7 Ways to Build Trauma-Informed Programs

These 6 simple practices are strategies for individuals to increase trauma-resilience into programs for people of all ages. Positive connection is a strong tactic in helping a child learn to regulate themselves.

Why do students act out in school? What has traditionally been seen as disrespectful behavior is now being viewed with more compassion thanks to a growing understanding of the effects of trauma on children.  A major study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente health system in California and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that “bad” behavior is more likely a sign of distress than disrespect. When looking at behavior through the lens of trauma, rather than asking “What is wrong with this child?” the question becomes “What happened to this child?”

Kaiser Permanente administered a 10-question test to thousands of their patients to explore the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult wellness. The test uncovered the prevalence of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occurred in people’s lives before the age of 18. The results showed a startling connection between the pervasiveness of “adverse childhood experiences (ACES)” in a person’s life and their level of physical and mental health as an adult. Says the CDC: “Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes.” With a score as low as 3 out of 10, a person can experience adverse effects on their wellbeing as an adult.

Trauma affects children in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to do well in a classroom or youth program. The symptoms of trauma include:

  • The inability to remember. Trauma affects memory, so a child may be labelled “not smart” or “not caring about learning.”  
  • Hypervigilance: Living in a persistent state of anxiety/fear leads to problems concentrating and focusing on learning.
  • Withdrawal from social engagement leads to poor relationships with teachers and other students and a lack of engagement in learning.
  • Intense emotions that a person can’t handle translates into uncontrolled and uncontrollable behavior.

The news is not all bad, however. The CDC points out that having a high ACEs score doesn’t necessarily “mean that a child will experience poor outcomes.” Positive experiences and activities that build resilience can help children cope with adversity and “can protect against many of the negative health and life outcomes even after adversity has occurred.”  The principles and practices of the Creative Empowerment Model provide a roadmap for developing trauma resilient programs that alleviate the affects of past or present trauma.

Lessons from the Bonding Process

Humans are born with immature nervous systems, with a limited capacity to regulate our emotional states. We learn to regulate through positive contact with primary caregivers in a process called co-regulation. The baby’s nervous system falls into resonance with the caregiver’s safe, loving communication. Everything a primary caregiver does to promote healthy bonding and secure attachment, teaches the baby self-regulation. These include:

•  heart to heart connection  

•  soft, stress-free, rhythmic voice

•  soft eye gaze  

•  gentle touch

•  positive mirroring (copying the movements and sounds of the baby)

•  any other things a care giver might do to soothe an infant

When children don’t receive enough positive connection, they don’t learn to regulate themselves, and this turns into the issues that are identified in the ACE study.  

7 Practices that Promote Resilience

Here are 7 easy-to-implement Creative Empowerment practices that you can use to increase trauma-resilience in your programs for people of all ages.  

1.  Engage the heart: one good strategy is to say hello to participants when they arrive in your program. Personal connection is the key stimulant to the ventral vagal nerve which supports social emotional learning.

2.  Use a calm soothing voice: avoiding talking or yelling over your group by establish shared ways for the group to fall silent. Here’s one example: the leader says, “And a hush fell over the crowd.” The group responds with an extended “Hushshshshsh.”

3.   Practice gentle touch: human beings need touch, and of course this has to be done with a keen awareness of safety. Check out this video of a teacher who welcomes each student into his classroom with a personalized handshake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0jgcyfC2r8

4.  Gentle eye contact: everyone has the need to be seen and acknowledged. Again, this needs to be done with cultural sensitivity. One way to increase eye contact is through games that require looking at one another.

5.  Engage in creative play: use activities that engage PYE’s 5 super tools: imagination, body movement, voice, rhythm, and mirroring. Receive our free e-book to learn more about the why and how of these tools: Click here.

6.   Pay particular attention to rhythm: trauma expert Bruce Perry posits that rhythm is the key to self-regulation. Here is a rhythm that we use at the start of most of our programs to bring the group into rhythmic connection. This is led by PYE co-founder Charlie Murphy. Click here.

7.   Provide opportunities to make choices: find ways to provide limited choices: would you like to do this or that? Making choices develops confidence and self-efficacy, the belief that I can affect my world.

Taking it into the schools

PYE’s Trauma-Informed Classroom Training provides educators and school system staff with ways to understand and identify trauma and bring resiliency practices into the life of the school. Says Susie Richards, South Whidbey Elementary School Principal, “Our staff loved the training and I’m seeing references to it being used throughout the school! Let’s continue the conversation.”  For info contact: Helena@partnersforyouth.org

— Peggy Taylor, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Partners for Youth Empowerment

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