Do Trigger Warnings Actually Work for Students?


Why do traffic lights go from green, to yellow, then to red? Why not just green to red? The yellow of a traffic light serves as a warning to drivers that the light will change soon. The yellow light is not telling them to stop or go, it is just a warning that the light will soon turn red. Now, this essay is not designed to be about traffic lights, but by including the comparison of the two it will later serve as an example that proves the importance of trigger warnings in high schools. 

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) defines a “trigger warning” as something that someone adds to a video, text, etc. “in recognition of strong writing or images which could unsettle those with mental health difficulties”. If administration in high schools required teachers to provide trigger warnings it would prepare students from being blindsided, it would actually open up conversations with academia leaders, and all without going against the First Amendment. 

Starting off, providing students who have experienced trauma with a warning about sensitive material will allow them to prepare themselves. Many opinion editorials that can be found on the internet argue that trigger warnings limit academic freedom. To the contrary, many school counselors claim that trigger warnings actually help students. For example, “Students with a history of trauma...feel particularly sensitive or hyper-aware…trigger warnings help them to avoid fight-or-flight modes that occur when they are exposed to words or imagery that remind them of the trauma” ( Source: Wake Forest University). Fight-or-flight responses can be dangerous in a learning environment. With the absence of a trigger warning, instead of students getting the warning and preparation they need to face a topic, they are getting thrown into the metaphorical deep end. A fight or flight response occurs when someone is placed in a stressful situation, the brain then reacts by either fighting the situation or by pushing it away. In terms of a flight or fight response, Kendra Cherry describes how a warning can help students prepare for a flight or fight response,“By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure”. Essentially, when a student is warned about potentially harmful material it allows them to prepare accordingly with hopes that it will reduce additional trauma. 

In addition, trigger warnings can actually help students and teachers form a bond. When a teacher takes the time to notify their students of potentially sensitive material it shows the students that they care. In order to illustrate this, a student named Jasmine Mithani stated the following, “I was in an English class last year that was reading The Autobiography of Red,”... “ I emailed my instructor asking if she would inform the class that the book described incestual sexual abuse... She immediately responded in the positive, and at the end of the next class she told us to take care with the reading, as there were depictions of sexual abuse and incest. That’s it. This experience restored my faith in the instructors at this university (University of Chicago) – their empathy, their care for the wellbeing of their students, and the respect they have for the integrity of their pupils. Trigger warnings are not about oversensitivity – they are about empathy, and recognizing the varied experiences of all students at this university” (Source: Wake Forest University). Teachers don’t want to see their students suffer. When a student suffers, their work suffers. Subsequently, the teacher suffers. A trigger warning is a very simple additive that allows a conversation to occur between students and teachers about troubling issues. 

Above all, the main argument that is mentioned in articles that oppose trigger warnings is that they are against the first amendment, but that is simply not true. In reference to freedom of speech the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (U.S. Constitution). A trigger warning, is something that warns about sensitive material and therefore does not go against freedom of speech. Trigger warnings do not limit the content of something, they just warn that it may have a negative effect on someone with trauma. Therefore, it does not limit freedom of speech since the topic is still allowed to be discussed. Teachers still have the academic freedom to teach the lesson but by warning the students it allows them to be prepared for a difficult discussion. 

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