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Teaching With Trigger Warnings

By October 13, 2016 Best Practices No Comments

Recently, I was on a plane when I remembered that I needed to order something for our house. I logged on to the Wi-Fi, hopped on to my favorite big box retailer site and ordered what I needed. It arrived at my house the next day. The world is more connected than ever before, and higher ed is no exception.

While in many ways that connectivity is wonderful, opening our minds to new ideas and experiences and flattening borders, it also can result in confusion or misunderstanding when we interact with each other. One of the best examples of this is the recent controversy about trigger warnings and how they should or shouldn’t be used in higher ed.

As with most controversies, it’s sometimes difficult to see the opportunity through all the smoke. But there is an opportunity here.

What Are Trigger Warnings?

There’s a lot of debate about what trigger warnings are, what they include and what they allow you to do or not do. I think it’s most helpful to start by talking about what we mean by “trigger.” First of all, a trigger isn’t something that makes you uncomfortable or angry. If you have an emotional reaction to your views being challenged, that doesn’t mean you were triggered; if a particular topic makes you uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean you’ve been psychologically harmed.

Psychologically speaking, a trigger is a flashback to prior trauma, brought on by something in your environment. People suffering from PTSD often have psychological triggers that cause them to relive their trauma; we see this frequently with war veterans, especially around the Fourth of July. The important thing to bear in mind is that a person whose trauma has been triggered is experiencing very real pain, pain that can interfere with conversation, education or just everyday life.

A trigger warning, then, is just a warning that something in the course material might trigger common forms of psychological trauma. If a book being read for a class features scenes of physical abuse, warning students of that fact so they can take appropriate precautions is a trigger warning.

I think of trigger warnings the same way I think of allergy warnings. My kids have allergies that can cause them some serious pain and, as a parent, I’d want their school to ensure they don’t come into contact with allergens that could hurt them. A big part of this is making sure my kids are aware of where those allergens are, so they can avoid them. Trigger warnings work the same way.

What Can Trigger Warnings Teach?

Being aware of what trigger warnings are and learning to use and respect them can teach a number of soft skills that all students — not just those with triggers — will find valuable in the working world. Some of these skills might seem familiar as you read them, and with good reason. I’ve talked about some of these before on this blog and on my other blog, the Monday Motivator, and several of these skills are primary and secondary colors of the Learning House Way.


Empathy is necessary to virtually any meaningful discussion students will have in a classroom, because students must be able to understand the opposing perspective if the discussion is to be meaningful. It’s useful in the working world too, where it’s often called “emotional intelligence.” Empathy makes students good leaders and teammates, and gives them the perspective they need to see the bigger picture in any project.

Any discussion of trigger warnings starts with empathy, because using a trigger warning is really just a way to see things from another person’s perspective and make reasonable accommodations for them.


Using a trigger warning is also a matter of respect: respecting another person’s experience and acknowledging that it’s just as valid as your own. This again is a fundamental part of being a good teammate, being a good employee or being a good leader. A person who shows respect to others builds strong bonds, either within the classroom or the workplace.


This is an important part of one of the primary colors here at Learning House, Total Ownership. We all make mistakes, and we all have to take responsibility for our words and actions. Having a conversation about trigger warnings and triggering subjects in your classroom is a good way to teach this to students. They need to know that free speech is important, and that they should be able to freely express ideas. They must also know that their speech can have consequences, both for themselves and for others, and that the First Amendment doesn’t protect them from those consequences. Trigger warnings are only part of this conversation, but they are a good way to start the conversation about being accountable for what you do and say.


Being self-aware is critical to learning to be accountable for yourself. In order to take responsibility for your words and actions, you have to be aware that sometimes you’ll say things that can cause harm. Being aware enough of your own limitations to offer a “heads up” or a sincere apology after the fact is critical to being a functional adult in the working world.


A self-aware person is also cognizant that his or her own experiences might differ from another person’s. This is the foundation of humility: that you don’t know everything.


Humility, in turn, leads to a growth mindset. By starting the conversation about respecting others’ experiences, you also start the conversation about learning about others’ experiences. People who are aware that they don’t know everything and who also want to improve are going to be an invaluable asset in the classroom or in the workplace.

A Safe Space to Learn

Educators have a responsibility to provide students with a space that is conducive to learning. Creating a safe space to learn doesn’t mean creating a space where students aren’t challenged. Far from it. Students’ views and assumptions should be challenged regularly, and a good education often makes you feel occasionally uncomfortable. But when a person who has experienced psychological trauma has that trauma triggered, learning becomes impossible. A person who is reliving a traumatic event from the past won’t be able to engage with the material or classmates, and might very well become a disruptive presence in the classroom. This is just as true of the workplace.

It’s incumbent upon educators, then, to use tools like trigger warnings not just to provide a space that is conducive to education, but to teach skills that are critical to success in the working world. Educators have the opportunity to help students learn from each other’s experiences.

How do you think trigger warnings can be used in classrooms?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: