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Using a Trauma-Informed Approach

What is trauma?

Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening. Trauma has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, referred to as ACEs, can have an impact on health and well-being into adulthood. The more ACEs a person has, the greater the possibility of negative health outcomes. To learn more about the impact of ACEs visit these resources:

Reminders of these experiences can have a re-traumatizing effect on people who have experienced trauma. That's why more and more professionals and young people are calling for a "trauma-informed approach" to programs that involve sensitive topics (for example, sexual health education).

What is a trauma-informed approach?

A trauma-informed approach to programming means understanding, recognizing, preparing for, and responding to the effects trauma may have on program participants.

Understanding: Guiding Principles

There are six guiding principles to consider when looking through a trauma-informed lens. These include safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and cultural, historical, and gender considerations [1, 2, 3].

  • Safety: Ensuring physical and emotional safety, including where and when programs are delivered and awareness of a participant's discomfort.
  • Trustworthiness and transparency: Ensuring trustworthiness through clarity, consistency, interpersonal boundaries, and transparency in decision making.
  • Peer support: Providing the opportunity for participants to support and learn from one another using their lived and possibly shared experiences. If not appropriate for the program setting, a referral to an outside peer support group may be beneficial.
  • Collaboration and mutuality: Communicating respect for participants' life experiences and history; communicating respect for the fact that individuals are the experts of their own lives; partnering with participants by identifying tasks that can be worked on together.
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice: Ensuring that individuals have a voice and take part in decision making regarding their level of participation, building small but important choices into programming.
  • Cultural, historical, and gender considerations: Acknowledging the role culture, history, and gender can play in trauma; actively moving past cultural stereotypes and biases; understanding the healing value of traditional cultural connections; recognizing and addressing historical trauma.

Preparing for Program Delivery

What can you do to prepare for a program? Get to know your participants as much as you can before you meet them. Find out:

  • What on-site and community-based resources are available to participants?
  • Were you asked to come in for a specific reason?
  • Have there been any traumatic incidents that participants have encountered or heard a lot about recently?

Recognizing and Responding

Recognizing and responding doesn't mean being constantly on the lookout for a young person who may be triggered by something you say. It also doesn't mean you have to do the work of a therapist or social worker while facilitating activities.

Rather, it is important to recognize that some of the behaviors that participants exhibit may stem from trauma — youth may not intend to be disruptive. It means your response comes from a place of making sure every young person feels safe and included. It means not asking yourself "what's wrong with this kid?" but instead "what may have happened to this kid?"

Finally, remember that secondary or vicarious trauma can occur through exposure to the traumatic stories and experiences of others and can have a very real impact on educators. Make sure you are consistently practicing self-care.

Trauma Resources for Program Providers

SAMHSA's Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach

This report presents a working concept of trauma and a trauma-informed approach to human services in order to develop a shared understanding of these concepts across an array of service systems and stakeholder groups. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Implementing a Trauma-Informed Approach for Youth Across Service Sectors

In this webinar, presenters discuss the concept and prevalence of trauma; techniques for coping with and recovering from trauma at an individual and systems level; the core principles for building a framework for understanding trauma; and implementation of elements essential for a trauma-informed system. Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs and SAMHSA.

Integrating a Trauma-Informed Approach with Youth Development Programs

This issue brief introduces key components of a trauma-informed approach to youth development programs. Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, Inc.

The 12 Core Concepts for Understanding Traumatic Stress

These interactive, online lessons lead participants through the Core Concepts: conceptual lenses used to better understand childhood trauma, trauma's causes and effects, and strength-based systems approaches to intervention planning. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Creating Safe Spaces: Facilitator's Guide to Trauma-Informed Programming

This guide to trauma-informed programming is for facilitators who deliver school- and community-based or one-on-one programs to young people. It includes checklists that facilitators can use before, during, and after program delivery to ensure that they are using a trauma-informed approach. Family & Youth Services Bureau.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

This webinar series addresses the complex impact of secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Prevention and intervention strategies are addressed at various levels within an organization. Note that you must create a user account to access this course. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

The Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care

The Institute offers online courses and resources for those wanting to better understand trauma. University at Buffalo.

Trauma Resources for Sex Educators

Guide to Trauma-Informed Sex Education

This guide provides facilitators, educators, and youth-serving professionals with concrete strategies for integrating a trauma-informed approach into sex education and pregnancy prevention programming. CARDEA.

U Choose to Know: Are you a trauma-informed sex educator?

Use this tool to break down what students who have experienced trauma need from you as an educator and how to apply trauma-informed principles in your sex education facilitation. Healthy Teen Network, UChooseBaltimore.

A Checklist for Integrating a Trauma-Informed Approach into Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs

Use this checklist to find out where your program is already integrating principles of a trauma-informed approach and where you can improve. While the checklist was designed for teen pregnancy prevention programs, almost all of its points are more broadly applicable. A list of resources follows the checklist. Office of Adolescent Health and Healthy Teen Network.


  1. Fallot, R. D., and Harris, M. (2009, July). Creating cultures of trauma-informed care: A self-assessment and planning protocol. Community Connections.
  2. National Center for Trauma-Informed Care and Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint, SAMHSA. (2015, August). Trauma-informed approach and trauma-specific interventions.
  3. SAMHSA's Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative (2014). SAMHSA's Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.