Trauma-informed leadership through all stages of crisis

Reflections following the Camp Fire

By Matt Reddam and Sandra Azevedo | November | December 2019
Nov. 8, 2018 started with many Butte County residents noticing a white plume of smoke somewhere up in the hills, a troubling yet common occurrence in the north state. Rapidly, that plume became a blanket of black smoke stretching for miles being propelled by the deadliest wildfire in California history. The Camp Fire, a wildfire that would forever alter the lives of Butte County residents, left us rethinking our conception of crisis response, trauma-informed care, and what it means to lead when you are one of those who have lost.  The research, theories, and associated initiatives involving the need to increase trauma-informed care in education have spiked dramatically since the early 2000s coinciding with increased interest in Felitti and Anda’s seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences work. Although there is no agreed-upon definition of trauma-informed care, it is generally accepted that it involves the recognition and response to the impact of trauma on individuals, and the subsequent ways in which we heal from, treat, consider, and reduce those impacts. In recent years, trauma-informed care and approaches have been aligned with social and racial justice initiatives and equity work. Within education, this has taken on a variety of forms, with the most common being trauma as a subject of professional development days, as well as a rationale for implementing and sustaining practices to reduce exclusionary outcomes. A handful of states have taken the trauma-informed care movement to the state level and have created statewide initiatives to reduce ACES and promote resilience in individuals, families, and systems.  Regionally, the trauma-informed approach has shifted to an awareness of the need for what Dr. Ken Epstein terms “Healing Systems.” Healing systems are the result of an organization’s shift from being trauma-inducing to trauma-informed. This includes being socially and racially just. Dr. Epstein’s work resulted in Trauma Transformed, the first regional trauma-informed system of care. Trauma Transformed identified key drivers to complex systems change and named six principles of a trauma-informed system. One of the most salient areas noted is the role of leadership in creating equitable, trauma-informed systems.  A step in the process of being a trauma-informed leader is identification and awareness of competencies that can serve as a guide to leading from a trauma-informed lens. In this article, we highlight some key competencies leaders can develop while using the real-world example of the Camp Fire to illustrate how these competencies might live at each stage of a crisis: prevention/preparation, during a crisis, and post-crisis. Trauma Transformed developed six leadership competencies that are seen as necessary elements of a trauma-informed leader. We focus on those most relevant to crises planning, response, and recovery.  Crisis planning/preparation:  Crisis response has a way of feeling reactionary, even when there is adequate planning on the front end. Traditionally crisis planning is a process by which the likelihood of an event is assessed considering location, circumstance, and context. From that point, a set of protocols based on best practices may be developed. The role of leadership within this process is to prioritize, communicate, and provide direction. What is often not considered in the process is how we are to be as leaders (relational leadership), who we involve in our thinking (inclusive leadership) and in what ways our plans will mitigate/increase risk, increase/decrease safety, and also potentially traumatize/heal those we serve (complexity thinking).  The inevitability of crisis is a given, however, how we intentionally hold our humanity in what can be a protocol-driven process is what separates leadership that uses a lens of trauma and healing, from business as usual. The distinction must be made in an organization hoping to transcend the bonds of business to one of humanity and healing, between what we do and how we are.

This level of reflection and inquiry in relation to the Camp Fire is an ongoing process as Butte County residents and leaders move towards stability. This is not a process to rush. It requires multiple iterations, a great deal of patience and ample self-compassion.
Inclusive leadership involves intentionally and consistently including those in our decision-making that may have differing views, are of a different ethnicity and/or gender, or may have different lived experiences. This can be tricky when the planning is a mandate by the state, county, or district, but it provides a foundation of cooperation and transparency that will be needed during and after a crisis. Leading from a trauma lens and inclusive leadership involves awareness of who is at the table while thinking through what the plans we create do and do not consider; such as the impact of secondary trauma, the need for debriefing, unintentional infliction of stress and trauma for a specific population, and potential long-term impacts on the system.  Complexity thinking from a trauma lens involves the ability to hold multiple facts, outcomes, needs, and considerations that all aim to increase health and wellness and limit re-traumatization. In crisis planning we can use this competency to think through the range of possible outcomes of our planning, to consider the impact of our plans on students, families, and staff, while working toward plans that consider secondary trauma, self-care, and debriefing in addition to the mechanics of what to do, who to call, and where to go.  In Butte County, there had been planning around what to do in the case of a disaster. This planning involved a range of potential crises including what to do in the event of a fire. What we could not plan for was what to do in the event of a fire of the force and magnitude of the Camp Fire where staff had to make snap decisions to save the lives of their students and fellow staff. In this instance, the planning and protocols, while helpful in many ways, reached a point at which it became not just unnecessary, but life-threatening if adhered to. For example, the policy that teachers should not transport students in their car, or that each child must have a seatbelt, or the countless other plans and protocols that if followed to the letter, would have led to dire outcomes for students and staff. These life-saving decisions were implemented by the leadership of individuals at every level of the system. When we focus on how we are as leaders from the lens of trauma, it allows us to consider that crises often do not follow our plans and that the more mechanical and hasty our planning, the less humanity will be brought to bear.  During a crisis: Research regarding traumatic stress and the brain has shown that when we are in a heightened state of arousal or fear, we have less access to the parts of our brains that are critical for decision making and effectively relating to others. This research also tells us that if we have those around us that provide external or co-regulation, we are better able to combat the impact of trauma. Leaders often are asked to hold the stress and trauma in others but may feel isolated at times with their level of secondary trauma and ability to mitigate with self-care. When we lead from the lens of trauma during a crisis, we believe it must involve both our consideration of the impact of stress and trauma on others, and also on ourselves because we see the reciprocal nature of both processes. As we slowly begin to recover from the Camp Fire we recognize the population hardest hit by secondary trauma has been staff and administrators. We can conceptualize the role of a leader during a crisis as the thinking brain of the larger system. When the crisis occurs there is a collective level of arousal that we must theoretically be apart from so we can direct, react, and plan. The difficulty arises when we are part of the crisis, when we are both leaders and victims/survivors. How, then, do we balance our role as the constant, level director with our level of arousal and natural response to the crisis? We believe centralizing the value of relational leadership is the first step.  Relational leadership, in short, is the centralizing of relationship and influence as drivers of staff productivity and wellness versus authority, hierarchy, and power. The use of relational leadership during crisis allows for greater safety and a decrease in secondary trauma and systems trauma. Examples of relational leadership include whole person thinking, staying open during times of stress, expressing emotion and vulnerability, inspiring and motivating, and using praise and recognition.  During crises, relational leadership can provide the necessary relational safety and predictability to decrease additional trauma and increase communication and cohesion for those impacted by the crisis.  Trauma-informed communication involves intentionally thinking about the mode, frequency, and amount of information to offer others to minimize the impact of stress and trauma. Examples of trauma-informed communication are: right-sizing information (how much to give and how often), use of multiple delivery modes (email, in person, phone), offering stabilization (consistently available, predictable), and framing (providing the “why”). They are linked with relational leadership and the goal of using the skills intentionally is to provide transparency and predictability when typically, under stress, individuals tend to revert to their most easily accessible form of communicating and relating.  The goal of trauma-informed communication is to balance the need for “task completion” on the part of those involved and the toll that the crisis is taking on those that are being asked to complete the task.  During the Camp Fire, many staff and administrators lost homes, drove through flames with the thought that they may not survive, and witnessed the destruction of their school and town. Because of this, many of the immediate interactions were not regarding safety plans, task completion, etc., but were about the health and wellness of the staff. When we prioritize inquiry into the health and wellness of an individual, we are offering attention to one’s full humanity. Often, a leader can’t directly check on the health and wellness of every impacted staff member, especially during a disaster crisis. In this case, a “tree of concern” can be effective whereby the leader encourages less impacted staff to make direct contact with those highly impacted and then report back. The importance of leaders communicating concern is paramount during a crisis, even if it is through indirect means.  Post-crisis recovery: A crisis can often tell us a great deal about the health, wellness, and efficacy of a system. In schools, crises often have the unintended impact of showing us the gaps in resources, interventions, planning, or communication. They also often show us our humanity, strength, care, collaboration, and resilience. We must identify both the lessons the crisis can teach us about where we fall short, and how our response to the crisis was a testament to everything good about our system. Most important is that we, as leaders, reflect that goodness back to our system.  Using a trauma-informed lens post-crisis involves being mindful of the different levels of healing and the recovery process. Healing and recovery from crisis is not a linear process and depends greatly on the level of stress and trauma the individual experienced during the crisis. Given this reality, we believe there are two competencies most needed: mindfulness and reflection, and radical/critical inquiry. Mindfulness and reflection are necessary to remind ourselves and our systems that we need to be aware of how the crisis may still live in us in the form of trauma, anxiety, exhaustion, confusion, anger, etc. Reflection encourages our system to makes space and time to reflect on the crisis, its impact on our system, and where we are in our ability to recover. Mindfulness allows us to take moments to consider what we have been through and what others may still be going through due to the crisis.  Radical and critical inquiry are ways in which we as leaders can look at our responses during the crisis and how they impacted our wellness, that of our staff, and the system as a whole. We can also do this for the larger system response, critically asking ourselves, “Did our response to this crisis highlight inequities, exacerbate power dynamics, or lead to re-traumatization or increased secondary trauma?” “Did we fall short in our ability to communicate effectively, respond to trauma, or respond to the impact of secondary stress and trauma?” The answers to these questions from a trauma-informed perspective include information from all levels of the system, and from a leader’s willingness to face hard truths. When this is done correctly and the process is transparent and accessible to staff, it increases a sense of empowerment within a system and illuminates that a leader is concerned with more than the machinations of the system.  This level of reflection and inquiry to the Camp Fire is an ongoing process as Butte County residents and leaders move toward stability. This is not a process to rush. It requires multiple iterations, a great deal of patience and ample self-compassion. Nearly a year post-fire, Butte County residents are acutely aware of how our landscape has forever changed. We recognize there is a long road of healing ahead. We are grateful for the vast demonstrations of humanity and profound leadership exemplified by countless individuals both during and after the Camp Fire. Resources Trauma Transformed;

Matt Reddam is a School and Community Wellness Advisor and Sandra Azevedo serves as the Coordinator of Continuous Improvement with the Butte County Office of Education.

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators