Should teachers be using trigger warnings in class?

We need to be aware that the content of our lessons may cause distress, argues Helly Douglas

Helly Douglas

some pupils may need trigger warnings for classroom content

The standard criticism of the so-called “snowflake generation” is that they are too sensitive, lacking the resilience to deal with day-to-day traumas.

It’s this sensitivity that has given rise to trigger warnings, the argument goes, with content flagged or even removed for fear that it may trigger a negative reaction.

So is this emotional censorship? Or helpful signposting for those students at greatest risk of mental health problems?

Quick read: Teaching with cancer: how to deal with pupils’ reactions

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Want to know more? Why don’t pupils feel like they belong?

Trigger warnings originated to help those in danger of having post-traumatic reactions to severe physical or sexual assault (and this may be a larger cohort than you might imagine, according to the NSPCC’s How Safe Are Our Children? report, which found increases in reported child sex offences, cruelty and neglect).

trigger warnings

These warnings were never designed to cover every imaginable upset. And, when used too broadly, they are at risk being deployed excessively, covering every possible fear and phobia.

Trigger warnings don’t remove the impact of difficult content, but they encourage teachers to think about the individual emotional needs of their students. They can also be used to signpost the support available for those who have experienced physical or sexual abuse.

Can you foresee a trigger?

It’s unrealistic to expect to foresee all possible triggers for students but there are obvious signs to look for in lesson content, including:

  • Significant violence.
  • Issues around consent and sexual violence.
  • Violent death and dying.

And not foreseeing all triggers doesn’t mean that schools can’t plan what to do if a child is significantly affected by something in a lesson.

A trigger warning doesn’t have to be a bracketed sentence at the top of a page, or an ominous statement that “the following may contain references to…”

Instead, it could be could be a conversation with the class about an upcoming sensitive issue, a private discussion with a student likely to be affected, or a written warning within a scheme of work that teachers might choose to share with the class.

The warning itself doesn’t reduce the negative impact but does give the child a clear path of action they can take if necessary.

Are trigger warnings effective?

A study published by Harvard researchers in 2018 found that warnings could, in fact, increase anxiety, while a 2019 study branded them “at best, trivially helpful”. Both concluded that more research was needed, however.

Care should be taken to ensure that trigger warnings don’t turn into sensationalism, encouraging negative responses to challenging content.

For schools, the question is whether the use of trigger warnings can help as a signposting tool rather than looking to reduce or remove the effect of the triggers themselves.

But with the prime minister having announced mental health training for all new teachers, schools have a responsibility to plan for mental health concerns and this is undoubtedly an area that’s worthy of consideration.

Trigger warnings should not become another box to fill in on a scheme of work, nor should they be so broad that they encompass anything that could possibly upset a child.

More research is certainly needed on the topic, but signposting support for students who could be severely affected by classroom content can only be a good thing.

Helly Douglas is a primary teacher and freelance writer. She tweets @hellydouglas

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