As I travel across communities, I find a range of different reactions to discussions surrounding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Some people are completely confused and look at me with deer-in-the-headlights expressions having never heard this term before. However, those who are familiar with ACEs (and most likely have seen the movie Resilience), ask me, “Now that we know about trauma, how do we help?” As knowledge about the impact of trauma on mental and physical health is spreading, people are expressing the need for more knowledge and want to know how to begin planning to offer support to others.
In a previous blog explaining the Trauma Informed Continuum (known as the Missouri Model), the four phases (Aware, Sensitive, Responsive, Informed) were briefly defined and explained. Once communities and organizations become Aware of trauma’s impact, they are ready to move forward to explore the tasks involved in the second phase as they become Trauma Sensitive. The Trauma Sensitive phase emphasizes the accumulation of information about trauma’s impact, skills and strategies to respond to others, and the application of those new skills to build a safe environment and trusting relationships with others.
Building a “trauma lens” is the initial concept to be explored in this educational phase. Knowledge about brain development and how different areas of the brain work together will bring insight into the behaviors of some people who have experienced trauma. They are not running around with a “problem.” They have a very intelligent body process that took over to protect them in a dangerous situation. When that protective process is used repeatedly over a period of time, people begin to sense danger and react as if there is danger even when they are safe. Understanding trauma, emotions and behaviors from this frame of mind-or seeing it through this “trauma lens”- helps bring compassion and support. Trauma is not a problem to be fixed but rather a need to re-align the body because it no longer needs the protective emotions and behaviors it once needed for survival. Research shows that the first step of this realignment is best supported by experiencing a consistent sense of safety while building trusting relationships.
The Trauma Sensitive phase includes assessment and reflection on the organizational level as agencies, school and community groups begin to make decisions that will change their overall environment. Change is not always easy, so they will want to recognize their strengths and barriers related to change. It is a reflective stage as organizations will assess the occurrence of five trauma-informed principles in relation to not only clients or students, but also the staff and leadership. These principles include: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. These principles create a supportive, interactive community. It is a parallel process; the importance of feeling safe, included and valued is essential to staff, as well as the people receiving services from the organization.
In addition to assessment and reflection, the agency, school or community group will partake in ongoing education regarding the impact of trauma and how to best respond to others. Included in this education is the compassion we need to show ourselves (as we gain new information) and others (as we respond to their interactions and behavior) by remembering: We do the best we can with the knowledge that we have. As we increase knowledge, we will learn more effective ways to respond.
Because the research and information about trauma is so vast, the organization may seek to hire trauma experts for continuing education to ensure staff are using their “trauma lens” and are responding in ways that build safety and connection. Trauma-informed knowledge, attitudes and behaviors begin to be a criterion for new hiring, and trauma education is also added to on-boarding or orientation.
Internal staff that quickly adapt to utilize new skills will become peer leaders. Within the organization, these peer leaders along with administrative leaders will stress reflective, strength-based cooperation and create enthusiasm for new strategies by sharing success stories. The organization will begin to review and collect resources for trauma treatment outside their scope of expertise. Leaders and staff will recognize and address compassionate fatigue and secondary trauma and create methods for staff to routinely use self-care strategies.
To sustain a safe environment, we must learn to not mirror the chaos around us, but instead to be the calm presence that others can mirror.
The leadership will also begin to identify trauma in its mission statement and goals. All staff begin to shift and use language, routines, and procedures to build safety and trust.
The organization has embarked on a fundamental transformation. The Trauma Sensitive phase emphasizes skill and strategy development, self-reflective changes in attitude and response (at a personal and organizational level), and, most importantly, the application of those skills, strategies and self-reflective changes.
Throughout the multi-step process, becoming a Trauma Informed agency is not simply a check list for individuals or departments to complete. It is a process with safety and trusting relationships as the foundational components. Being Trauma Informed changes the environment, ideology, and personal interactions between all people to reflect unconditional respect and create trusting relationships to foster supportive communities where all people can thrive.
Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC
Creating Resilience, LLC
Excerpts and adaptations from: