Making a Practice Trauma-Informed

The following principles can guide educators in the creation of trauma-informed practices, empowering students to bring forth their best selves in mind, body, and spirit.

 

Create greater safety for all children by offering choices through invitational language.

Sadly, some students have never felt a sense of safety at home, at school, or in their own bodies. Many traumatized children and teens live in states of hypervigilance, always assessing whether their environment is safe or not.

Giving students the choice to participate (or not) in a wellness practice can cultivate a greater sense of safety by:

  • communicating to them that they can collaborate with you on what works best for them;
  • empowering them with agency to make their own decisions about what is most comfortable for them;
  • promoting trust as students’ individual experiences are taken into consideration and valued.

If participation is not a choice, create choices by using invitational language (and avoiding directive language) within the practice.

Invitational language does not assume there is only one way or a right way, but rather empowers students with the underlying beliefs that their thoughts and feelings matter. It also helps them to understand that individual experience may vary and is neither right nor wrong—it is simply their experience.

Non trauma-informed: Sit upright.
Trauma-informed: I invite you to find a comfortable position as we start the practice.

 

Expect a variety of reactions.

Multi-sensory reminders of traumatic memories can be triggered by almost anything. Thus, when crafting a wellness practice, do not assume the experience is pleasant or helpful even if it is a common practice.

For example, we may assume breath work helps everyone relax. For some students who have experienced trauma, making what seems like a benign request such as “As we start, take a deep breath” can trigger a traumatic flashback.

Children and adults who have experienced trauma may experience constricted breath or may be unable to take a full, deeper breath. Those who feel that their heart rate is always racing may find that drawing attention to the breath sends them into a fear state with accompanying sympathetic hyperarousal.

Non-trauma informed: Take a deep breath.
Trauma-informed: As we start, I invite you to either take a deep breath or find a place that is neutral or relaxing in your mind or body.

For many who have experienced trauma in their lives, closing their eyes may also trigger a traumatic flashback. Thus, throughout a practice, it is important to give participants the choice of whether to open or close the eyes.

Non-trauma informed: Close your eyes.
Trauma-informed: I invite you to close or open your eyes as we start, whichever is more comfortable.

Finally, body scan practices can be very difficult or intolerable for children, teens, and adults with eating disorders. More specifically, drawing attention to one area of the body, the throat, can trigger a traumatic flashback for students who have asthma, were nearly strangled or drowned, etc. With these caveats in mind, exercise caution when inviting students to focus their attention on specific body parts.

 

Invite exploration and be prepared for the possibility of distress.

Some mindfulness practices begin by asking students to bring attention to distress or to think about a distressing time in life, and then to notice how this feels in their bodies. These types of suggestions can magnify the distress, leading to a traumatic flashback. A traumatized child may then either shut down or go into a hyper-aroused state.

Non-trauma informed: Think of a challenging situation you are facing right now. Notice how this makes you feel in your body.
Trauma-informed: We will begin by remembering a time when you felt uplifted, a greater sense of peace or calm in your life. As you remember, pay attention to sensations of well-being on the inside. Next, we will purposely generate a little tension or stress in our minds and bodies by thinking of a challenging situation, so we can then learn how to use self-compassion.

During a practice, educators can invite students to explore the internal experiences of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, while at the same time allowing for the option to stop the exploration if it brings too much distress.

Non-trauma informed: No instruction is given if a student begins to feel distressed.
Trauma-informed: As we begin the practice, if at any time it becomes too distressing, you have the option to stop. If that happens, you can look around the room and name colors or count backwards from ten until you feel less distressed.

If a student experiences stress during a practice, educators can also help them to regulate their nervous system by noticing neutral or pleasant sensations like the feeling of their feet on the ground or the sound of laughter on the playground.

A pain reaction within a practice can also revolve around a traumatic experience, so it’s important NOT to tell participants “Don’t worry about it; it’s okay.” Instead, invite participants to focus on something else in the present moment that might be true (i.e., comfortable and neutral sensations).

Aside from sensations of distress, what else exists in the present moment that is less distressing, less painful, or more comfortable?

Notice any pleasant sensations you are feeling—warmth, coolness, or softness. If unpleasant sensations arise, redirect your attention back to areas of comfort in your body—perhaps to your hands, fingers, toes, or wherever you feel most comfortable.

 

Encourage curiosity and avoid prescriptions.

Students who live in traumatizing homes are often told that their experience is incorrect or invalid, so they may begin to doubt their ability to view their lived experience accurately. If the practice states that something is “good” when it is not experienced in that way, a student may continue to believe his thoughts or feelings don’t matter.

Thus, it is important not to project upon participants what you want their feelings to be—or to place a value judgment on an experience. Also, encouraging curiosity frees the participant to simply describe their experience, whether it is good, bad, or neutral.

Non-trauma informed: Do you all feel peaceful after doing this practice?
Trauma-informed: Now that we have ended, does anyone have any new thoughts or feelings to share?

 

Be mindful of body experiences.

Neuroception describes how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. When students have experienced trauma, they may have faulty neuroception, and they can interpret even benign glances as being dangerous. Thus, a student who is neuro-diverse or who has experienced trauma may have great difficulty making eye contact or being too physically close to a peer.

Because directing students to make eye contact with a classmate during a practice can be distressing, offer options to help students feel safe when engaging with others.

Non-trauma informed: Sit across from a partner and look at each other.
Trauma-informed: As we begin the exercise, I invite you to sit across from your classmate. Find a comfortable space to start. You can look your classmate in the eye or soften your gaze to the floor or some place in the room, whichever is more comfortable.

Source: Elaine Miller-Karas, LCSW

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“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
–Helen Keller