes].”

Warnings with wellness breaks

Students may also need and benefit from structured breaks or explicit opportunities to attend to their wellness. Whether your course is in-person or online (synchronous or asynchronous), you can encourage students to:

  • Meditate or take some restful, deep breaths
  • Go outside or take a short walk during breaks
  • Skip content or leave class early if materials are too traumatic for them to engage with

Providing a brief overview prior to the content—as described in the previous section—ensures students won’t miss out on important learning opportunities, should they choose to skip materials or leave class early.

Observe, Encourage, and Support

As you are teaching your course, tune into how students are responding to your content and offer supports as needed.

Encourage wellness.

First and foremost, it’s important that students take care of themselves. Be explicit in relaying this message, whether via Carmen course materials, in-class discussions, or class announcements and emails. Encourage students to take space from material if they feel overwhelmed, practice mindfulness techniques like meditation, and seek out counseling or therapeutic services, as needed. Provide information about on-campus counseling services or other student supports.

Create an "accountable Space".

We can’t always guarantee “safe” spaces for students—similarily, we can’t always ask students to muster up courage for “brave spaces.” What we can do is encourage an environment based on accountability. 

Based in empathy and mutual understanding, accountable spaces ask that we take responsibility for our actions and words, whether they were intentional or not. If students feel triggered by course content or a comment from class discussion, an accountable environment can give students space to come forward, raise their concern, or ask further questions.

Learn how to promote accountability when tensions and disagreements arise in Calling in Classroom Conflict. 

Promote Trust.

Building trust with students can be hard, and it takes time. One way to establish trust with students is by making it clear to them you will do your best to provide warnings of potentially difficult material. By doing so, you alleviate the pressure that they might have to step forward to self-disclose their mental health or past trauma.

Create a check-in poll.

If you want to get a better sense of the kinds of topics your students may find triggering, you can create a survey or poll to cull results. You can brand it as a “Challenging Ideas Poll” or a “Common Triggers Survey.” You can have students submit anonymously, so they feel secure in their privacy. Use the survey results to prep your teaching material accordingly. 

We don’t recommend sharing the results of such a poll with your class—doing so may actually trigger students, or they may feel put on the spot to share why or how they’re triggered. Remember that triggers are a matter of accessibility. We don’t always need to know why or how our students are triggered—we only need to provide recognition and support.

Read the room.

Avoid putting students on the spot and try to read their verbal and non-verbal cues as best as you can. Do certain students look distanced or distressed? Did anyone choose to leave the room, or leave class early? Sometimes, disengagement is a protective act of self-care; please honor this. It’s important that students know they are trusted to act in their own best interests without judgment.

Provide options for engagement.

In addition to providing content or trigger warnings, you can offer options for students to engage differently with emotionally challenging or triggering material. For instance, you might encourage students to:

  • Take extra time and space to work through the material under controlled conditions
  • Skip or step out of class, if needed
  • Engage with supplemental material that meets a similar learning outcome (if you offer this option, provide clear directions and expectations)

Learn, Respond, and Adjust

This final section offers tips for those moments after you finish teaching a lesson—or, perhaps at the end of the semester as you look back on your course—when you realize things did not go quite as planned. What if a student discloses after the fact that they struggled with material due to its triggering themes? What if you receive an email from a student in distress? 

Despite our best efforts, it is possible we may overlook potential triggers, be unaware a student is struggling, or mishandle opportunities to intervene and show support. It’s important to learn from how students respond to our course content so we can make amends, adapt our teaching, and be more proactive in supporting our future students.  

Accept that mistakes are likely.

First of all, it’s helpful to understand—and accept—that potential pitfalls and mistakes are likely to happen. Make note of when and where they do, and reflect on how you can adjust these moments of your course for future semesters. When you take the time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t, you make space for meaningful change.

Be accountable.

Listen actively and give your full attention to students, particularly when they come to you with a concern about course content. Nobody wants to feel “dismissed” or “ignored.”

Be accountable—as soon as issues come to light, provide a proactive and sincere apology, assuring students you are committed to doing better. You might ask for clarification on what they need; for example: “What would be helpful for you right now? How can I better support you next time?” 

Owning your missteps and making a genuine apology will help you build (or re-build) trust with students, demonstrate your willingness to make changes, and foster a culture of shared accountability and mutual respect in your course. 

Keep notes and records.

Keep track of the content warnings you’ve used this semester, as well as any unanticipated concerns that arose around your course content. These notes will help you plan for and improve the next iteration of your course. 

Explore research.

Familiarize yourself with research on trauma and traumatic transference, and note how students may be affected on a psychosocial and educational level. Explore best practices for trauma-informed teaching, universal design for learning, and inclusive teaching. Consider how to apply the insights you gain to future versions of your course.

Be awesome.

Do the best you can—it truly makes a difference!


Undertaking an undergraduate or postgraduate degree is a big endeavor. Our students should be challenged intellectually. We don’t need to shy away from teaching upsetting or traumatic content, but we do need to take care to support our students as they encounter this material. 

As you reflect on how you might implement content or trigger warnings in your course, remember the following:

  • First do no harm. By alerting students to potentially upsetting or disturbing content in your course, you are doing your best to minimize harm. Whether students have survived a traumatic experience or not, the work you do to support their well-being can prevent retraumatization or secondary traumatization.
  • It’s about inclusion. Since it’s highly likely that you’ll have a student in your course with past trauma, incorporating trigger warnings creates a more inclusive classroom environment. Minimizing trauma supports all students.
  • Focus on wellbeing. Remember that the wellbeing of your students comes first. Even if you can’t flag all content that may be emotionally challenging or triggering, you can still show up for your students. Listen actively, show support when unanticipated issues do arise, and hold space for students to process course materials on their own unique terms.