This article was originally published in Adoptalk, NACAC’s quarterly newsletter. Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership. Learn more about becoming a NACAC member.

The curriculum described below—including a facilitator’s guide, a participant handbook, and a slide kit—is available on the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website. The online community requires a user ID and password, but access is free.

In 2010, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), with support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, developed a curriculum designed to help adoptive, foster, and kinship care parents learn how to better parent children who have experienced trauma. The curriculum—called Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: A Workshop for Resource Parents—is free and is widely used across the U.S. and beyond.

With a goal of creating trauma-informed caregivers who have the tools to focus on their children’s recovery and healing, the 12- to 16-hour curriculum helps caregivers understand trauma and its effects, see behaviors as symptoms of trauma, and learn how best to respond to children who have experienced trauma. It is a rich resource for agencies, support groups, and parent associations to train adoptive, foster, and kinship caregivers, and can be used to meet foster parents’ required training hours. The curriculum offers practical ideas to enable parents and caregivers to become trauma-informed and trauma-responsive—and thus to help children and youth heal and thrive.

About the Curriculum

The curriculum was first envisioned in 2004 when the NCTSN convened foster, adoptive, and kinship parents; foster parent training leaders; child welfare and mental health leaders; public child welfare directors; and representatives of national organizations to identify what was currently working in resource parent training and what was missing. An initial draft was piloted and tested, and the second and current version of the curriculum was released in 2010.

Designed to be co-facilitated by a professional and a resource parent, the curriculum’s goals are to:

  • Educate resource parents about the impact of trauma on the development and behavior of children in foster care
  • Provide resource parents with the knowledge and skills needed to:
    • Understand different ways that trauma and stresses can affect a child or adolescent
    • Respond effectively to the behavioral and emotional challenges of children who have experienced trauma
    • Help children who have experienced trauma develop healthy attachments, recognize and enhance their strengths, and develop the coping strategies needed to grow into healthy and functional adults
    • Take care of themselves and advocate for trauma-specific services and resources for their children

The eight modules engage participants in skill-building exercises to learn how trauma-informed parenting can support their children’s safety, permanency, and well-being. The first three modules form the training’s core required elements while the later modules help expand participants’ knowledge and understanding.

  1. Introduction — This first module includes the essential elements of trauma-informed parenting such as recognizing the impact trauma has had on your child, helping your child to feel safe, helping your child to understand and manage difficult behaviors, helping your child to develop a strength-based understanding of his life story, and taking care of yourself.
  2. Trauma 101 — The goal of the second module is to define child trauma and describe how children may be affected by traumatic events. The module explores both single traumatic events and chronic trauma, including neglect or ongoing abuse. Special emphasis is on complex trauma, which is chronic trauma caused by adults who are supposed to be caring for a child. During this module, trainers highlight the effects of trauma and how trauma reminders can trigger reactions in children. In addition, participants learn about resilience and how to promote resilience in their children, especially by focusing on their strengths and talents. Research across the country focuses on the importance of being strengths-based when working with children who have been traumatized.
  3. Understanding Trauma’s Effects — In the third module, trainers describe the ways trauma can interfere with children’s development and functioning, including its effects on the brain itself. They explore how children who have experienced trauma are on constant alert for danger and react quickly to threats—triggering the fight, flight, and freeze response that we often talk about. The session also covers how trauma-informed parents can respond to help get development back on track by re-parenting the child at a younger developmental stage and enabling them to move forward. This module introduces the “invisible suitcase”—where children carry beliefs and expectations about themselves, beliefs and expectations about their caregivers, and beliefs and expectations about the world. Caregivers learn skills to repack the suitcase with positive experiences, a more positive self-esteem, and beliefs that promote resilience.
  4. Building a Safe Place — The fourth module teaches parents to deliver an effective safety message to children who have experienced trauma, and gives examples of trauma reminders and reactions. Participants learn how they can help children cope with trauma reminders and create a atmosphere of psychological safety.
  5. Dealing With Feelings and Behavior — Facilitators use module five to describe the cognitive triangle (the relationship between what we think, what we feel, and what we do) and apply it to a child who has experienced trauma.
In this session, parents learn how children may act out and how they can help children develop new emotional skills and positive behaviors.
  6. Connections and Healing — Module six covers two areas: supporting and maintaining important connections in the child’s life and how to help the child feel safe when she is talking about past trauma. A key element of this portion of the training is to teach parents to help children deal with loss and grief related to past relationships, reshape their memories of important people from the past, and then to build new, healthy connections.
  7. Becoming an Advocate — Parents whose children have experienced trauma need to be dedicated child advocates. This module covers the basic elements of trauma-informed advocacy, and helps caregivers identify specific actions they can take with people who are involved in their child’s care. The training helps caregivers understand the importance of training teachers, coaches, community members, and others who come in contact with their child to understand the effects of trauma in the child’s life.
  8. Taking Care of Yourself — In the final module, resource parents learn about the warning signs of compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress and identify specific self-care techniques that can help prevent these conditions. Participants also develop a list of coping strategies to use when a child’s trauma is a reminder of their own past trauma.

The workshop uses detailed case vignettes—as well as participants’ own experiences with children in their care—as a foundation for teaching about child traumatic stress. Through the entire training, participants complete and refer to a worksheet about their child or children to keep the training as real and relevant as possible.

Like other caseworkers and mental health professionals, Chris Foreman, NCTSN liaison at Duke University and former foster care consultant, found that using the curriculum helped foster parents understand and respond more effectively to a variety of challenging behaviors and, in the long run, reduced her workload. Over time, the number of crisis calls she received dropped, and she was able to comfortably manage a higher caseload. Chris explains, “After doing two or three sessions of the resource parent curriculum workshop, … suddenly, the number of crises I was responding to in my day-to-day social work practice dropped dramatically.” She realized that parents were now able to think about behaviors differently and figured out new ways to respond.

Delivering the Training

As mentioned earlier, Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma is designed to be co-presented by a professional provider and a resource parent. The professional trainer should have a minimum of a master’s degree in social work, psychology, or a related field. These facilitators may be mental health clinicians, child welfare workers, or therapeutic foster care workers. Resource parent trainers should be experienced caregivers (five or more years) who have completed the training themselves and are committed to the idea of looking at children from a trauma-informed perspective. They should be able to engage participants by sharing their own experiences and also encourage others to share theirs.

In a podcast on the NCTSN website, co-facilitators Beth Barto and Diane Lanni described how they have presented the training as a team, blending Beth’s professional experience and Diane’s lived expertise to present trauma concepts from a real life perspective. Beth and Diane are part of the Massachusetts Child Trauma Project, which is offering the training to resource parents across the state.

Diane was able to use examples from the children she had cared for to illustrate clinical points that Beth made. For example, in a discussion about resilience, Beth presented how supporting a child’s strengths and helping them to be competent can promote resilience and help children bounce back from trauma. Diane then told the story of Mary Kate, who had been through multiple traumas before coming to Diane’s house in a foster placement.

One Thanksgiving, Mary Kate wanted to go feed people at a homeless shelter. Diane wanted her to be with the family, but she saw how important it was for Mary Kate to take care of others because she had also once been homeless. Diane realized that helping others really contributed to Mary Kate’s resiliency and choosing how to spend Thanksgiving also gave her some control of her own life. In the training, Beth then was able to add that giving youth control can also help promote resilience.

Each of the eight modules can take about 1.5 to 2 hours to present, although the actual timing depends on the facilitators and the depth of discussion. Some trainers have offered the curriculum in two or three full-day sessions, but most prefer to divide the material into multiple sessions delivered over a couple of months. Extending the training over time allows participants to practice applying concepts and techniques between sessions (real life homework with their children) and come back to the group with questions and suggestions. As they meet over an extended period of time, resource parents can share their struggles and successes and learn from one another.

The NCTSN recommends offering the training in groups of 10 to 20, which is large enough to ensure a diverse group but small enough to allow active discussion and small group activities. Experienced trainers suggest mixing kinship caregivers, adoptive parents, experienced and newer resource parents, families from different agencies, resource parents with children of different ages, resource parents who already understand trauma, and those who seem to need the trauma information the most. With a diverse group, trainees will learn more from one another.

Companion Support Groups

In many cases, the resource parent training is really just the beginning. Resource parents need to try new techniques, discuss what works, and make changes. As a result, some people have started follow-up support groups where parents continue to gather after the formal training ends.

In one community, families created an ongoing, open, educational support group called “It’s Not About You.” At monthly meetings led by a foster parent, the group continues sharing examples of ways in which they used a trauma lens with their families. In these sessions, they share frustrations and expand their toolbox of trauma-informed parenting techniques. Par­tic­ipants note that there is no other place where they can discuss this kind of parenting, as their families and friends often don’t understand the impact of trauma or how best to respond.

Mandy Taylor, an adoptive parent and foster parent retention specialist at Bethany Christian Services, started such a monthly support group where parents can discuss concepts from the resource parent curriculum and how they can be applied at home. She helped establish the group after realizing that she and other parents learned things in the training, but found it hard to keep track of them as they returned to day-to-day living. During the first half of the two-hour group, parents share joys, achievements, ways they are helping children, and challenges the family faces. Other parents share ideas or make suggestions and offer emotional support.

During the second half, Mandy facilitates a discussion around a specific principle of the resource parent curriculum. She has found that the lesson-based discussion gives parents—including those who have not been through the training—new approaches to try and new knowledge they didn’t have before. Mandy explains, “I had one foster parent who’s adopting a child respond back to me that without this group and without this support, she probably would have given up…. She stated that the support group has given her a new hope, new strategies, new desire to continue on and really work to create family between her and her new adoptive daughter.”

Next Steps

Currently, the curriculum is downloaded about 2,000 times per month, and is used across the U.S. and around the world, including in Norway, Holland, and Haiti. The Massa­chusetts Child Trauma Project, which is seeking to create a statewide trauma-informed child welfare system, uses the resource parent curriculum to train caregivers. It is also being offered statewide in Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. The National Native Children’s Trauma Center at the University of Montana uses the curriculum to train foster parents and other caregivers in native communities.

In addition, the Network is working on augmenting and expanding the curriculum’s reach by developing an online resource center and active partnerships with international trauma experts. As NCTSN liaison Chris Foreman explains, the curriculum is brilliant in that it starts the conversation about [acknowledging] trauma. But it needs to do more if we are to change something as foundational as parenting behavior.

For example, the resource parent curriculum website will address key curriculum concepts that participants can review before the training. This will allow them to focus time during the training on applying concepts rather than learning general information. The goal is to develop a site that helps training participants practice and receive coaching so they can make the most of this opportunity to become trauma-informed parents.

For now, though, this valuable resource is available for you to integrate into your existing learning opportunities. All foster, adoptive, and kinship caregivers want to be better informed about how to successfully parent the children in their home. Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma offers the opportunity to meet this goal by helping parents become both trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.

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