From One Trainer to Another: Prepare to Sweat

Cindy Carraway-Wilson

Cindy Carraway-Wilson

I travel all over the country training professionals on how trauma affects children and what they can do to alleviate the effects of that trauma. You might think, with all my experience, that I always show up ready to share exactly what an audience needs. You’d be wrong. (But not entirely, as you’ll see by the end of this post.) First, let me describe a recent ‘typical’ training, which may sound familiar.

A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a trauma-informed practices training at a rural school district serving around 600 students. Their high school principal had learned about ways that schools are responding to trauma at a conference she attended, and had joined with other district leaders to start the process of transforming their schools into safe and supportive learning environments — not just for students, but for adult personnel as well. Over the years, this district, like so many, had been affected by events such as suicide, suicide attempts, and loss of young people or staff to accidents, illness or violence.

We had prepared a training that could go out to teachers, social workers, custodians, bus drivers, food service staff — really, any adult who might interact with children and youth. The best way to create trauma-informed settings is to ensure that everyone knows about the realities of trauma, and how to shift perspectives in order to respond to survivors differently. After all, adults don’t get to pick who young people connect with when they’re looking for support. The best we can do is make certain that every available adult has the knowledge and skills to respond with care, and to know when more formal support is needed. So, I was prepared. Right? Half-right.

We were able to model teaching through a trauma-informed lens — by slowing down and letting people know what to expect, by giving them permission to participate in activities or ‘pass,’ and by providing information about trauma in a safe emotional space.

I entered the training space and quickly realized my audience was made up of only the ‘usual suspects’ — that is, teachers — and no bus drivers, maintenance staff, or food service workers. I also noticed some signs that maybe young people weren’t the only ones in the community who had been affected by trauma. Some participants seemed withdrawn, others a bit on edge.

And did I mention it was hot? Temperatures were in the 90s with high humidity, and we were in an un-airconditioned training space, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. If you’ve ever seen me train, you know I’m what people refer to as ‘energetic.’ I’m constantly moving, and in this environment, I was melting. With both the heat and the unexpected crowd, I broke into a sweat.

After so many years training professionals in youth development, I’ve seen firsthand how the effects of trauma can ripple out, touching everyone within reach. It has a way of rocking our world and making us stand up, pay attention, act differently. Sometimes we make changes that stick and have lasting impact. But other times, underlying patterns remain intact, and the impacts of trauma exposure creep into the culture of a place, affecting the ways people engage with each other, work, and grow. Healing a system is not very different from healing an individual, and it starts with awareness.

Though the day wasn’t turning out how I expected, I called upon my own knowledge of the impacts of trauma in order to connect with those in the room. We endured the heat together and explored some of the behaviors they have observed in their students that could be signs of adverse childhood experiences or trauma. I left feeling confident that, eventually, others would be drawn into the trauma-informed approach we began articulating that day. We were able to model teaching through a trauma-informed lens — by slowing down and letting people know what to expect, by giving them permission to participate in activities or ‘pass,’ and by providing information about trauma in a safe emotional space.

Equipped with new information, my training partner and I will return to this district again, in the fall and winter, when we’ll address the nature of secondary trauma. We’ll help participants recognize it in themselves and others, and explore ways to cope with it. We’ll offer techniques that adult school personnel can implement in classrooms, and use for themselves. And we’ll teach the approaches and changes in policy and practice that foster the trauma-sensitive culture that underlies learning environments which promote academic success and social-emotional wellness. And hopefully, we’ll do less sweating.

~ Cindy Carraway-Wilson, Youth Catalytics Training Director

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