The actions of the agency administration will determine the success of a transformation to trauma informed care. The administration must truly understand and support this approach, or it will not have a chance. Staff are keenly attuned to what is actually expected and rewarded within an agency. Mere lip service will not convince them to make this difficult change.
How can administrators demonstrate their support? First, they can arrange financing for training for all staff on trauma, how it affects people, and how they can heal through attuned relationships. Key members of the administration should attend at least a portion of trauma training themselves (vs. sending designees in their places). The agency must make provisions for the staff to attend the training and be released from their regular duties.
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 chaos 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. They were teaching staff to ask upset clients what is wrong and 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 is 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. Those two minutes can undermine months of training.
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 an incident will have a very powerful effect in reinforcing the staff’s flexibility with 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. If possible, Board members can be invited to attended some portion of the trauma training, or even participate in the over site committee.
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.
Fundraising is a key function of the CEO of any agency. Implementing trauma informed care can help with fund raising. The agency can become a leader in a cutting age treatment modality. Developing sophisticated treatment skills will help the agency survive current economic stressors. Emphasizing the trauma histories of the clients served helps donors understand why they need assistance. Also, using research such as the ACES study will demonstrate the economic benefit of helping people heal from trauma.
Administrative leaders can further set the tone for trauma informed care by celebrating both staff and client achievements. Their concern, kindness and compassion towards issues affecting both staff and clients model the response needed from staff. Their heartfelt joy when a client wins and award or a staff member gets their professional license reminds everyone of the purpose of this difficult work.
A transformation to trauma informed care is not possible without this strong administrative support.
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