Danger Sign

A trigger warning is a statement made prior to sharing potentially disturbing content. That content might include graphic references to topics such as sexual abuse, self-harm, violence, eating disorders, and so on, and can take the form of an image, video clip, audio clip, or piece of text. In an academic context, the instructor delivers these messages in order to allow students to prepare emotionally for the content or to decide to forgo interacting with the content.

Proponents of trigger warnings contend that certain course content can impact the wellbeing and academic performance of students who have experienced corresponding traumas in their own lives. Such students might not yet be ready to confront a personal trauma in an academic context. They choose to avoid it now so that they can deal with it more effectively at a later date – perhaps after they have set up necessary resources, supports, or counselling. Other students might indeed be ready to confront a personal trauma in an academic context but will benefit from a forewarning of certain topics so that they can brace themselves prior to (for example) participating in a classroom discussion about it. Considered from this perspective, trigger warnings give students increased autonomy over their learning, and are an affirmation that the instructor cares about their wellbeing. 

However, not everyone agrees that trigger warnings are necessary or helpful. For example, some fear that trigger warnings unnecessarily insulate students from the often harsh realities of the world with which academics need to engage. Others are concerned that trigger warnings establish a precedent of making instructors or universities legally responsible for protecting students from emotional trauma. Still others argue that it is impossible to anticipate all the topics that might be potentially triggering for students.

Trigger warnings do not mean that students can exempt themselves from completing parts of the coursework. Ideally, a student who is genuinely concerned about being re-traumatized by forthcoming course content would privately inform the instructor of this concern. The instructor would then accommodate the student by proposing alternative content or an alternative learning activity, as with an accommodation necessitated by a learning disability or physical disability.

The decision to preface potentially disturbing content with a trigger warning is ultimately up to the instructor. An instructor who does so might want to include in the course syllabus a preliminary statement (also known as a “content note”), such as the following:

Our classroom provides an open space for the critical and civil exchange of ideas. Some readings and other content in this course will include topics that some students may find offensive and/or traumatizing. I’ll aim to forewarn students about potentially disturbing content and I ask all students to help to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and sensitivity.

Prior to introducing a potentially disturbing topic in class, an instructor might articulate a verbal trigger warning such as the following:  

Next class our discussion will probably touch on the sexual assault that is depicted in the second last chapter of The White Hotel. This content is disturbing, so I encourage you to prepare yourself emotionally beforehand. If you believe that you will find the discussion to be traumatizing, you may choose to not participate in the discussion or to leave the classroom. You will still, however, be responsible for material that you miss, so if you leave the room for a significant time, please arrange to get notes from another student or see me individually.

A version of the foregoing trigger warning might also preface written materials:

The following reading includes a discussion of the harsh treatment experienced by First Nations children in residential schools in the 1950s. This content is disturbing, so I encourage everyone to prepare themselves emotionally before proceeding. If you believe that the reading will be traumatizing for you, then you may choose to forgo it. You will still, however, be responsible for material that you miss, so please arrange to get notes from another student or see me individually.

Trigger warnings, of course, are not the only answer to disturbing content. Instructional strategies such as the following can also help students approach challenging material:

  • Give your students as much advance notice as possible about potentially disturbing content. A day’s notice might not be enough for a student to prepare emotionally, but two weeks might be.
  • Try to “scaffold” a disturbing topic to students. For example, when beginning a history unit on the Holocaust, don’t start with graphic photographs from Auschwitz. Instead, begin by explaining the historical context, then verbally describe the conditions within the concentration camps, and then introduce the photographic record as needed. Whenever possible, allow students to progress through upsetting material at their own pace.
  • Allow students to interact with disturbing material outside of class. A student might feel more vulnerable watching a documentary about sexual assault while in a classroom than in the security of his or her home.
  • Provide captions when using video materials: some content is easier to watch while reading captions than while listening to the audio.
  • When necessary, provide written descriptions of graphic images as a substitute for the actual visual content.
  • When disturbing content is under discussion, check in with your students from time to time: ask them how they are doing, whether they need a break, and so on. Let them know that you are aware that the material in question is emotionally challenging.
  • Advise students to be sensitive to their classmates’ vulnerabilities when they are preparing class presentations.
  • Help your students understand the difference between emotional trauma and intellectual discomfort: the former is harmful, as is triggering it in the wrong context (such as in a classroom rather than in therapy); the latter is fundamental to a university education – it means our ideas are being challenged as we struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance.

If you have further questions about trigger warnings, feel free to contact your CTE Liaison or other CTE staff member.

Further Resources:

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Trigger Warnings. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.