Children and youth thrive in environments that support their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. But as research shows, stress and trauma can act as stumbling blocks in their developmental journey—hindering their progress in various domains such as social interactions, emotional regulation, cognitive abilities, physical health, and educational attainment.
Accordingly, early learning and care settings and educational institutions are becoming more proactive in addressing stress and trauma to support developmental needs. Many are providing professional learning for early learning and care providers and educators, that enables them to understand and respond to stress and trauma more effectively.
The Office of the California Surgeon General (OSG) recently launched Safe Spaces: Foundations of Trauma-Informed Practice for Educational and Care Settings, developed in partnership with WestEd’s Resilient and Healthy Schools and Communities (RHSC) and Early Childhood Learning and Development (ECLD) teams. The RHSC and ECLD teams help their partners create the conditions for learning, human development, and well-being so individuals, communities, and systems can thrive.
Safe Spaces provides free, online trauma-informed professional learning modules for early learning and care providers and educators to develop their responsiveness and effectiveness. The modules aim to provide a greater awareness of the impact of stress and trauma on health, development, and learning; and they provide key mindsets and strategies for responding with trauma-informed principles to help create the conditions for safe and supportive learning environments for everyone.
WestEd’s Peter Mangione, Senior Director of Early Childhood Strategic Initiatives, and Christina Pate, Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety, are leading this work and the partnership with OSG.
In this Q&A, Mangione and Pate provide their insights into the Safe Spaces project, including WestEd’s role, and how the modules align with best practices in trauma-informed care and differ by age group.
What led to the Safe Spaces professional learning modules being created?
Prior to WestEd’s involvement, the OSG had a priority around increasing awareness of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and trauma—particularly in the healthcare field. The former Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, has conducted extensive research in this area and written extensively on the impact of ACES. She elevated awareness of the issue and worked to support healthcare professionals in early identification and intervention. From there, knowing that children spend the majority of their time in early learning and care settings and educational environments, under Dr. Burke Harris’ leadership, the OSG turned its attention to building awareness and providing supports for adults working with children in these settings. The OSG approached WestEd to partner with them in the effort.
How did you ensure that the Safe Spaces professional learning modules align with the latest research and best practices in trauma-informed care?
We went through a multistep and iterative process with multiple interest-holder groups as well as conducted a landscape analysis and literature review.
First, we convened a national panel of experts, including youths, to guide and support this work. Then, we conducted a landscape analysis of currently available professional learning resources as well as an extensive review of the literature on ACES, trauma, stress, and trauma-informed, healing-centered approaches to developing safe and supportive care in learning environments. From there, our content experts began developing user-friendly and accessible content grounded in the science of learning and development, integrated with best practices.
The content was reviewed by the expert panel and other interest holders and partners. That content was iterated and improved with each round of reviews. We then conducted beta testing with folks in the field, including a soft launch to elicit feedback, and iterated again to finalize the current content. As a result, the professional modules are both grounded in research and practice-focused.
How do the professional learning modules’ strategies and practices differ by age group?
There are three modules to choose from—each is meant to support a different age group: 0–5, 5–11, or 12–18 years old. The module for each age group is about 2 hours long and filled with case examples, videos, strategies, and practices. Trauma-informed practices recognize and respond to the unique needs and experiences of individuals who have experienced stress and trauma, with these practices taking into account the development of the individual, as trauma impacts individuals differently depending on their age and cognitive abilities. Furthermore, relationships and environments differ across the settings—from early childhood settings to elementary, middle, and secondary school settings. Thus, the strategies and practices are developmentally appropriate and responsive for each context.
For example, children from 0 to 5 years old are developing the language skills necessary to express their emotions verbally. Trauma-informed practices for this age group focus on both nonverbal and verbal communication in various contexts, such as play and expressive activities, to help them process their emotions and provide strategies to support emotionally secure relationships and promote regulation skills.
Children aged 5–11 may have a better grasp of language but might still be learning to express complex thoughts and emotions. Trauma-informed practices at this stage involve creating a safe and supportive environment where children are encouraged to communicate their thoughts and feelings while building relationships with adults and peers. These practices also involve educating children about their brains and bodies to help them understand and regulate those reactions through their experiences. Additionally, establishing routines and clear expectations can help provide a sense of stability and predictability, which is essential for learning and healing.
Youths aged 12–18 may experience stress and trauma as they form their identity and navigate more complex peer relationships. Trauma-informed practices at this stage consider the need for autonomy and respect for privacy while offering a supportive space for expression and relationship-building. Practices also might focus on building resilience and coping skills to support adolescents in managing stress and emotions that can be challenging. Additionally, practices may support the development of advocacy and navigation skills to increase their autonomy in making choices and accessing supports and services.
Visit osg.ca.gov/safespaces to learn more about Safe Spaces: Foundations of Trauma-Informed Practice for Educational and Care Settings. On the site, you can access professional learning modules to help you create supportive and nurturing learning environments for ages 0–5, 5–11, and 12–18.
Peter Mangione is the Senior Director for Early Childhood Strategic Initiatives and a Senior Managing Director at WestEd. He leads the development of comprehensive training resources for the early childhood workforce, particularly infant and toddler care providers. Mangione has extensively worked and published in the fields of child development, early childhood education, public policy, research, evaluation, and assessment. He has often presented nationally and internationally on early development, education, and care.
Christina Pate serves as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety and is Director of the Office of the California Surgeon General’s Statewide Trauma-Informed Professional Learning effort. She also leads WestEd’s Safe and Supportive Learning Environments body of work. With over 20 years of experience, Pate brings diverse expertise in strategic planning; professional learning and workforce development; systems thinking; social–emotional development and mental health; leadership and collaboration; and organizational climate and culture.