Strategies that focus on trauma informed practice can draw upon the knowledge gained from helping children and adolescents who have survived traumatic experiences. Danger and losses that attend the loss of safety are usually wake up calls that urge individual survivors and schools to recognise that it is time for change. But once we start facing problems, they are generally bigger – more complex – than they appear at first glance and it is difficult to know where to start. When faced with complexity it is important to have some kind of cohesive framework that helps structure the development of an action plan for change. In schools, it is essential that the students and the school staff get on the same page so that their goals and strategies for achieving those goals are aligned. Similarly, from a whole school perspective, it is critical that staff members, administrators, and when relevant, board members agree on basic assumptions and beliefs about their shared mission, desired outcomes, and methods for achieving their goals. For traumatised students, this includes both social-emotional, as well as behavioural goals.
For individuals and for school systems, this requires a rigorous process of self-examination and the development of a core system of meaning that will guide behaviour, decision making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Such a process involves the willingness to temporarily reflect on the past, create a culture of inquiry to examine problems, and commitment of sufficient time to engage in honest dialogue. Constructive discourse, however, depends on good communication and recovering individuals need to learn how to listen and how to talk. Likewise, chronic systemic problems lead to communication breakdowns and the loss of feedback loops within organisations. As a result, an organisation like a school or an education department must learn how to reconnect and integrate with various parts of itself.
This can only occur by practicing democracy in action, not just in theory. Thus far in human evolution, democracy is the best method we have created to approach the problem of complexity. There is little about modern life that is not complex, and this is particularly true in addressing the problems related to trauma and its impact on individual and social existence. To heal, individuals must learn to modulate emotional arousal so that emotion does not interfere with the cognitive processes necessary to ensure good decision-making and problem solving. It is through participation in work groups, teams, and meetings that routine emotional management occurs within organisational settings. Crisis-driven organisations sacrifice communication networks, feedback loops, participatory decision making and complex problem solving under the pressures of chronic stress and in doing so, lose healthy democratic processes and shift to innovation and risk-taking resulting in an inability to manage complexity. The cure for this situation is more democracy. This requires leadership buy-in and immersion in the change process, an increase in transparency, and deliberate restructuring to ensure greater participation and involvement.
Democratic participation requires a level of civil discourse that is missing in many organisational settings, including schools, due to a lack of conflict resolution mechanisms within the organisation. To be healthy, organisations must have the goals of conflict resolution as organisational goals. This means learning to walk the talk, embedding conflict resolution strategies at every level, not turning them over to a separate department or individual who is the formal instrument of conflict resolution. An environment that encourages participatory democratic processes, complex problem-solving and routine conflict resolution is an environment that encourages social learning. In an environment of social learning, every problem and conflict are seen as an opportunity for growth and learning on everyone’s part (Bloom, 2004). In this way, the correction of errors becomes a challenging group educational process instead of a method for punishing wayward individuals. This requires a growth in understanding of the power of group processes.
“Is it working?” is the question that an organisation like a school needs to repeatedly ask itself. Healing from trauma and chronic stress requires change and movement since the hallmark characteristic of stress is repetition and resistance to change. Like individuals, organisations often keep repeating the same strategies that never work, or that do not work any longer and then attribute failure to the children that are being served instead of the methods that are being used to help them change. Change can be frightening and dangerous or change can be exciting and even fun. This depends a great deal on the values and vision that the members of a school are willing to share together and share with the students. The hopelessness, helplessness, and loss of faith that accompany trauma and chronic stress are signs of stagnation that can only be overcome through creating a different vision of possibility toward which every change can be measured. An organisation that heals from its own past history of chronic stress and trauma and rejects the notion of inevitable crisis is an organisation that is able to contain the emotional turmoil so characteristic of working with traumatised students without becoming ‘trauma organised’ itself. This is what is meant by a ‘trauma informed system’.
Principles of trauma informed organisations
Trauma informed organisations are characterised by seven dominant principles of practice that include:
- Culture of nonviolence: helping build safety skills and a commitment to higher goals.
- Culture of emotional intelligence: helping to teach emotion management skills to both staff and students.
- Culture of inquiry and social learning: helping to build cognitive skills.
- Culture of shared governance: helping to create civic skills of self-discipline and administration of healthy authority.
- Culture of open communication: helping to overcome barriers to healthy communication, reduce acting out, enhance self-protective and self-correcting skills, and teaching healthy boundaries.
- Culture of social responsibility: helping to rebuild social connection skills, establish healthy attachment relationships.
- Culture of growth and change: helping to restore hope, meaning, purpose and empower positive change.
The impact of creating such trauma informed cultures should be observable and measurable. The outcomes we should expect to see include:
- Less violence including physical, verbal, emotional forms of violence.
- Systemic understanding of complex biopsychosocial and development impact of trauma and abuse with implication for response.
- Less victim-blaming, less punitive and judgmental responses.
- Clearer more consistent boundaries, higher expectations, and related rights and responsibilities.
- Earlier identification of and confrontation with perpetrator behaviour.
- Better ability to articulate goals, create strategies for change, justify need for holistic approach.
- Understanding how trauma re-enactments occur within organisations and contribute to resistance to change.
- More democratic environments at all levels of an organisation.
Through the implementation of trauma informed practices, staff members engage in prolonged dialogue that serves to surface the major strengths, vulnerabilities and conflicts within organisations. By looking at shared assumptions, goals and existing practices, staff members from various levels of the organization are required to share in an analysis of their own structure and functioning, often asking themselves and each other provocative questions that have never been overtly surfaced before. The emphasis on the development of more democratic, participatory processes is critical because these are the processes most likely to lend themselves to the solution of very complex problems while improving staff morale, providing checks and balances to abuses of power and opening up the community to new sources of information.
Leadership in trauma informed practice
Implementing trauma informed practice begins with the development of a core team that represents participation from every level of the organisation to ensure that every voice is heard. It is vital that all key organisational leaders become actively involved in the process of change and participate in this core team. Experience has that courageous leadership is always the key to systemic change and without it, substantial change is unlikely to occur. This change process is frightening for people in leadership positions and they rightfully perceive significant risk in opening themselves up to criticism, in levelling hierarchies and sharing legitimate power. The gains are substantial, but a leader only finds that out after learning how to tolerate the anxiety and uncertainty that inevitably accompanies real change. Since few of us have much real-life experience with operating within democratic systems, learning how to be an effective democratic leader necessitates a shared and often steep learning curve.
The responsibility of the core team will be to actively represent and communicate with their constituency and to become trainers for the entire organisation. The care team will work out team guidelines and expectations of involvement for individual team members as well as a meeting schedule. The core team will also need to decide on safety rules for the constructive operation of the team itself. Ultimately the core team will be responsible for the development and implementation of a curriculum aimed at including the entire organisation in the change process. The ultimate goal is to maximise the sharing of information that is so vital to healthy trauma informed organisations.
Adopting a whole school trauma informed practice approach
Phase 1: Looking at the organisation’s history
The first task of implementing trauma informed practice is to review an organisation’s history, using the past to help us understand the present. The focus then shifts to the fundamental question of “are we safe?” Similar to the applications in individuals, organisational safety is understood as occupying four domains, all of which must be in place for an organisation to be truly safe: physical, psychological, social and moral safety. The question “how do we manage emotions as a group?” requires a review of the change processes inherent in every organisation. Staff are asked to anticipate the inevitable resistance to change that is a fact of life in every organisation. They require all staff to review their style of managing emotions, the way decisions are made, and conflicts are resolved. “How do we deal with loss?” touches on how the organisation deals with the losses that are inherent in every setting – staff leave, leaders depart, funding changes lead the loss of whole parts of a particular program or section of the organisation, students fail and sometimes, in tragic circumstances, members of the community die. The inability to deal with losses may lead to a system whose growth is arrested, similar to the impact of unresolved grief in the lives of individuals. A focus on the future of an organisation lends itself to the opportunity to being creating a new vision of what the organisation can be and do if it can move again. In this way, team members together begin to forge a different model of how they want to work together to achieve organisational goals.
Phase 2: Values and vision
The second phase of implementation involves the core team identifying the most important organisational values and identify areas where the organisation is not actually living those values. The discussions about shared assumptions are likely to begin with an assumed consensus that is actually false – profound conflicts are likely to have been bubbling under the service for quite some time but have never been clearly articulate. The core team must surface these conflicts, evaluate the impact on the functioning of the organisation, and decide on the values they are willing to share – and act on – together. Then the core team develops a statement on how they would like the staff and administrators to view their children and adolescents; to view each other and the organisation as a whole. Through this shared group existence, the core team members experience open and transparent decision making and personal feedback that is so valuable in a trauma informed organisation (Kennard, 1998).
Phase 3: Democratic communication processes
Didactic presentations and discussion will help the core team members learn about what it means to engage in more democratic processes on the part of educational leaders, staff, and students, particularly in terms of the simultaneous increase in rights and responsibilities. They must learn about the basic principles that go into creating and sustaining a trauma informed environment. They evaluate the existing policies and procedures that apply to staff and clients and ask whether or not they are effective in achieving the goals that they strive for. The team begins to draft a program constitution and develops a comprehensive plan for the steps they should take to close the gaps between the school they want to be – based on their values and vision – and the school as it exists in the present. This process focuses on inclusiveness, participation, rights and responsibilities, decision-making, conflict resolution, rules and norms, consequences for risky and unsafe behaviour, responses to stress and to violence, responses to secondary trauma and self-care and continuance and maintenance of normative standards.
Phase 4: Teamwork and collaboration
The next focus of implementation is on teamwork, collaboration and systems integration. The core team develops a vision statement for how they believe the work groups or teams should function together to produce a more democratic and cohesive staff group. They then develop a plan for the steps they will take to improve teamwork and collaboration in order to make that vision a reality. The team also begin the process of developing a statement of expectations for staff around their responsibility to confront each other in a constructive manner and initiate a plan to increase the conflict resolution resources within the school.
Phase 5: Understanding trauma and its impact
Studying and understanding concrete information about the impact of trauma on children, adults, families and systems is vital for creating a trauma informed school system. Supplementing didactic and experiential training, core team members need to stay updated on the latest research and findings on the impact of child maltreatment, family violence, and community violence on students. Discussion focuses on the way in which the knowledge about traumatic stress needs to be integrated into the existing policies and procedures of the organisation including the impact of exposure to vicarious trauma and its impact on organisational function.
Phase 6: Creating and reviewing school procedures and processes
In the next phase of implementation, the core team develops a plan for consistent review and response to incidents that breach the safety of teachers and other students. They will identify what student behaviours and what staff behaviour may have led to the incident occurring. It may be beneficial to include trauma informed practice experts and consultants in these procedures. A trauma informed approach emphasises the creation of a nonviolent environment with interventions and strategies designed to minimise the probability of such behaviours occurring again. The core team develops or reviews an intervention plan to use with the student and with each other in high risk and escalating situations. They will develop or review policies for the thorough debriefing after any incidents of violence or loss and develop a plan to train staff as required.
It is also worth periodically reviewing and revising grievance procedures as well as performance reviews to reflect the emphasis on safety and emotion management of the staff. The core team will outline how the school organization should address issues relating to be more trauma informed and what it takes to build a better future and to change the trajectory of student’s educational journey from what it has been to what it can be.
Check out this information sheet from Headspace School Support on coping following the death of a student, or students by suicide. The resource has some good general tips for self-care and coping: https://headspace.org.au/assets/School-Support/Self-care-for-school-staff.pdf
Kennard, D. (1998). An introduction to therapeutic communities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.