A crucial factor in the success of any transformation to trauma informed care is the support of the leadership. There are many ways this support much be demonstrated, including financial support for training. One important way is the administration’s response to behavioral incidents.
Expectations are conveyed in many ways throughout an agency. Does the administration value control and lack of disruption more than anything else? Can the administration tolerate certain level of organizational disruption in making the transition, including such things as staff confusion, conflict within treatment team, resistance to change, and increased property destruction? Trauma informed practice encourages staff to be flexible and to offer choices to the clients, even when the result is that the client is not immediately brought under control. Can the administrators support this?
In one residential agency trauma informed care champions had been working with the staff to be more flexible and to ask the clients what is wrong, to listen and to validate their feelings before discussing consequences or solutions. Maggie, a sixteen year old, had just learned that her mother had relapsed. She was screaming in the main hall on the afternoon of the Board Meeting. The CEO was wondering what Board members would think if they walked in the door and heard a girl yelling about killing herself and running away, and heard staff empathizing with how bad she was feeling. So he went out and said he knew she was upset but could staff please get her to go back to the unit or at least into one of the meeting rooms?
What messages are sent in this two minute interaction? That not upsetting the Board in more important than what is happening to Maggie; that in fact what Maggie is feeling and saying is unacceptable and shameful and should be hidden; and that the job of staff is to get Maggie to quiet down and stop bothering people. These two minutes can undermine months of training. If staff are blamed for not quieting disruptive behavior, they will blame the children for their dysregulation.
Administration should look for every opportunity to praise staff members for their patience and kindness. They should express their sadness about what the children are going through, and acknowledge how real and important the stressors on these children are. A response of compassion to both the child’s and the staff’s experience in this incident will have a very powerful effect in reinforcing the staff’s compassion towards the child.
This example also points out that it is important to share the principles of trauma informed care with the Board of Directors. They need to know why the agency is making this change, and how it will affect agency functioning. Both possible positive and possible negative ramifications must be shared with the Board.
Staff members want to do a good job. They want to be seen as competent and successful. If administration makes them feel bad about the children’s emotional outbursts, they will try to stop these outbursts. It administration helps them feel proud of their kindness and flexibility with the children, these behaviors will increase.
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