Monday, February 6, 2017

Reducing the impact of trauma on vulnerable individuals and communities

by Janet Viveiros, National Housing Conference

A story in the Hechinger Report last month shows how schools in New Orleans have incorporated trauma-informed teaching methods and treat students as “sad, not bad.” I was struck by the parallels between this story and a previous NHC report, “Strengthening Economic Self-Sufficiency Programs,” which describes how constant exposure to high levels of toxic stress changes the way individuals’ brains process information and the way people will handle challenging situations. 

This means that traditional program designs or policies for affordable housing and other social programs may be in direct contrast to the needs of the population they serve. Strict rules and zero tolerance standards can be triggers for additional stress and trauma. Programs that are guided by this understanding are often referred to as “trauma-informed.” Trauma-informed policies and teaching strategies are flexible and empower individuals to guide their process and be reflective and are critical to effectively serving individuals who are exposed to constant toxic stresses such as violence, poverty and marginalization.

It can be particularly challenging for children who have experienced trauma to follow strict school behavioral rules and this often leads to suspensions causing them to miss days of learning, which can further add to a child’s stress if they fall behind their peers. The schools described in the Hechinger Report have shifted away from zero-tolerance behavioral policies that result in suspension and expulsion, and instead work one-on-one with students to work through the challenges the student faces while offering them support to sort through their feelings in a safe environment. 

In the housing sphere, organizations like BRIDGE Housing have taken a trauma-informed approach to community building by working to “de-escalate chaos and stress” for residents and focus on building stronger interpersonal connections and empowering them to take leadership in building community.  

As the national discussion on how to support the well-being of marginalized groups and individuals continues, it is important to develop trauma-informed strategies that reflect the complex experiences and needs of individuals who have experienced serious trauma. If your organization uses trauma-informed strategies in its work, I’d like to hear from you. Please share them in the comments or contact me.

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