• VPEC

The Human Behind the Trauma - Six Techniques for Creating a Trauma-Informed Environment

“Underneath that traumatized person, there’s a healthy individual who has never found expression in his life.”

“Underneath that traumatized person, there’s a healthy individual who has never found expression in his life.”


~ Dr. Gabor Mate, "The Wisdom of Trauma"


As violence prevention educators, a large part of our job is understanding, and teaching others to understand, what it means to be trauma informed.

But sometimes, the term is thrown around without the weight it deserves.


Being trauma-informed is about more than having sensitivity, and more than recognizing that trauma has occurred (though those two things are extremely important).


We like to think of being trauma-informed as having a type of x-ray vision that allows us to see past the trauma and through to the human being behind it.


Here are six techniques that we suggest for creating a trauma-informed environment and reaching the humans we're working with.


(Download Guide)


1. Provide Opportunities to Make Choices


Choices are empowering.


Here are some choices we can give our students and help them regain a sense of control and autonomy:


  • "Would you like to participate, watch, or cheer somebody else on?"

  • "Would you like to do the whole exercise, or one particular part of it?"

  • "Would you like to modify this exercise to make it more comfortable for you?" (This question is particularly important for activities involving touch.)


2. Increase Predictability


When students feel a sense of predictability, they feel more at ease and are more able to focus on what's happening in the present.


We can increase predictability by:


  • Sticking to a routine.

  • Having an agenda accessible to students.

  • Talking about what's happening and what's coming.

  • Letting student's know about any change of plans.


Here's Carrie Slack speaking more about choice and predictability in her talk at VPEC 2020:


3. Normalize Stress Responses


"Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. (They) may live in a body that is always on guard. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past."

"Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. (They) may live in a body that is always on guard. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past."


- Bessel van der Kolk, author The Body Keeps the Score


We all have physical responses to stress. Our bodies have a wide range of stress responses, from slightly shaky hands, to a pounding heart, to tonic immobility (often referred to as "freeze").


It's important to emphasize to our students that stress responses are not only normal, they're a form of self-care and self-protection.


The more we help students understand what's happening in their bodies and how to work through it, the less scary stress responses become.


*Note: Repetitive motion can be very grounding. We strongly recommend leading gentle breathing exercises and simple repetitive movements, or even encouraging students to move around and "shake out the stress" between activities.


Here's an example of a grounding technique demonstrated by Clara Porter, MSW, Founder, Prevention, Action, Change:



4. Commit to Being Trustworthy


It's unrealistic to expect or demand that our students trust us. But we can commit to building trust by:


  • Creating a culture of confidentiality.

  • Fostering a sense of community.

  • Answering questions honestly.

  • Listening without judging.

  • Respecting boundaries.


5. Honor Courage and Power


Even the seemingly simple act of showing up for a workshop, counseling session, or any other form of support might take more courage than we expect.

Even the seemingly simple act of showing up for a workshop, counseling session, or any other form of support might take more courage than we expect.


We can recognize that power by giving positive feedback and creating activities and exercises that allow students to connect with their emotional and physical inner strength.


6. Respect Vulnerability


Vulnerability is a form of strength (or even a superpower) that gives us the courage to be seen and heard, build meaningful relationships, and be open to experiences that promote healing.


It allows us to take risks even when we know we might not succeed or win in the traditional sense.


When we’re working with a trauma survivor who freezes, panics, or breaks down, we’re not witnessing weakness.


We are actually witnessing the ultimate form of bravery.


* What are some other ways that we as violence prevention educators can foster trauma-informed environments? *

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