Trauma Awareness and Compassion: Essential characteristics of educational establishments seeking to address bullying

Fallen oak tree with new spring growth
Even after the devastating trauma of an uprooting, many trees retain the ability to heal and nurture new life. Their example is inspirational for it reminds us to nurture possibility and honour the life force that still pulsates through traumatised individuals and communities. Maya Angelou has distilled their wisdom into words when she reminds us “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”. This is a compassionate response to trauma, if ever there was one.

Marking National anti-bullying week (13th-17th Nov), Dr Glen Cousquer emphasises the need for trauma-informed approaches and the importance of compassion and deep listening in addressing bullying within the higher education sector.

The theme for this year’s national anti-bullying week↗️, which falls on the 13th-17th November, is “make a noise about bullying”.  This leads me to ponder what sort of noise we should be making about bullying, especially in Higher Education.  In this blog, I present a new definition emerging from recent research on bullying in tertiary education before considering the need for our organisations to become trauma informed and compassionate if we are to address bullying in the educational sector.

A recent review of bullying in tertiary education highlighted the extent to which there is no agreed definition of bullying and, drawing together elements from existing definitions, proposed:

“… a picture of bullying as unpleasant behaviour committed by an individual or group on another individual or group. The bullying may take a variety of forms, be face-to-face or online, overt or covert, one-off or repetitive, and unintentional or deliberate.  The bully may use whatever power they have to harass and intimidate the bullied.  The bullied suffers physical, psychological and/or reputational damage, and finds it difficult to defend themselves”. (Tight, 2023, p.126)↗️

This needs to be situated and contextualised within the wider crises we are seeing across the education sector. One way of contextualising this is in terms of “trauma”.  For us to do this, however, we need to become trauma-informed and to recognise the crucial importance of compassion to address the activation of the threat system that is a characteristic element of the bullying experience.

Trauma informed approaches

Trauma-informed practice seeks to promote understanding of the ways in which present behaviours and difficulties can be understood in the context of past trauma. The approach offers a framework for a common set of values, knowledge and language across services, including social care, health and education.  This represents a paradigm shift (Sweeney et al. 2018)↗️ that the education sector can learn from.

Trauma-informed practitioners recognise individuals’ emotional vulnerability and how their present difficulties can be understood in the context of past trauma.  A trauma-informed approach incorporates a set of core principles for practice that seek to avoid inadvertently re-traumatising individuals.  This can include interpreting and applying the following six principles into our teaching practice:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment, voice and choice
  • Cultural, historical and gender issues.

Perhaps most importantly, there is growing recognition that such approaches are invaluable to people in supervisory or management roles for trauma-informed practice has wider relevance and represents a whole-organisational approach to ensuring everyone throughout the hierarchy and service delivery system are supported, with their safety and well-being prioritised.

The need for compassion if we are to address bullying and promote flourishing in our classrooms

Understanding and tackling bullying is not as simple as investigating the so-called facts and fixing “the problem”.  Fundamentally, it is about changing the way we view the world.  It is about changing the helping paradigm from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”.  And this involves a compassionate turn, to the individual(s) concerned, to ourselves and to the wider system.  This starts by learning to listen with an open heart and listening with compassion (Sammons, 2019, p.205)↗️.

Deep listening involves a shift from factual listening into empathic and ideally compassionate listening. It is this that will allow us to shift from living in a society based on and organised around trauma to one that is trauma-informed and eventually healing centred. This involves meeting what lives in and between us and operating from a deeper sense of who we really are.

As MIT’s Otto Scharmer↗️ writes:

“The primary reason we have universities and other institutions of higher education today is to support the development of vertical literacy.  That means creating a learning environment in which the learner can step into his or her highest future potential in the context of hands-on societal challenges.  In our experience, this requires us, as learners, to upgrade the way we pay attention and listen, to upgrade the way we converse, dialogue, and think, to upgrade the way we organize and coordinate in the context of VUCA [Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity] shaped environments.  Everything else is secondary”. (Scharmer, 2018)↗️

We need universities to listen, to be compassionate.  Becoming a listening university starts by being unwaveringly honest and self-aware of what needs to change and how to get there.  Just as the body keeps the score and tells us whether we are safe and healthy, the behaviours and problems that appear in the ecosystem of an organisation indicate the fitness of that organisation.  If we are to address bullying within and beyond higher education institutions we need to create safe spaces where it is possible to hold the trauma associated with bullying with kindness and compassion, including the pain of holding ourselves accountable.  This will help free up valuable energy and resources and allow us to invest these in the development of non-violent communication skills, which in turn allow us to specify what behaviours are problematic, to explain how bullying behaviour impacts us and makes us feel and what we need to see change.


Sammons, A. (2019). The compassionate teacher: Why compassion should be at the heart of our schools↗️. John Catt Educational.

Scharmer, O. (2018, September 18). Three Stages of Global Movement Building: Soil, Seed, & Eco-system Activation↗️. Field of the Future Blog.

Sweeney, A., Filson, B., Kennedy, A., Collinson, L. and Gillard, S. (2018). A paradigm shift: relationships in trauma-informed mental health services↗️. BJPsych Advances, 24(5), 319–333.

Tight, M. (2023). Bullying in higher education: an endemic problem?↗️ Tertiary Education and Management, 29.

Further reading and training

picture of editor/producerGlen Cousquer

Glen Cousquer is a recipient of the 2022 RCVS Compassion Award↗️ for his work on embedding compassion into teaching and learning and campus culture. He is a recipient of the 2021 EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award↗️ and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards↗️ in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals.

Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory, and practice for sustainability, as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert↗️. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at The University of Edinburgh.

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