Community-Based Positive Supports

Understanding How Trauma Impacts Behavior

Wooden alphabet blocks spelling the word: TRAUMA

Trauma is something that most people experience at some point in their lives. Sometimes a person who is responding in aggression, anger, self-injury, or anxiety may be thinking about a past trauma. Memories of trauma can directly trigger challenging behavior or they can set the stage for challenging behavior to occur. When a person, event, activity immediately triggers challenging behavior, it is referred to as an antecedent. An event that changes how reinforcing people, events, activities and things are within an environment are called setting events.

The emotional response a person has to trauma can be triggered by the same type of sounds that were occurring during the time it occurred, from visual cues that remind a person of an event, or during conversations with others who are acting in a similar manner to someone who was present at the time of the original traumatic event. Similar events, times of the year, or settings may remind someone of traumatic memories. If we respond by ignoring a person’s emotional state, by acting out in anger, or trying to stop a person from expressing these feelings, we risk re-traumatizing the person all over again. A person-centered way to respond to trauma is to use active listening skills and communicate empathy for what another person is feeling. You will also learn more about individualized and intensive strategies for addressing antecedents and setting events in Module 2.

  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Mindfulness

Trauma-Informed Supports can be implemented across three tiers of implementation

  • Death of a family or close friend
  • Violence, neglect, substance, or sexual abuse
  • Natural disasters (floods, fires, earthquakes, tornados, and other events)
  • Historical traumatic events that have impacted cultural groups (terrorism, residential schools where indigenous families were forced to send their children, slavery, holocaust, etc.)
  • Health crisis of one’s own or someone close
  • Legal problems, encounters with law enforcement

Bill is a 52 year old man who lives in a supported family setting. In Bill’s history, there is description after description of “furniture moving”. For many years, in every living setting, Bill rearranged the furniture. He moved couches, tables, chairs, and any other item in the main living area. He arranged the furniture in a pattern, the same one, every time. He would become agitated and could escalate to being combative or self-harming. After a number of years, a case manager learned that Bill was placing the furniture in the pattern of where it had been when he had been removed from his home as a young person. In his current successful home setting, Bill is in charge of the placement of the furniture. For the first few years, the furniture stayed in the patterned arrangement. Bill needed coaching to stay calm (including self-regulation and calming strategies) if the area needed to be cleaned, but as Bill was able to return the furniture to his arrangement, he could independently keep calm and ultimately assist with cleaning. After a while, new items have been added, and recently, the arrangement was changed to include a new TV.

People who have experienced and encoded trauma may need various ways and forms of processing to move beyond. The idea that behavior is communication, and that actions carry meaning can help to give adequate support and time to someone processing trauma. Recognizing triggering situations can also help, especially when coaching self-regulation and calming strategies. Coaching self-regulation and co-regulating with a person are critical in helping a person navigate a trigger. Choice, control, and pacing can support as a person processes and makes choices about how to move forward. Avoiding ultimatums and sharing calmness can also keep things on track.