Classroom readings and assignments are chosen for their ability to sustain thoughtful discussion and in-depth writing. The same richness of an assignment to provoke such dialogue also has the potential to deeply affect students emotionally, particularly when the subject matter hits close to home.
Making connections between class content and students’ own lives keeps the subject matter interesting and relevant. Many students will have little difficulty discussing or writing about the subject, and might also find it a therapeutic and healing process. However for some students, making that connection can be unpleasant or even overwhelming.
For a minority of students, particularly for those who have not fully acknowledged their experiences or are in the midst of processing them, class assignments can trigger an emotional reaction that interferes significantly with their ability to complete the assignment. Flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and insomnia are some signs that a student is having difficulty processing their emotional reaction to class content.
Guidelines for respectful classroom discussions are helpful, keeping in mind that for some students in the class this is not merely an academic discussion, but a part of their own life experience. Watch for a student who may be particularly triggered by class activities. This may be as obvious as crying in class, or as subtle as withdrawal from class discussions or failure to turn in an assignment.
If you are concerned for a student, a question, privately handled, such as, “Is there anything preventing you from participating more in discussion/turning in the paper that I should know about?” could open up a dialogue. Suggesting counseling to the student is also helpful. You might try, “You know, this is a really difficult book to read. Talking with someone in the counseling center could help you cope with any difficult feelings you’re having.”
Feel free to contact the Engle Center to discuss a student you are concerned about or to consult about how to handle the emotional or psychological impact of a classroom situation.