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Introduction

The aim of Multiplying Connections is to promote positive development for all children, especially those who have been traumatized by repeated exposure to violence, abuse and neglect. To accomplish this aim, we offer training to children’s services professionals on the impact of trauma on development; how to recognize children’s reactions to trauma; and how to promote healing through trauma informed care. This guide is designed to supplement the information and skills learned in the Becoming Trauma Informed course by providing you with specific:

  • Techniques (behavioral and structural changes you can make when interacting with children),
  • Activities (focused interactions with children designed specifically to help them cope with their responses to trauma and any trauma triggers present in the environment), and
  • Environmental changes (ways you can rearrange your office, classroom, etc to make it calmer and more secure for children)

With a little practice, all of these strategies can easily be implemented and integrated into your daily work and they do not require any special clinical training.

Since childhood trauma is “any physical or physiological threat or assault to a child’s physical integrity, sense of self, safety or survival or to the physical safety of another person significant to the children”, the overall goal of all of these interventions is to increase a child’s sense of self, safety, stability, and positive connections with others.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for a child who has been affected by trauma is to create a positive, nurturing relationship with him. Research has repeatedly shown that  secure relationships with adults provide the foundational architecture for healthy development and help all children feel safe, stable and develop a sense of self. For children who are affected by trauma these types of relationships and experiences help children function in a ‘normal’ state of arousal (as opposed to hyper-arousal or disassociation, common states for traumatized children). Operating at a normal state of arousal is crucial for proper brain development and for creating the optimal brain state for learning.

The interventions in this guide are helpful for ALL children because they expose them to positive experiences that promote healthy brain development. Children who experience trauma, however, need more deliberate and more frequent exposure to these interventions because their exposure to such positive experiences has often been limited and curtailed.

Repeated positive experiences enable children affected by trauma to develop new neural path ways in their brains, increasing the opportunity for healthy development and growth. As clinician David Bath points out,  children affected by trauma have stress response systems that have fundamentally changed; they “focus on the need to ensure safety rather than on the many growth-promoting interests and activities that secure children find attractive and stimulating” (Bath, p.5). For maximum effectiveness, these interventions, particularly the techniques and environmental changes, need to be done continually, on a permanent basis. Doing so takes practice and patience. It also takes advanced planning, but over time it will become intuitive.

In the video series “Helping Traumatized Children” neuroscientist Bruce Perry, MD, outlines the five most important things adults can do to help children who are traumatized: Stay and teach CALM, be ATTUNED, PRESENT, and PREDICTABLE and DON’T let children’s emotions escalate your own.

We have created the mnemonic CAPPD to help you remember these skills. All the activities, techniques, and environmental changes in this guide incorporate one or more of the five principles of CAPPD:

  • CALM: aims to keep both you and the child(ren) you work with in a relaxed, focused state. It is normal for children to react emotionally to things that upset or agitate them. Learning to regulate their emotions and return to a calm state after being alarmed or triggered by something that upsets them fosters positive relationships and experiences by helping children function in the neocortex, the optimal part of the brain for complex thinking and learning.
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  • ATTUNED: asks you to be aware of children’s non-verbal signals: body language, tone of voice, emotional state. These signals tell you how much and what types of activity and learning the child can currently handle. These signals are also constantly shifting, so being attuned to children requires constant vigilance. Furthermore, children affected by trauma often experience both life and their trauma in the midbrain, or the implicit, sensory part of the brain rather than in the “thinking/learning” neocortex. (Steele, p. 14). Consequently, it is helpful to learn to connect with the child(ren) who have experienced trauma on an emotional, sensory level before moving to a cognitive level.
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  • PRESENT: requires that you focus your attention on the child(ren) you are with, that you be in the moment. All children can sense when you are not truly engaged or focused on them; to compound this intuition, a “pervasive mistrust of the adults with whom they interact” (Bath, p. 6) is a key characteristic of children who have experienced trauma. Despite their wariness, these children need to and, with support, can form secure relationships with loving adults.
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  • PREDICTABLE: asks that you provide children with routine, structured, and repeated positive experiences that they need to thrive. Children who have experience trauma view the world as scary and unreliable. Being predictable in your actions and routines will help children feel safe. When they feel safe, they can stop devoting a majority of their brain energy to the fight-or-flight response and instead be free to grow and explore. Engaging in age-appropriate growth-promoting activities will help their brains develop new, positive neuro-networks.
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  • DON’T let Children’s Emotions Escalate Your Own: requires you to remain in control of your emotions and of your expression of them. When children lose control and become angry, frustrated, overly excited, or scared, our own emotions can spiral out of control as well. When this happens, we can escalate the situation and trigger further trauma responses in children. However, these are the moments when children most need us to be calm and steady. They need to know that even though they have lost control, and are experiencing difficult and frightening feelings, the world can still be a reliable and safe place and that they can depend on trustworthy adults. One of the main challenges when working with children who have experienced trauma is teaching them to regulate their own emotions, since their brain systems are often in a hypervigilant or disassociated state. The best way for children to learn to regulate their emotions is by watching us regulate ours.

We hope you will find these interventions informative and useful. Please let us know how you are using CAPPD in your work and if you have further questions or comments!

Photos of families