Trauma

Background

FosterEd serves youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems (“system-involved youth”). Overwhelmingly, system-involved youth have experienced and/or are currently experiencing trauma, which has been defined as “a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”[1] This trauma may include experiences of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, substance abuse, witnessing violence, loss of loved ones, mental illness of a parent, and/or other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).[2]  Youth may also experience trauma in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, such as trauma caused by housing instability, immigration proceedings, detention conditions, violence and abuse by peers or staff in an institution, separation from family, and changes in home and school placements.  It is also important to consider the role that less visible or obvious forms of trauma, such as historical trauma, may play in a youth’s life. Finally, it is important to acknowledge the social context in which ACEs occur.  While childhood trauma can impact youth of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, deeply embedded structural racism results in a disproportionate impact on youth of color.

Trauma may be differentiated by type, including acute trauma (short-lived and tied to a specific time or place), chronic trauma (prolonged exposure to trauma over a long period of time), and complex trauma (exposure to multiple or prolonged trauma).[3] If children are exposed to six or more forms of violence or abuse, this is referred to as polyvictimization.[4] Re-traumatization may occur when youth have to discuss or are reminded of these experiences. Research shows that the impact of trauma on youth may cause physiological, emotional, and behavioral changes that can interfere with learning and school engagement.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes a trauma-informed approach as reflecting adherence to six principles: safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and cultural, historical, and gender issues. A trauma-informed program “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”[5]

What does this mean for our work?

FosterEd is committed to bringing a trauma-informed approach to all areas of our work, including in our work directly serving individual youth in demonstration sites.  This includes:

  • Understanding the impact of trauma on youth, including the impact of traumatic stress[6] on their educational experiences and paths towards their educational goals
  • Helping other professionals on our education teams, such as teachers and school staff, better understand the impact of trauma on youth, including on their educational experiences
  • Helping parents, caregivers, and education rights holders better understand the impact of trauma on youth, including on their educational experiences
  • Recognizing the signs of traumatic stress in youth
  • Helping connect youth with tools / resources to recognize and respond to their own “triggers”[7]
  • Actively avoiding re-traumatization in our conversations and other communications with youth
  • Avoiding any known triggers identified by professionals working with the youth that may remind the youth of their traumatic experiences, and, when appropriate, helping other education professionals working with the youth understand and avoid these triggers
  • Creating a calm, comfortable, and confidential environment for meetings with youth in which they feel they can safely communicate with Education Liaisons and education team members
  • Considering whether the youth would benefit from educational services related to their trauma, such as special education services, and if so, advocating for those services as part of the youth’s education plan
  • Creating meaningful, supportive connections between youth and caring adults and encouraging those adults to play a key role on the youth’s education team, as healthy relationships can help youth heal from trauma
  • Whenever possible, including mental health professionals on the youth’s education team, to ensure education goals and services take into account the youth’s mental health needs and avoid re-traumatizing the youth
  • Ensuring that the support we provide recognizes and celebrates the youth’s strengths and assets, and offering youth consistent, positive encouragement if the youth experiences setbacks
  • Placing youth at the center of their own education plans, and encouraging youth to be the drivers of their own education goals
  • Helping education teams to better understand how to support youth resiliency through strengths-based education goal setting and identifying/providing services that support those goals
  • Communicating with youth and with education team members in a culturally competent and culturally sensitive way that respects the youth’s individual experience and identity and avoids stereotypes and biases based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender identity, geography, and system involvement
  • Understanding that parents and caregivers who serve on education teams may also be trauma survivors, and incorporating trauma-informed strategies into communications with these team members
  • Providing volunteers who engage with youth and/or families with opportunities and resources to learn about trauma-informed practices
  • Recognizing that professionals serving youth and families experiencing trauma may experience secondary or vicarious trauma, and encouraging one another to practice self-care and seek help when needed

What are some potential next steps towards ensuring our work is trauma-informed?

  • Provide FosterEd staff with ongoing training / professional development opportunities and resources to learn about trauma
  • Provide FosterEd staff with trainings that teach concrete strategies to recognize and manage triggers, both in themselves as well as within youth they serve
  • Review and update FosterEd case processes in California, Arizona, and New Mexico to better reflect youth development principles and an understanding of the impact of trauma on learning
  • Develop a plan for consistent check-ins between FosterEd Education Liaisons and youth that incorporates trauma-informed strategies, that goes beyond the education teaming process, and that makes youth the drivers of their own educational futures
  • Revise FosterEd’s goal bank and goal development process to ensure youth goals are strengths-based and asset-based, not deficit-based, and that the goal-setting process is a positive and motivating experience for youth

Additional Sources

SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma Informed Approach (2014), available at http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content//SMA14-4884/SMA14-4884.pdf. CSEC Action Team California, Improving California’s Multi-System Response to Sexually Exploited Children: Resources for Counties, available at http://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Improving-CA-Multi-System-Response-to-CSEC-v2.pdf; National Center for Children in Poverty, Strengthening Policies to Support Children, Youth and Families Who Experience Trauma (July 2007); National Child Traumatic Stress Network, www.nctsn.org (last visited Aug. 26, 2015); Federation for Children with Special Needs, Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process, available at http://fcsn.org/rtsc/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/11/Trauma-Sensitivity-During-the-IEP-Process.pdf; U.S. Dept. of Ed., Mentoring Fact Sheet: Putting Youth Development Principles to Work in Mentoring Programs (2007), available at http://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/factsheet14.pdf; U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Secondary Trauma, available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/responding/trauma/secondary/; M. McInerney & A. McKlindon, Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools (2015), available at http://www.elc-pa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Trauma-Informed-in-Schools-Classrooms-FINAL-December2014-2.pdf.


[1] See Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Terms: Definitions,” http://www.samhsa.gov/samhsaNewsLetter/Volume_22_Number_2/trauma_tip/key_terms.html.

[2] For information about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, see Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs),” https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/.

[3] See Eva J. Klain, “Understanding Trauma and its Impact on Child Clients,” American Bar Association, http://www.americanbar.org/groups/child_law/what_we_do/projects/child-and-adolescent-health/polyvictimization/understanding-trauma-and-its-impact-on-child-clients.html.

[4] See id.

[5] See Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Trauma-Informed Approach,” http://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions.

[6] Traumatic stress occurs when children are exposed to one or multiple traumas and “develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after the traumatic events have ended.” This stress interferences with “the child’s daily life and ability to function and interact with others.” See The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “What is Child Traumatic Stress?”, http://www.nctsnet.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/what_is_child_traumatic_stress_0.pdf.

[7] A “trigger” is defined as “some aspect of a traumatic event that occurs in a completely different situation but reminds the child of the original event,” such as “smells, feelings, place, postures, tones of voice, or even emotions.” See Dept. of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway (2014), “Parenting a child who has experienced trauma,” https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/child-trauma.pdf.