Trauma-Informed Programs Shaped by New Brain Research


Research into the physical effects of traumatic experiences on the brain is revealing possible new pathways to change and reshaping measures of program effectiveness. With increased knowledge of the stress-induced barriers to mental well-being, education, health and human services organizations are incorporating trauma-informed approaches into their programs.

Brain Research

Research around trauma has historically focused on war veterans. In 1995 the CDC began the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) which demonstrated the lasting effects of childhood trauma into later life. The ACES research has been instrumental to understanding the long term effects of trauma and has provided compelling justification for early intervention. The CDC’s ongoing analysis has led to more inclusive definitions of trauma and has pointed to strong connections between childhood experiences and adult health status and behaviors.

Recent research into brain development is helping explain this connection in concrete terms – our brains change. In one article the Children’s Bureau explains the effects of maltreatment on brain development, and an article on describes how Post-traumatic stress disorder changes the brain.

Bridging a sense of isolation

In a recent conversation at GMA with nonprofit leaders immersed in work with people whose lives have been affected by trauma, we heard about a prevalent sense of disconnection and isolation. Physical changes in the brain are triggered by war, domestic violence and abuse, but also by persistent racism, poverty, homelessness and food insecurity. The altered brain is incapable of responding appropriately to emotional triggers. Individuals’ lives are derailed, as are their communities.

The good news is that our brains are malleable. Informed by recent research on plasticity, youth development programs are incorporating a variety of approaches to addressing the isolating effects of trauma. These models empower young people to be actively involved in their own and in one another’s healing.

Engaging youth on the soccer field or at summer camp opens the door for young people to participate in everyday activities, still receive needed treatment yet not feel singled out and apart from their peers. Trauma-informed out-of-school programs bring young people together and build relationships – with a team, a congregation, or with a mentor – providing youth with a vital sense of belonging and reassurance that they are not alone.

Measuring progress

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study and ongoing research at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute are important frameworks for establishing outcomes of early intervention in traumatized youth. Measuring the success of trauma-informed programs is complicated.

Funders’ support for program evaluation is important to continuing to shape effective trauma-informed programs. Every Thursday night the Roxbury Presbyterian Church’s Cory Johnson Trauma Education program offers some form of trauma support open to the community. High levels of engagement have civic leaders thinking about replication in other neighborhoods suffering the effects of violence. A recent grant from The Boston Foundation for the Church’s nonprofit arm to develop strong measurement and bench-marking for the program is the first step.

Shifting to Trauma-Informed Programs

Do the organizations you support incorporate trauma-informed approaches in their programs? Consider how shifts in your grant guidelines or discussions with nonprofit leaders might lead to stronger programs that intervene effectively to heal lives affected by traumatic experiences.

Danielle Belanger is a program officer at GMA Foundations.