Turning Over A New Leaf

Our Approaches to ‘Trauma-Informed’ Work:

A Shift in Our Lens on Teaching, Leading, Learning, & Care

Understanding trauma and its impact can be difficult. This article is not meant to minimize trauma or trauma-informed approaches; however, it is meant to emphasize that to stop at ‘trauma-informed’ would be an injustice to all humans who can benefit from healing through therapeutic approaches to teaching, leading, and learning.

To some degree, we all have trauma; however, our attempts to be informed in teaching, caregiving, and supporting others can often lead us into misguided actions: such as fixing, comparing, and even shaming (self and others). At its worst, being ill-informed can lead to blaming and land those who wish to help in a cycle not conducive to solving anyone’s problems at all.

In the past, much of the mental health and trauma-informed work, especially as it translates to schools and classrooms, and even organizations and communities, falls short as it remains problem-focused – and this is a huge problem in trauma-informed work.

Trauma-informed can leave us – wishing we had more solutions and fewer problems.

Healing vs. Informing . . .

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of a trauma-informed (TI) lens in teaching and leadership. Though this lens highlights the need for understanding, it over-emphasizes understanding how trauma impacts individuals and communities versus a critical and more action-oriented emphasis on healing and integrating essential supports in areas of therapeutic engagement, which can provide more comprehensive help.

An alternative to TI is a therapeutic lens, encompassing various techniques and approaches to promote well-being and alleviate suffering by genuinely understanding and focussing on needs. There are great opportunities in this focus shift, as much research and human experience can shed light on the art and science of supporting healing through therapeutic processes – such as ‘therapeutic teaching’ (Jaunzems-Fernuk, 2022).

Healing-centred care focuses on solutions versus problems providing a necessary shift in this commonly misunderstood practice. Healing-focused care works for everyone as there is no need to unpack or even understand the trauma itself – therapeutic interventions honour and holds space for caring about the past – but moves to action – that can be taken in the present to help self and others to heal, learn, and grow. Healing-centred work is more proactive, preventative of future harm, and more inclusive – conducive to belonging, caring, and hope.

The term trauma-informed has, in some arenas, become pathologized, prescriptive, and so commonplace that people sometimes forget we’re talking about humans and healing versus concepts and ideas – and though there are many doing great work under the umbrella of trauma-informed practice, it just hasn’t seemed to give very many the answers they seek – especially in western focused/rooted institutions, and outside of health-care (such as is in schools). Saskatchewan for example has no unified trauma-informed approach to teaching and many find it elusive, confusing, and sometimes altogether annoying, as it is presented as just one more things for educators to know.

Teachers have been known to fear the knowledge and support it takes to understand such things as mental health, mental illness, stress, burnout, and trauma, not just as another thing on their plate – but – sometimes due to their own fears of assuming a therapist’s role in treatment and treatment planning. Sometimes these fears are due to stigma alone.

A healing-centred approach allows for all educators and leaders to embrace therapeutic teaching and therapeutic leadership – instead of assuming the role of therapist, as each is quite different. Though related principles apply, healing is something we can all embrace with little to no added work. Healing approaches recognize that trauma can profoundly affect the brain, mind, and body – and that healing must be advanced holistically – addressing not only mental health but also physical health, social and emotional support, and healing through spirit and nature as well.

Healing-centred approaches also emphasize the importance of creating safe and supportive environments, particularly for those who have experienced significant trauma but also impacting those who have not. Preparing everyone with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to cope embraces skills to help others: cope, manage, grow, and heal is a proactive and natural approach to well-being.

Cope, Manage, Grow, Heal, Repeat

A healing-centred approach involves a simple understanding of the nervous system (enough to teach and apply it), regulation and co-regulation of emotions (management of self and others), and the power of resilience through a mindset ready to repeat the process as needed throughout a lifetime in support of strength, health, and continued learning and growth.

More so than arguing for the notion that we have all experienced some form of trauma (stigma-inducing for many), is the importance of supporting the notion that we can all benefit from healing – whether trauma has been experienced or not. Relieving the burden of identifying with pain can reduce stigma and influence care (including self-care).

Trauma-informed teaching can help us understand that trauma is pervasive, detrimental, can cause long-term damage and even impact changes in who we are fundamentally: i.e., brain structure, overall health, disorder, and disease; however psycho-educational tools and key understandings about brain-mind-body physiology can directly impact the negative power of trauma long term[3]; having far more impact.  

Research shows that healing from trauma is possible – on our own or with help – and it can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being. Epigenetic research[1] shows us that healing-centred practices can help change generations of damage due to trauma, and just as we have discovered the neuroplasticity of the brain, epigenetic memory is too plastic – and we can change, grow, and heal cells – helping to impact real changes to DNA molecules that will be felt generations from now if we are successful[2]

We are learning that all individuals can utilize tools to help themselves heal. Though therapeutic and medical interventions are critical in some cases, individuals, educators, parents, and the community can work together to promote and support healing as well – a far more empowering stance on healthcare.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that online interventions for depression and anxiety were in some cases as effective in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life[4], as were medical interventions. Other studies have found that cognitive-behavioural therapy (even when delivered online) is effective too in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – showing the immense power of the self in the process [5].

Humans can also reap the benefits of free nature-based therapy, as outdoor interventions for healing are immense. As an example, the practice of “forest bathing,” or spending time in nature to promote relaxation and stress reduction, has been shown to have a variety of physical and mental health benefits. Many studies published over the last couple of decades have shown that forest bathing was effective in reducing stress and improving mood. Though we don’t need a study to prove this[6], as anyone who spends any time outdoors knows that going outside decreases blood pressure, can increase ones sense of awe or joy, and potentially induce a sense of calm and regulation.

Teachers, leaders, and caregivers can promote healing by adding to their understanding of trauma-informed approaches, it is just a matter of sharing knowledge, influencing action, and supporting growth as the main focus (Aware, Care, Cope: Jaunzems-Fernuk, 2022), moving away from the emphasis on trauma and towards presence and practices of care.

ACC is a process taught through the Human Curriculum™ and it attends to healing through the power of awareness, application of strategies to self and others, and noticing and attending throughout a lifetime – to cope with adversity. Resources and training on these topics support recognizing the power to heal ourselves and then others through deep connections and awareness to self, the environment, and others: nature-nurture and self-care to care-give.

Education on the impact of trauma is essential. Still, it has to go further and broader, and back to basics in many ways, with strategies for creating safe and supportive environments that help to heal. Healing strategies include techniques for promoting relaxation and stress reduction, increasing meaning and passion in work and in life, and reframing/mindset shifts – each simple yet impactful and powerful tools that all can access.

Healing is a complex and multifaceted process, however, with a holistic approach it can be attained. Teachers, leaders, and parents –though not therapists – can in fact be therapeutic by embracing tools that could change the world – or at least their own.

We can face adversity, harness the learning from its impact, and achieve greater well-being and resilience as a result.

Knowledge Truly is Power!

[1] Kanherkar, R. R., Stair, S. E., Bhatia-Dey, N., Mills, P. J., Chopra, D., & Csoka, A. B. (2017). Epigenetic mechanisms of integrative medicine. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2017.

[2] Tian, F. Y., & Marsit, C. J. (2018). Environmentally induced epigenetic plasticity in development: epigenetic toxicity and epigenetic adaptation. Current epidemiology reports5, 450-460.


[4] Kim, J., Aryee, L. M., Bang, H., Prajogo, S., Choi, Y. K., Hoch, J. S., & Prado, E. L. (2023). Effectiveness of Digital Mental Health Tools to Reduce Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Low-and Middle-Income Countries: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JMIR Mental Health10, e43066.

[5] Lewis, C., Roberts, N. P., Simon, N., Bethell, A., & Bisson, J. I. (2019). Internet‐delivered cognitive behavioural therapy for post‐traumatic stress disorder: Systematic review and meta‐analysis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica140(6), 508-521.

[6] National Institute of Health (various citations available online).

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