Developmental Trauma Informed Maps… Why do we need them?

This article was authored by Marina Dickson,

Program Manager, Vocational Training and Education at the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Understanding the neurobiology of trauma gives us a number of cues and strategies to best support children and young people who have experienced abuse, violence and neglect. However, it can often feel that the volume of information about neurobiology and about trauma is a little overwhelming and confusing. In completing the Graduate Certificate in Developmental Trauma with ACF, participants are asked to construct a ‘developmental trauma informed practice map’. This grandly titled document actually asks participants to articulate the core messages of this body of knowledge and think about how it can underpin practice on a daily basis.

The following provides a sample practice map that you may like to extend, edit or completely rewrite to support your work with traumatised children, young people and their families. The map asks for responses to a number of key areas to then always hold in mind when engaging in practice, in whichever work context you are within.

The notes in italics suggest why this question is useful in the context of the plan.

What are 7 core messages of neurobiology?

  • The brain learns through repetition- always repeat experiences to elicit change
  • The brain develops best in connection with other brains- relationship is key when working with children and young people because this is the way the brain develops best
  • The brain is always capable of change- the growing body of knowledge around neuroplasticity says there is always hope of change, if we provide the right stimulus and experiences
  • Our brains are a combination of our genetic potential and our experiences- while we may not be able to influence genetic markers (although this may be debated!) we can influence the experiences that children and young people have, even if it is only in the context of our connection with them
  • The brain does not just respond to language as some of the most powerful experiences are held in the sub-cortical areas, which are sub-conscious and without language. We need to think about our actions and our environment as much as, if not more than, our words
  • The brain and body continually interact with each other, giving, receiving and processing messages about the environment in which we find ourselves. Incorporating body based experiences only enhances brain development
  • Our brains are a representation of the things we have done the most- are we happy to keep reinforcing these experiences or do we want to change them?

Identifying these messages (and these are by no means the only possibilities) then give us some core principles for our assessment and intervention plans. For example, understanding the point about repetition means we work to ensure that all members of a care team are working toward the same goal in the same way.

How do you define developmental trauma?

Developmental trauma is multiple, relationally based, overwhelming experiences of threat that occur during infancy, childhood and/or adolescence. These experiences are dis-integrative, isolating and influence the neurobiological development of the child or young person toward survival responses.

This definition provides an overview of how we understand the experiences that children and young people have had and also gives us some clues to what might be needed for repair. For example, repair might incorporate multiple, relationally based, experiences of safety that focus on integration and connecting.

How do you think an understanding of the neurobiology of developmental trauma is relevant to your practice and your workplace?

This framework of understanding provides a way of understanding the presenting behaviours of children and young people who have experienced relationally based trauma in a way that is non-blaming, reflective and that just makes sense. It helps to frame behaviour as the way that children and young people communicate messages of the impacts of their traumatic experiences that then enables us as professionals to best support them and work toward healing the damage caused by abuse, violence and neglect. This knowledge also often helps us to understand the presentation of many of the parents we work with, who regularly have their own trauma histories and guides our responses in a way that moves away from talk based, behaviour management processes.

What resources do you think culture can provide in the context of developmental trauma?

The neurobiology of culture is incorporated into our thinking about working with traumatised children and young people. We understand that acculturation occurs from infancy and continues throughout the lifespan. Culture is understood sub-cortically as much as it is conceptualised later in life. Our culture provides a sense of identity and place in the world, as well as stories of understanding about rituals, celebrations and communication. These resources can be incorporated into any work with children who have experienced the dislocation and disconnection of violence and abuse.

Any work with traumatised children and young people needs to incorporate cultural contextualisation and considerations and focusing on the resources that culture provides enables this to be integrated in any assessment and intervention plan.

What are some domains of assessment that stem from an understanding of developmental trauma?

  • Memory function, for example: trying to identify trauma triggers, working memory capacity and narrative memory function
  • Regulatory capacity, for example: considering the ‘width’ of the child’s window of tolerance and whether they can utilise relationships to support regulation
  • Arousal levels and patterns, for example: considering whether the child is hypervigilant, noting whether they access predominantly hyperarousal of hypoarousal responses and how easily they can move from one state back to a calm/social engagement state
  • Developmental impacts, for example: understanding neurosequential development and developmental ‘injuries’ that may have occurred

What are some core reparative goals that stem from an understanding of developmental trauma?

  • Provide safety in relationships through consistent, repetitive, attuned interactions from all of the people in the child’s world
  • Ensure that all selected interventions are provided on a repetitive basis
  • Provide developmentally appropriate as well as age appropriate activities to enhance developmental repair
  • Build emotional literacy as a way to link sub-cortical responses to cortical labels
  • Experience a calm and regulated state on a consistent basis

These reparative goals and assessment domains are provided as a starting point for thinking about your own practice. These goals are relatively broad and from those may stem smaller, more specific, goals that address the child or young person’s needs and then the specific strategies to achieve those goals and meet the identified needs.

Does a developmental trauma informed practice map have a place in your workplace and in your work?