What Are the Basics of a Trauma-Informed Environment?

Topics: Overcoming Challenges

By Whayne Herriford, SCP, SPHR

In a word, the basis of a trauma-informed environment is resilience: increasing the ability of a child to successfully adapt their behavior and perspective in the face of risk and adversity.

Resilience is promoted when we can help the child:

  • Discuss and process their experience of trauma so it moves from a physiologically experienced phenomenon to one that’s more cognitive in nature and can be addressed
  • Encourage them to identify and practice healthier ways of expressing their feelings and needs.

The three basic principles for creating safe, supportive environments are:

  1. Create an environment that is perceived and felt as safe
  2. Provide an opportunity for individuals in trauma to successfully self-regulate their behaviors in productive ways and create a sense of belonging to communities around them
  3. Install routines, schedules, structures and rules that are predictable and allow the individual to establish a sense of competency and achievement.

A technique used by many practitioners is mindfulness training, which helps an individual to calmly focus on the present while calmly acknowledging their current feelings, thoughts and body sensations with a desired outcome to experience the present in a productive and safe way.

In some schools, a focus on mindfulness training has resulted in the creation of a “safe spot” in the classroom where the student can go when they are feeling anxiety. The safe spot gives students a place to rest, do something that calms them down or otherwise process the energy they may have in a healthy and safe way.

Other tips for achieving trauma informed environments include:

  • Boundaries: Respecting the physical boundaries of children. Many students who have been traumatized have strong reactions to touch, feeling cornered in any way or having movement restricted.
  • Consistency: It cannot be stressed enough how important consistency is for traumatized children and adolescents. Being able to count on procedures, routines and boundaries and, know that whatever consequences are created will be maintained, is important to offset the sense of unpredictability and uncertainty that many traumatized children feel. Additionally, informing them when things change – and even involving them when possible – helps students who have experienced trauma adjust to change by being part of it.
  • Acknowledge Feelings: Encourage students to express their needs and feelings and provide acknowledgement for their actions, regardless of how their expressions are handled. The more they feel that they can be engaged in outcomes that affect them the more trust is built and the less suspicious or wary they are likely to be.

Six developmental outcomes that serve as a guideline for assessing psychosocial growth from trauma are:

  1. Attachment: The ability to form health relationships with others
  2. Self-regulation: The ability to note and regulate physical responses as well as reactions
  3. Affiliation: The capacity to join with others and contribute as a group
  4. Attunement: The recognition of needs, strengths, preferences, interests and values of others and ability to respect them when different from their own
  5. Tolerance: The capacity to understand and accept how others are different from you
  6. Appreciation: The ability to appreciate one’s worth and the worth of others

The importance of self-care for caregivers

Of equal importance in a trauma informed environment is self care. People who interact with traumatized individuals on a routine basis run the risk of compassion fatigue, which is a form of burnout that can be experienced as physical, emotional or spiritual exhaustion.

Among the warning signs of compassion fatigue are anger, depression, physical or emotional exhaustion, physical problems (headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleeplessness), hopelessness, harmful self-medication activities or neglecting your own needs and interests.

The key to self-care is to give yourself time to recharge your batteries on a regular basis as well as set reasonable and solid boundaries for yourself. We cannot always fix everything we encounter with others, so sometimes the goal is to give the person a brief respite from their problems. You cannot take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself.