Should We Even Be Doing Behind Closed Doors?

We have previously talked about Behind Closed Doors and how to use them as a form of assessment. It would be irresponsible to not discuss Behind Closed Doors in more depth. Sometimes these activities function more like hazing than a continuation of learning and training. For those that may not have heard of Behind Closed Doors before, they are a hands-on activity where a situation is acted out such as a roommate conflict, alcohol violation, or traumatic disclosure and then resident advisors act out their responses. Here is a quick video from Acadia University that explains what Behind Closed Doors often looks like.

I believe that the format of Behind Closed Doors matters when making sure that this is a beneficial experience, ultimately being able to know that students can apply their learning to a crisis situation is necessary within almost every resident advisor position given the duty component of the role. However, active harm will happen if your department does not take appropriate steps to make sure these are developmental learning opportunities. Here are a few recommendations on how to make the Behind Closed Doors experience the most beneficial it can be and as safe as possible:

Train Your Guides

Do not assume that your guiding staff know what they are doing in Behind Closed Doors. Train your guides in how and when to cut off a scenario if it no longer serves a student’s learning. Train your guides in how to provide feedback to the student’s learning in these experiences. Train your guides in what is absolutely necessary in a scenario and what is a “nice to have” in how students approach scenarios. If your guides are not prepared to lead student staff through this experience, they may create harm because they do not know any better.

Have a Trigger Plan

What is the plan when a student is triggered during a Behind Closed Door situation? Know that this is not an if, but a when. How are you communicating this plan to students prior to a situation arising and what does follow up look like? Are you providing trigger warnings in advance of situations? Working with your campus counseling center or other community partners could be a positive step here to make sure you are following trauma-informed practices in your activity. Think deeply about why you are including a situation that may trigger participants in your Behind Closed Door situations. Is it absolutely necessary to act out this scenario or is there another option for how to present this content?

Add in Tabletop Discussions

Think really hard about the value of acting out specific situations. Is it really beneficial to act out a traumatic disclosure or is it more important that your students know their best steps when receiving a traumatic disclosure? What are the potential impacts of acting out a traumatic disclosure, not only to the staff “responding” but also to the actors? Consider what specific crisis situations need to be acted out and which can be completed as tabletop discussions. When you really dig into it, you might be surprised at how many situations are actually better suited to tabletop discussion compared to an acted out experience.

Framing As Learning

When I was a Resident Advisor, the worst part of Behind Closed Doors was the shaming that happened when a scenario didn’t go exactly as it was supposed to. If these are meant to be developmental learning opportunities, make them set up as such. One of my favorite tools was to remind our teams before Behind Closed Door scenarios that they had access to all the same tools and resources during these scenarios as they would in the “real world.” That meant at any time they could “call” the Resident Director on call and we would mock a call where they could ask questions or seek assistance. In the “real world” they always had this option and we trained them that they were never alone, so it was important that the same expectations existed in Behind Closed Doors.

Bring in Outside Actors

Behind Closed Doors is a great opportunity to bring in campus partners, community partners, and other housing staff as your actors. This could be a great opportunity to bring in some of your facilities staff, nonprofits in the area, or leadership on your campus who are wanting to engage in resident advisor training but you don’t have the space in your schedule to accommodate them. Shifting away from having returning resident advisor staff as your actors allows them to also engage as participants. After all, how do you know that all of your returning student staff don’t need practice? Personally, I worked with multiple returning resident advisors every year who had never mediated a roommate conflict or addressed a party situation, so having an opportunity for them to practice again even though they were returning to the position was necessary.

Does your school have an acting program? This might be a great opportunity to partner together with faculty in that program or students who are available in the summer. If possible, pay those who are supporting your program!

Have Specific, Expected Outcomes for Every Situation

Know exactly what you are expecting to see students do within each and every Behind Closed Doors scenario you are doing, whether it is acted out or a tabletop discussion. This makes sure that you have a reason for each scenario you are doing and not just doing it because it is something “we have always done”. Having these specific, expected outcomes allows you to build a rubric and use Behind Closed Doors as a form of assessment and allows you to actually know if the resident advisors understand how to apply their training to duty situations. This also allows the guide to provide feedback on those required aspects of each scenario.


I recently participated in a conference where the keynote speaker Dr. Nicole Bowman asked us, “Are you a part of the trauma or a part of the transformation?”

The decision is yours, but I hope you choose to be a part of the transformation. Ultimately, there are positive aspects of Behind Closed Doors that are difficult to replicate. If a department chooses to engage with Behind Closed Doors, the damage that can be created is something that each housing department has a responsibility to mitigate. Each of us has a responsibility to turn Behind Closed Doors into a positive, non-harming experience for our student staff or to remove it from our training repertoire completely.

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