As agencies, schools and communities move toward becoming Trauma Informed, we should all remember in order “to go faster we should slow down”. I often tell leadership that becoming trauma informed is similar to how great Redwood trees grow. I heard a story once that a person visited the great Redwood forest and part of the tour led the group through an area that had previously suffered from a forest fire. As the crowd looked at the small trees growing, the guide explained that the four-year-old trees that were only four inches high would be four feet high within the next year. The guide explained that the first four years are dedicated to growing a strong root system; only with deep roots can the trees grow to their full potential.
So it is with agencies, schools and communities becoming trauma informed. The first several years include creating a safe environment for employees as well as clients/students and educating all people about Adverse Childhood Experiences, toxic stress, and the preventative measures to instill in our lives to help build resilience to the negative impact of trauma. These two processes, creating safe environments and education, can take multiple years to accomplish.
We all want the quick fix, that magic wand, that will quickly help all people in all communities. We often search for just the right program to put into place. The fact is, if we do not slow down, educate staff and clients about trauma and resilience, and create the safe environments with trusting relationships (within both the staff and leadership as well as with clients, students and community members) we will be destined to continue to pour money into programs that are “putting out fires.” The positive economic impact of putting our money into preventative measures in order to decrease the massive money required to deal with the fall-out of ACEs is being demonstrated in states that have been implementing trauma informed practices with integrity. States such as Iowa and Washington have communities dedicated to becoming trauma informed and have been working for 7 or 8 years; they realize that the foundation of safe work environments and trusting relationships are vital to building long term resilience. These states are now reporting how the millions of dollars they have poured into preventative measures has saved them billions of dollars on programs to help with addiction, incarceration, mental illness, and remedial education.
The article linked here was written in Philadelphia and inspired me to write this blog. It explains the pitfalls many schools are encountering as they strive to become trauma informed. Some are trying to become trauma informed by educating part of the district staff (mostly teachers) without first creating a safe environment for teachers, nor educating about trauma informed practices from the district and state administration down. As our leaders within agencies, schools and communities begin to embrace becoming trauma informed, we must remember to slow down and first create spaces were trauma is understood, where all people are self-reflective and practice self-regulation and self-care. Within the work place and communities we must strive to have emotionally and physically safe environments that feel trustworthy to promote collaboration and build empowerment for all staff and all clients/students. If staff do not feel safe and calm, they cannot help others feel safe and calm.
I agree we need programs to help people who are already suffering the negative impact of trauma. But we MUST dedicate time and money to educate all people in strategies and concepts to prevent trauma from having a negative impact to begin with.
Nadine Burke-Harris wrote in her book, The Deepest Well, that if person after person continues to get sick from drinking out of the same well, doctors can write prescription after prescription to help with the problem. But, at some point, we need to say, “What the hell is in the well?” We cannot prevent trauma from occurring in the lives of people, however, we can equip them with knowledge, skills and relationships so the trauma does not have a negative impact on their lives. As agencies, schools, and communities, we must realize we cannot solely increase the programs we put into place once trauma has created a need, instead we must create safe environments and supportive relationships with co-workers and clients to prevent negative outcomes.
It basically comes down to this: If a school, agency or community is trying to become trauma informed by simply adding programs, it will never truly become trauma informed. Becoming trauma informed by definition means the environment of the school, agency and community must first shift perspectives regarding themselves and others. This shift includes education, introspection and collaboration between all levels of all systems. Bruce Perry so wisely advised, “People, not programs, change people.” Leadership must create physically and emotionally safe environments and take on the collaborative roll by trusting and empowering staff and clients to become part of the preventative process. If we can work together to prevent the negative impact of trauma, then we will be able to decrease the need for programs responding to trauma’s fall out. When we change the way we respond to people, the people we respond to change.
My previous blog posts discussing The Missouri Model: Trauma Informed Continuum are:
The website to explore the Missouri Model is here.
Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC
Creating Resilience, LLC