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Trauma-Informed Programs

Child care programs that prioritize educating staff on the impact of trauma for children, youth, and caregivers are called trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive programs. Typically, in trauma-informed programs, policies have been created to help children, youth, and staff who have experienced trauma to actively resist any further traumatization. These policies can have an impact on the entire program, and caregivers can further develop their own trauma-informed practices for their rooms. This lesson will help you identify what a trauma-informed program looks like and how elements of trauma-informed practices can be incorporated into your work.

  • How trauma-informed practices create safe program environments.
  • Program-wide trauma-informed practices.
  • Concrete steps to create trauma-informed routines.



Think about a time when you felt welcomed and safe in your environment. What did it look like? Sound like? Or even smell or taste like? Child care centers, preschools, and school-age programs can provide children and youth a break from hardships they face at home. They can also be environments that heighten behavioral or emotional responses from previous traumatic events. However, when caregivers create and implement policies and practices that foster a trauma-informed culture of care, children, families, and staff are better equipped to thrive.

Creating a Safe and Welcoming Environment

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines trauma-informed child and family service systems as “one in which all parties involved recognize and respond to the impact of traumatic stress on those who have contact with the system, including children, caregivers, staff, and service providers. Programs and agencies within such a system infuse and sustain trauma awareness, knowledge, and skills into their organizational cultures, practices, and policies. They act in collaboration with all those who are involved with the child, using the best available science, to maximize physical and psychological safety, facilitate the recovery or adjustment of the child and family, and support their ability to thrive.” To create a safe and welcoming culture, staff need to be aware of factors that contribute to trauma and how it may look different for every unique child, and therefore approach it from multiple perspectives. Settings that effectively create trauma-informed cultures do the following four things (adapted from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA):

  1. Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery.
  2. Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in children, families, staff, and others involved with the system.
  3. Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.
  4. Seek to actively resist re-traumatization.

Furthermore, SAMHSA states that there is no “prescribed set of practices or procedures” to become trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive. Remember from Lesson One that everyone experiences and processes trauma differently, so there is not an exact science to addressing the needs of those affected. However, SAMHSA provides the following six principles as guidelines in helping to create policies and procedures that meet the needs of individuals affected by trauma:

  1. Safety—ensuring that children, staff, and families feel secure in their environment through daily procedures such as locking all of the doors, having sign-in and sign-out sheets for visitors, and practicing crisis preparedness.
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency—creating a sense that all members of the program community can be open and honest in written, verbal, and nonverbal communication.
  3. Peer support—feeling like there are people in the program community that can be relied upon in times of need.
  4. Collaboration and mutuality—the ability to work with others to grow projects of similar interest.
  5. Empowerment, voice and choice—creating a space where children, families, and program staff can speak about issues and provide their input.
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues—awareness and sensitivity for the cultural, historical, and gender considerations for all involved in the caregiving or program settings.

By applying these principles, programs utilize evidence-based, tiered methods to address trauma such as positive behavioral intervention and supports and restorative justice.

Caregiving and Program-wide Initiatives

It is important to actively work toward supporting individuals through environmental and program-wide systems. Caregiving and program-wide initiatives can be implemented to help address trauma in a systematic, consistent way that all caregivers, families, and children recognize. These initiatives take into consideration SAMHSA’s six principals of safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues. Consider Laci from Lesson One, who experienced multiple, consistent adverse childhood experiences. She entered child care centers and programs with disrupted neurodevelopment due to the trauma that impaired her social, emotional, and cognitive development. We saw one potential pathway for Laci’s life without supportive systems. Positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) and restorative justice are two evidence-based approaches to creating safe and welcoming environments. These two approaches can be used together to create trauma-sensitive environments. Implementing trauma-informed practices, such as PBIS or restorative justice, can help support, redirect, and create new pathways for people like Laci who have experienced or are experiencing trauma.

Tier 3: Intensive Support

Key Strategies

Intensive individual and family; Trauma-specific treatment

Key Partnerships

School Community, Community Mental Health Organizations, Families

Tier 2: Early Intervention / Identifying Students and Staff at Risk

Key Strategies

Screening Students, Group interventions (CBT, STS Support), Threat Assessment, Peer Support

Key Partnerships

School Community, Community Mental Health Organizations, Families

Tier 1: Creating Safe Environments and Promoting Healthy and Successful Students

Key Strategies

Promoting Positive School Climate, Emergency Management, Psychological First Aid, Bullying Prevention, STS Education, General Wellness Support & Educations

Key Partnerships

School Community (Admin, teachers, counselors, coaches, nurses), Community Mental Health Organizations, Law Enforcement, Youth Development

The National Technical Assistance Center of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs describes PBIS as a: “framework that maximizes the selection and use of evidence-based prevention and intervention practices along a multi-tiered continuum that supports the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral competence of all children. PBIS implementation involves explicitly prompting, modeling, practicing, and encouraging positive expected social skills across settings and with individuals. When children are taught to effectively use relevant, expected social skills for themselves and with others, program climates are described as more positive, learning environments are designated as safer, and caregiver-child relationships are referred to as more trusting and respectful.”

The National Traumatic Stress Network (2017) recommends the following practices for providing trauma-informed programs:

  • Implementing a multi-tiered approach that emphasizes providing a safe environment and nurturing relationships for all children and more targeted and intensive interventions for children that need additional supports
  • Establishing nurturing responsive relationships with children and families
  • Offering predictable environments and routines
  • Teaching children social and emotional skills
  • Understanding the functions of behavior and how to prevent and respond to behavior effectively
  • Eliminating exclusion practices and punishment as a response to challenging behavior

PBIS is a tiered system that addresses all children and youth at the base-level and gradually meets the needs of more trauma-responsive children at the peak-level. For more information on PBIS, see the References & Resources section. You can also learn more about The Pyramid Model: PBIS for Early Childhood Settings in the VLS Focused Topic course Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors.

The 5 tier pyramid model starts with tier 1 as the base of the pyramid.  The base three tiers are considered the grouped foundation of the pyramid called Universal Supports.  Tier 1 is labeled Effective Workforce and colored yellow.  Tier 2 is labeled Nurturing and Responsive Relationships and colored dark-blue.  Tier 3 is labeled High-Quality Supportive Environments and colored light-blue. Tier 4 is labeled Targeted Supports and colored green.  The top of the pyramid is tier 5 and is labeled Intensive Intervention and colored red.
Adapted from: The Pyramid Model - PBIS for Early Childhood Settings

Restorative justice uses mediation and relational problem-solving, rather than punishment, for behavior issues. For children and youth affected by trauma, punitive or harsh measures can stimulate traumatic responses. Programs using restorative justice use a tiered model to help children and youth create a climate where they take ownership of their actions and openly communicate about issues they are having with each other. It fosters an atmosphere of respect and responsibility where the program staff provide the child or youth with space and equitable decision-making choices. 

Having a trauma informed approach to caregiving positively impacts your interactions with children, families, the environment and relationships. In addition to the program-wide initiatives just discussed, some recommended caregiving practices that are considered developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed include:

  • Establishing clear, consistent appropriate expectations and communicating expectations regularly
  • Warning children before doing something out of the ordinary
  • Observing routines and behaviors to meet the individual needs of each child
  • Monitoring children for symptoms such as re-enactment, avoidance, and physiological changes
  • Offering choices to give children a sense of control and safety
  • Helping children to identify, express and regulate emotions
  • Listening and providing support if the child wants to talk about the trauma experienced
  • Communicating openly and honestly helps develop trust and feelings of safety
  • Helping children understand the impact that their behavior has on others
  • Teaching and model problem solving skills
  • Providing one-on-one time to model and allow children to practice social skills
  • Celebrating children’s accomplishments and individual strengths
  • Using clear, consistent communication
  • Breaking complex tasks into smaller parts with simple directions
  • Avoiding punishment and using positive reinforcement and feedback
  • Controlling your emotions and do not personalize challenging behavior

Case Study

Nick and Maria have been married for 10 years and have three young children, Nico who is 8, Mila who is 4, and Inez who is 2 years old. Nick is currently deployed to Afghanistan for one year, which is the longest he has been away from his family. Maria now finds herself faced with caring for their young family while she is also working a full-time job. She is stressed from their current situation, but she tries to make sure her children are taken care of to the best of her ability. Each day of the workweek, Maria takes all three of her children to their respective programs and schools before she heads in to work. Here is a look at the family’s day:

Child Care Program for Inez (Punitive Program)

Maria gets the kids in the car and her first stop is at Inez’s child care program. She walks in with all three children to the sign-in desk at the drop-off location and the woman working the desk does not take the time to even look at who is approaching. Maria says hello and that she is here to drop off Inez, who has been attending this program since before Nick left two months ago. The woman lifts her gaze and asks which room, and Maria replies Mrs. Cynthia’s. The woman proceeds to call Mrs. Cynthia’s room for an aide to come for Inez. After waiting for 10 minutes, the aide arrives, again not greeting the family and abruptly takes the toddler back with her to the room.

Maria leaves with her other two children and now has to rush to get them to their school on time. However, before she even gets Nico and Mila to their building, she receives a call from a staff member from Inez’s child care program. The staff member tells Maria that she needs to return and pick up Inez because she bit another child. Maria tries to explain that she needs to go to work after she drops her other children off for the day, but the staff member insists that Inez needs to leave for the day due to the program’s behavior policy.

Preschool for Mila and Primary School for Nico (Trauma-Informed Program)

Maria arrives to Mila and Nico’s school with only a few minutes to spare. She rushes the children into the building and is greeted by the school principal and several teachers. Maria appreciates that both of her older children attend school in the same building; and she and her children feel cared for when greeted by the principal, Mrs. Alvarez. Because Maria and the family seem to be in a rush this morning, Mrs. Alvarez, who is aware of Nick’s deployment, makes sure to check in on the family to make sure everything is OK. Maria thanks her for her kindness, and explains the situation with the child care center. Mrs. Alvarez offers to take Mila and Nico to their classrooms and wishes Maria good luck as Maria heads back to pick up Inez. Mila and Nico love their rooms and teachers. Maria always feels reassured to hear about her children’s daily school routine and classrooms. The consistency of their schedules helps her children feel safe, which has been a huge help since things at home have been inconsistent with Nick gone. As Maria rushes back to pick up Inez, she calls work to let them know she will be unable to come that day.

About midafternoon, Maria receives a phone call from Mrs. Alvarez to let her know that Nico had gotten into a fight during recess. Maria immediately prepares to get Inez into the car to pick Nico up, but Mrs. Alvaerez reassures her that coming to the school is unnecessary. She lets Maria know that she just wanted to call and let Maria know what happened. She explains to Maria that Nico and another boy started pushing each other during a game of basketball, but they had all sat down and discussed the situation. Mrs. Alvarez reviewed the school expectations and asked them to talk to each other about how their situation could have been resolved differently. The boys both agreed that they had each done something that they should not have. Maria asks what Nico’s punishment would be and Mrs. Alvarez states that they had all decided that instead of a punishment, Nico and the other boy would help make signs for the playground with the school’s expectations. Mrs. Alvarez also offers for Nico to meet with their school counselor to help him cope with the changes at home and how he is reacting to issues at school. She also states that Mila could meet with the school counselor to talk about her feelings about Nick being deployed. Maria is relieved to have the assistance of the school counselor and the entire school community that Mila and Nico attend. When she picks up Nico and Mila from school that day, Maria and Nico discuss what happened on the playground and during the meeting with the school counselor.

Punitive Program
Trauma-Informed Program

Staff does not take the time to look at who is approaching.

Greeted by the school teachers and the principal, who also checks in to make sure everything is okay with the family.

Waiting for ten minutes, the aide arrives, again not greeting the family, and abruptly takes the toddler back with her to the room

Principal offers to take the children to their classrooms and wishes the parent good luck.

The staff member calls to inform the mother that she needs to return and pick up her toddler because she bit another child.

The repercussion for fighting is to help make signs for the playground, and the children are offered to meet with a counselor to talk about home life.

Mandatory Reporting

As a professional caregiver, you will encounter children and families who experience trauma and other difficult circumstances, which may increase the risk of child abuse and neglect. Mandated reporting requires child care professionals to report any suspected abuse or neglect to child protective services. Typically to make a report, you will need the following information:

  1. Child’s name
  2. Child’s birth date
  3. Child’s address
  4. Parents’ names
  5. Information about any other children in the home
  6. The suspected abuse or negligence and if you know who is causing the abuse
  7. Any other information you think is important

Even if this information is not available and abuse or neglect is suspected, a phone call should be placed to child protective services for the child or youth’s safety. In some states these reports can be made anonymously; however, providing your information ensures that there is documentation that you fulfilled your mandated reporter duties and can be helpful if a case is opened with child protective services. Refer to your program administrator and program’s policies when making a mandated report. You can find more information about mandatory reporting in the Virtual Lab School Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting courses. 


Listen as an expert discusses the importance of instilling empathy in children from a young age and helping children understand how their behavior affects the feelings of others. Can you think of specific ways you can help the children you care for learn these skills?

Trauma-Informed Strategies for Caregivers

Watch as an expert discusses how caregivers can help children identify feelings and learn empathy.


Creating a Trauma-Informed Culture

Trauma-informed cultures and trauma-sensitive environments allow program staff to incorporate calming strategies into their daily routines. Think about your personal daily routine and the practices in your program. Are there steps you can take to make it more trauma-sensitive? Here are some strategies that you may consider implementing to create a more trauma-informed culture for yourself and your program:

  • Establish a daily, visible schedule
  • Provide clear, predictable routines and schedule and explain any changes to the schedule beforehand
  • Create a pleasing desk arrangement
  • Place fewer materials on shelves to allow children to focus and not be overwhelmed
  • Create a community meeting time (this could allow for check-in with children and a time to practice deep breathing and guided imagery, for example)
  • Provide nurturing, dependable, supportive interactions
  • Give clear ‘rules’ and expectations for behavior and respond consistently to behavior
  • Avoid heavily scented cleaners and perfumes
  • Favor soft, calming music, instrumentals, or sounds of nature
  • Avoid posters or pictures with visually overwhelming or unpleasant graphics

Additionally, trauma-informed programs are culturally responsive and consider the specific needs of families and the program community. Use these suggestions to ensure you interact with families and community members in a culturally responsive manner:

  • Include family perspectives that reflect your community diversity when making program decisions
  • Ask for feedback from the program community about the cultural responsiveness of the program and staff
  • Use a strengths-based manner when speaking about children and families
  • Recognize that families may have different values and goals for their children than what you have in mind
  • Reflect on your own emotional needs and cultural norms that influence your perceptions of children’s and families’ behavior


How will you create your own trauma-informed environment? What are you doing now that is trauma-informed and what can you do differently to create a more positive space for individuals who have experienced trauma? What are you doing now to support the social and emotional development of children that have experienced trauma and what practices can you continue to work on? Take a few minutes to read and respond to the questions in the Trauma-Sensitive Program Checklist and the Practices that Support Social Emotional Development and Trauma Informed Care Checklist. Then, discuss your responses with a supportive colleague, trainer, coach, or administrator.


Use the Psychological and Behavioral Impact of Trauma: Preschool Children and Trauma-Informed Schools for Children in K-12: A System Framework resources to learn more about the importance of building trauma-informed cultures. Although these documents may refer to a “schools” framework, the information and suggestions are relevant for child care programs.


Mandatory Reporting:
A requirement of certain roles, such as child care staff and educators, to report suspected abuse or neglect of children and youth
The process of both parties involved sharing their viewpoints and finding a solution.
Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports:
A tiered framework that addresses program-wide expectations to create a climate that is described as a more positive, safe learning environment and teacher-child relationships are referred to as more trusting and respectful
Restorative Justice:
Practices that utilize mediation for behavioral issues rather than punitive measures
Trauma-Informed Program:
A program in which all children and staff feel safe, welcomed, and supported and where the impact of trauma on teaching and learning is addressed at the center of the program’s mission


SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) describes features or cultures of trauma-informed settings. Select which feature is not part of a trauma-informed program.
True or false? Positive behavioral intervention supports (PBIS) and restorative justice are two approaches to creating safe and welcoming climates.
Identify which scenario best illustrates restorative justice practices.
References & Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Schools Committee. (2017). Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-Informed Schools: A system framework. Los Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

PBIS FAQs: Brief Introduction and Frequently Asked Questions about PBIS. (2019). Retrieved from

Report Child Abuse and Neglect. (n.d.). Retrieved from

The Pyramid Model: PBIS for Early Childhood Settings. (2016). Retrieved from

Trauma-Informed Approach and Trauma-Specific Interventions. (2018). Retrieved from

Trauma-Informed Schools. (2019). Retrieved from

Wennerstrom, E.K., Stegenga, S., Allen, R., McIntosh, K., & Smith, J.L. (2018). Early childhood program-wide PBS benchmarks of quality: cultural responsiveness companion. Retrieved from

What Teachers Need to Know About Restorative Justice. (2019). Retrieved from

Wiest-Stevenson, C., & Lee, C. (2016). Trauma-Informed Schools. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 13(5), 498–503.