Forum For Thought

Trauma-Informed Practice

Sam Piha

Dr. Marnie Curry

Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development. He is also a leading member of the Expanded Learning 360°/365 project, which focuses on SEL and character building.




It is very difficult to promote social emotional learning and character building among youth who have suffered trauma. We know that many of the young people we serve have been affected by trauma – trauma through abuse, through violence in their community, bullying, the threat of deportation, discrimination against LGBTQ youth, racial oppression, and other experiences. How can we be sensitive to and better serve the needs of these youth? We asked Dr. Marnie Curry (UC Santa Cruz) to help us answer these questions by presenting at our How Kids Learn VII conference on December 5, 2017 and being interviewed for this blog post. Below are some of her responses to our interview questions.

Q: How do you define trauma? 

A: Trauma occurs when an individual or community experiences physical or emotional harm or serious threats of such harm. Stressors like community violence, domestic violence, child abuse, chronic neglect, hunger, traumatic loss, severe bullying, household substance abuse, police brutality, homelessness, and racism can by themselves or in combination have lasting adverse effects on children’s development and wellbeing.

Trauma can be acute (resulting from a single incident), chronic (occurring repeatedly over prolonged time periods or generations), or complex (involving multiple kinds of trauma).

Q: Is being part of a group that suffers oppression included in your definition? 

A: Members of oppressed, nondominant groups, who daily confront racism and discrimination, who are surrounded by media images that criminalize and demonize black and brown people, who are mistreated and marginalized by the education system, justice system, immigration system and economic system, face persistent and toxic experiences that impair their health and wellbeing. However, because trauma is a subjective phenomenon and people respond differently to stressors, I do not assume that membership in an oppressed group automatically translates to trauma. I do, though, believe that many oppressed groups suffer from chronic, complex trauma.

Additionally, I think the impact of trauma is experienced differently due to the intersectional nature of oppression. Trauma-informed practitioners need to be sensitive to how being, for example, an LGBTQ person of color or an undocumented immigrant woman inevitably involve unique contexts that differently shape a person’s response to trauma.

Q: What is trauma informed practice that is appropriate for afterschool workers? 

A: In some ways, I resist the notion that afterschool workers, school-based teachers, hospital clinicians, social workers, etc. each have a different set of trauma-informed practices. For me, the compartmentalization of children’s lives into after school, home, school, community, etc. suggested by these silos, is antithetical to the holistic approach that trauma-informed care demands.

Trauma-informed practices prioritize an integrated and coordinated approach to youth development. 

Instead, I prefer to focus on trauma-informed practices which prioritize an integrated and coordinated approach to youth development. Within this frame, trauma-informed practice involves adults recognizing the high likelihood that some (or many) youth participants have or are currently experiencing trauma. Skillful adult mentors possess a basic understanding of how trauma can impact children’s behavior and development and they strive to organize a program that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and triggers of trauma survivors. They focus on providing a safe, supportive environment to promote healing from trauma and healthy development so youth may not only survive, but also thrive. They orchestrate activities and form networks of care aimed at restoring a sense of belonging to young people, their families and communities.

Q: What does trauma informed practice (TIP) look like in its simplest form? 

A: At its core TIP is about forging reciprocal, trusting relations with children and youth. Ideally, children and youth are empowered to choose, design and possibly lead activities, which allow them to express themselves in creative, meaningful and productive ways. Trauma informed programs provide sanctuaries for children and youth marked by seven cultural commitments:

  1. Commitment to nonviolence;
  2. Commitment to emotional intelligence;
  3. Commitment to social learning;
  4. Commitment to open communication;
  5. Commitment to democracy;
  6. Commitment to social responsibility; and
  7. Commitment to growth and change (Bloom 2005; Bloom 2007).

Q: In your writings, you use the term “authentic cariño.” Can you say what you mean by this?

Authentic cariño is a holistic, trauma-informed approach to youth development, which is especially attuned to the needs of low social economic status (SES), Latinx youth and other youth of color. The Spanish word “cariño” translates to caring, affection, or love, but actually is more of a concept than just a word. I use this terminology to signal a departure from Eurocentric, maternal connotations of caring and to emphasize culturally and politically conscious forms of care.

Adults and organizations that embrace authentic cariño braid together three forms of care: familial, intellectual and critical. Familial cariño emphasizes building robust, respectful and caring relations between and amongst program providers and participants; together as a community all members strive to genuinely support each other’s entire well being. Intellectual cariño involves nurturing the minds of young people and providing opportunities for youth to grapple with, reflect on, and address meaningful issues and perplexing problems. Finally, critical cariño reflects a social justice orientation that demands that care be undertaken with historical, political, and cultural consciousness of youths’ lived realities.

In one especially powerful after school program authentic cariño surfaced in many arenas. For example, during diá de los muertos I witnessed youth creating elaborately decorated calaveras (skulls) of beloved ancestors and sharing commemorative stories of their loved ones in a community circle. The coach leading this activity was a well-known advocate for his mentees and would shadow them in school if they were struggling academically. He debriefed these observations with his mentees and together they constructed proactive plans to overcome obstacles, often enlisting the partnership of students’ teachers or school-based advisors.

In this same program, I witnessed a soccer club successfully uniting to write and win a grant to obtain an astro turf field in a schoolyard that previously looked like a prison quad. These same futbolistas sponsored weekend soccer tournaments punctuated by half-time workshops led by youth, who educated players on capitalism and the Dream Act. Perhaps, most compelling was the way in which the youth development coaches from the after school program forged deep partnerships with school personnel in ways that meant that the division between school and after school became blurred. For youth, this meant that they experienced a seamless network of cariño that provided intense levels of safety and affirmation.

This network of care proved invaluable when tragedies rocked the school community. In one school year, three youth affiliated with the school (a recent graduate, a sibling, and a current student) died by gun violence. The after school program played a central role in coordinating programs and services that not only helped youth process these traumatic events, but also which empowered youth to mobilize a vibrant campaign to address the root causes of violence and promote peace in their city.


Marnie W. Curry is a researcher at the Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students at UC-Santa Cruz. Her areas of specialization include: urban schooling; teaching and learning to support culturally and linguistically diverse learners; and teacher professional communities. She is deeply committed to bridging the worlds of research and practice and promoting educational equity for youth who have been historically underserved by their schools and districts.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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