In this brief, learn how to strengthen trauma-informed practices for staff. Review three strategies staff can use to practice trauma-informed care. Find examples of how to support staff in a trauma-informed program.
How to Strengthen Trauma-Informed Practices for Staff
In a trauma-informed culture, leaders work to strengthen trauma-informed care (TIC) and practices for both the program and the staff. Supervisors and coaches can help staff build on families' strengths—and their own. They can help staff prepare for their emotional reactions to families who have experienced trauma. Leaders and supervisors can work with staff to reflect on their practice. They can encourage staff to ask for help, focus on what they can do, and let go of what they can't.
Leaders can help staff to value their own passion and the healing power of their relationships—for the families they work with and for themselves. (See Brief 2. Caring for Ourselves as We Care for Others in this series.)
Leaders and staff can use three key strategies to strengthen their TIC practices: strengths-based attitudes and practices, reflective practice, and reflective supervision.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), trauma-informed care "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; responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization." (SAMHSA, 2014)
Strengths-Based Attitudes and Relationship-Based Practices for Trauma-Informed Care
Using strengths-based attitudes and relationship-based practices can support TIC. See the Building Partnerships with Families Series in Related Resources to learn about these strategies and how you can use them.
These attitudes and practices offer strategies to help you develop positive relationships with families when traumatic events and adversity are part of their experience. These strategies can help you become aware of assumptions and judgments about concerning behaviors and interactions that may prevent you from recognizing underlying trauma. These attitudes and practices can help strengthen fragile relationships with families who have experienced past trauma or who are experiencing current trauma.
You can use these strategies to help build positive relationships that offer a safe emotional space for families to share with you. The attitudes and practices can help you understand families' perspectives and support them in their healing process. As you gain experience in applying the strengths-based attitudes and relationship-based practices, you will find your own words for a healing response. Use reflection to help you apply the attitudes and practices for TIC.
Reflective Practice for Trauma-Informed Care
Reflective practice means considering what we and others bring to an interaction before acting. As we think before we act, we can reflect on thoughts and feelings—both our own and those of the individuals we are interacting with. We can consider how these may influence what we decide to do or say. Reflective practice can be an everyday practice.
Trauma-informed reflective practice can help staff respond to the signs and symptoms of trauma. It can help staff integrate and implement what they learn in TIC trainings. Trauma-informed reflective practice can also be used to help staff and families actively resist re-traumatization. (See Brief 2. Caring for Ourselves as We Care for Others in this series for more about resisting re-traumatization.)
Staff and supervisors are rarely trained as mental health professionals. They are not expected to play that role for families or for each other. Staff can use reflective practice to notice the thoughts and feelings they have when working with families who have experienced trauma. These thoughts and feelings may become confusing, distressing, and overwhelming. You may become concerned that these thoughts and feelings are making it hard for you to function at work or at home. It can be helpful to share them with the mental health consultant connected with your program, a mental health professional, or faith-based counselor.
We can use reflective practice to keep trauma in mind as a possible explanation for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We can use it when we try to understand behaviors—in other staff, parents, family members, or children—that we find distressing or don't know how to respond to. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves in reflective practice:
- Why is this behavior bothering me so much?
- What might this person really be trying to say?
- Why am I finding myself thinking so much about this interaction?
- Is there something about this interaction that reminds me of others in my life?
- What may have happened in this person's past that might be driving this behavior?
- What has this person's past experiences with "helpers" been?
We can use reflective practice to help us see beyond the behavior to recognize the underlying trauma. Recognizing behaviors driven by trauma can help prevent us from responding in ways that re-traumatize those engaging in these behaviors. We can use reflective practice to help us engage with the whole person, that person's strengths, and their unique individuality.
We can use reflective practice to resist re-traumatization. This means protecting ourselves from being traumatized. It also means ensuring that we do not traumatize or re-traumatize the staff and families we work with. For example, reflective practice can help us think before we:
- Reject a person whose distrust or distancing behavior we've judged as aloof or uncaring
- Bring up a topic with violent content that may be triggering
- Express caring and concern that, for someone who has experienced trauma, may be felt as uncomfortably close or too invasive
- Show irritation or frustration, which may be perceived as a warning sign of impending violence for someone who has experienced trauma
Reflective Supervision for Trauma-Informed Care
Reflective supervision is an ongoing conversation between a staff member and a supervisor who is trained in reflective supervision. These conversations are dedicated to promoting reflection on thoughts and feelings that arise in our work with families. Reflective supervision is key to supporting staff when working with families who have experienced trauma. It can be used to address staff's vicarious trauma and to support staff who have experienced trauma.
Reflective supervision is not therapy. But it is common for our work with families to bring up memories of our own traumatic experiences. If these memories fill our thoughts most of the day for more than a few days, it may be helpful to talk about them privately with a mental health professional. This can help us resist being re-traumatized.
Supervisors trained in reflective supervision learn specific skills that create a culture of safety. They learn, for example, how to:
- Turn mistakes into learning opportunities
- Protect confidentiality
- Help staff turn their vulnerabilities into sources of strengths
We can bring to reflective supervision our ideas and questions about the behaviors of the families we work with that may be driven by past experiences of trauma. We can also discuss our assumptions and reactions with our supervisor. Then, we can determine how best to put aside any judgment and respond in ways that create safety and build trust.
Supervisors can help us find ways to respond that do not just focus on concerning behaviors but also honor families' strengths and positive intentions. This can help us help the person we are working with to feel safe, overcome the urge to withdraw, and be fully present with us.
Reflective practice can help us identify when we are experiencing vicarious trauma or trauma triggers. (See Brief 2. Caring for Ourselves as We Care for Others in this series for more information about vicarious trauma and trauma triggers.) With reflective practice, we may become aware of interactions with children, families, or staff that have traumatized us or may have triggered us.
We may want to discuss these reflections with a supervisor trained in reflective supervision. Or we may choose to seek out a mental health professional with whom to share these reactions. Remember that TIC includes "resisting re-traumatization," and that also means protecting ourselves from trauma triggers that can re-traumatize us.
How to Support Staff in a Trauma-Informed Program
Here are some examples of other ways that leaders and supervisors can support staff in a trauma-informed program:
- Promote flexible ways of communicating
- Offer supportive check-ins and debriefs
- Plan regular self-care and mindfulness training
- Use the mental health consultant's expertise to boost TIC across the program
- Create opportunities for staff to come together
Promote Flexible Ways of Communicating
You may notice that staff or family members are having a hard time expressing themselves calmly or directly. Consider offering to take a break and talk again the next day.
After an intense event at work, provide staff members with time to settle themselves and calmly re-enter the work space. This could be a 15-minute break, a supervisory meeting, time to meet with the mental health consultant, or encouragement to use reflective practice.
Remember that our ways of handling distress are also shaped by our cultures.
Offer Supportive Check-ins and Debriefs
Supervisors and leaders can offer supportive check-ins and debriefs. They may know in advance that an especially difficult conversation or challenging event is going to occur. For example, staff might have to tell a parent that his child has said that someone at home has been hurting her. Or a family may need to move into a shelter. Other challenging interactions and events may be sudden and unexpected.
Either way, staff, supervisors, and leaders can talk with staff before and after both the challenging conversations they expect and those that are unexpected. Supervisors and leaders can offer follow-up check-ins and debriefs. These conversations are important. Challenging circumstances or events can lead to emotional reactions that change over time. Regularly checking in about these reactions and feelings is a way to honor staff and their own humanity as they face difficult circumstances at work. Check-ins can help staff sort out what is in their power to change and what is not.
Plan Regular Self-Care and Mindfulness Training
Programs can encourage staff to practice skills for coping and self-regulation in moments of calm. That way they can use these skills during more charged or challenging times. When programs establish regular times for reflective practice, self-care, and/or mindfulness, they communicate to all staff how important these skills are. This action also shows staff how important staff wellness is when providing TIC.
Use the Mental Health Consultant's Expertise to Boost TIC Across the Program
Mental health consultation is a part of every Head Start and Early Head Start program. Mental health consultants engage staff regularly in reflective practice. They may provide encouragement for staff who are seeking the help of a mental health professional.
Mental health consultants also can partner with program leaders to help identify and understand trauma-related challenges in staff and families. They support programs in implementing program-wide supports.
Create Opportunities for Staff to Come Together
Trauma can affect the way we perceive ourselves and others, and how we are in our relationships. That is why it is important to keep trauma in mind when we come together for staff meetings, supervision, training, and informal interactions.
In trauma-informed programs, leaders and supervisors create safety by setting clear expectations for communication. They co-create ground rules with staff about how meetings will be conducted. They model fairness, reliability, and trustworthiness. Leaders and supervisors work on their own self-regulation. To do this, they pay attention to their own feelings and reactions. They learn and use soothing strategies that help them to settle themselves. They also respect and welcome differences among staff, families, and children.
Leaders keep trauma in mind as they design opportunities for staff to meet. When leaders, supervisors, and staff come together, there may be differences in power—real or perceived. For people who have had experiences of trauma, it is common to feel powerless. For example, many people who have experienced interpersonal trauma might fear that those with power may use it in ways that are unpredictable, unjust, or harmful.
In trauma-informed programs, leaders, managers, and supervisors understand this. They share power whenever possible. They are clear and straightforward about how, why, and when they use the authority of their roles. They do so in ways that are fair and just.
Programs can consider these and other ways to make their everyday activities respond to trauma's impact and help staff resist re-traumatization. They can use these ways, along with program-wide practices and strategies, to strengthen TIC and healing for families—and staff. See Brief 4. Strengthening Trauma-Informed Program Practices in this series for more details.
Learn more about the topics in this brief. Explore the following resources available on the Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC) website.
A Collection of Tips on Becoming a Reflective Supervisor
Review this resource to learn how to become a reflective supervisor. Find examples of the three components of reflective supervision: regularity, collaboration, and reflection.
Building Partnerships with Families Series
Explore this series to learn about ways to strengthen goal-oriented relationships and partnerships with families.
- Building Partnerships: Guide to Developing Relationships with Families
- Strategies for Family Engagement: Attitudes and Practices
- Family Engagement and Cultural Perspectives: Applying Strengths-Based Attitudes
- Partnering with Families of Children Who Are Dual Language Learners
- Preparing for Challenging Conversations with Families
- Engaging with Families in Conversations About Sensitive Topics
- Engaging Families When There Is Child Welfare Involvement
Family Connections: Short Papers for Staff
- Supportive Supervision: Promoting Staff and Family Growth Through Positive Relationships
- Self-Reflection and Shared Reflection as Professional Tools
Reflective Supervision: Putting It Into Practice
Watch this webcast to help you implement reflective supervision in your Early Head Start, Head Start, or Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program. Find a mini-training with Early Head Start practitioners.
Using Reflective Supervision to Build Capacity (video)
Watch this webinar to learn how reflective supervision can be used to build reflective capacity for education staff and improve program quality and practice.
Resource Type: Publication
National Centers: Parent, Family and Community Engagement
Last Updated: June 1, 2023