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Trauma-Informed Programming

Trauma is described by the CAMH as “the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event” such as sexual assault, violence, an accident, or a long term, repeated pattern such as childhood abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), sex trafficking, war and displacement, discrimination, and incarceration.

When we consider rates of interpersonal violence as well as discrimination and inequity in our society, it may not be surprising that some estimates suggest that over 75% of Canadian adults have experienced significant trauma in their lifetimes, including adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs include traumas sexual and physical abuse, neglect, or family instability due to divorce, suicide, incarceration, or parents or caregivers with substance abuse or mental health issues. Research shows that between half and two thirds of Canadians have experienced one or more ACEs before the age of 18.

A traumatized individual (survivor) can suffer for a lifetime from repercussions of the loss of personal power, control and agency, and their ability to trust or feel safe. They are also more vulnerable to chronic disease, anxiety and mental health issues, loss of cognitive function, and behavioural problems. ACEs can affect brain development and future educational and employment opportunities, cause lifelong depression and relationship issues, and increase vulnerability to ongoing trauma such as sex trafficking.

Considering the toll of trauma on individuals, families, the workplace, and communities, it is no wonder that we hear the term “trauma-informed” more and more often to describe health care practices, therapies, even leadership models that recognize and seek to accommodate survivors of trauma.

But for the COPA National team, being trauma-informed is not a new approach at all, as our organization was founded almost 30 years ago on the principles of trauma-informed practice. To this day, all our programming and resources are still developed and delivered with a trauma-informed approach.

The origins of our approach were a disturbing event in the late 1970’s in Columbus, Ohio. When a 7-year-old girl was raped, the local school and community were thrown into turmoil. Shocked, disturbed, and frightened, the community was desperate to prevent this from ever happening again. Community members approached the local sexual assault centre (Women Against Rape) and asked them for help. Workers from the centre rallied to help the community find answers and created a school-based program called the Child Assault Prevention (CAP) Project. The CAP Project was so innovative and successful that it spread quickly across the United States, throughout the world, and into Canada.

Today, COPA National is one of 4 CAP projects in Canada, and is also a regional CAP training centre. We have been using this unique and effective prevention curriculum since COPA was founded in 1995, in schools, community organizations, and the wider communities. Using CAP as inspiration we have developed a range of resources and programs for different groups - including immigrants and refugees. The CAP Project is the cornerstone of all of COPA National’s programs. Its unique vision, principles, and approach are at the core of our resource development.

Fundamental to CAP’s vision of violence prevention is the recognition of assault as a violation of human rights, expressed through the assertion that all people and all children have the right to be “safe, strong and free”. This basic premise underpins the foundational principles that form the basis of the CAP Project:

  • Prevention starts with breaking the silence and secrecy and debunking the myths surrounding violence against children, women, and all marginalized groups.

  • Effective prevention strategies address the social roots of violence: inequity and hatred.

  • People and communities have the right to information, skills and resources that will enable them to take back their power through capacity building.

These principles and approaches dovetail with the 6 guiding principles of a trauma-informed approach offered by SAMHSA's National Center for Trauma-Informed Care in the United States:

  • Safety

  • Trustworthiness and transparency

  • Peer support

  • Collaboration and mutuality

  • Empowerment, voice, and choice

  • Acknowledgement of cultural, historical, and gender issues

How is COPA National’s programming trauma-informed?

COPA National’s approach to the development of programming and resources reflects our care for the individual and their experiences and at the same time addresses social, institutional, and systemic issues. Designed to mitigate harm to the survivors of trauma, they are, in fact, welcoming and inclusive practices that work for all humans. We are creating spaces where marginalized people and ALL people are seen and heard and have a voice – or in other words, where all children, and all people, have the right to be safe, strong and free.

Below is a brief discussion of how we continue to incorporate trauma-informed principles into our prevention programming. COPA National also strives to espouse these principles internally within the organization to ensure coherence between what we practice and what we preach.

The strong theoretical framework that underlies and informs COPA National’s programming is what makes it so unique and powerful.

Our programming is rooted in awareness of the factors that increase vulnerability to assault, aggression, discrimination, child abuse, and other traumatizing events/ We believe that lack of power—social or personal—underlies all situations involving assault, which is by definition an abuse of power. Inequities and exclusion increase vulnerability to assault, triggering and perpetuating a cycle of violence against children, women, and all other marginalized social groups. Strategies for assault prevention are only effective when they promote equity and inclusion by facilitating the individual and collective empowerment of socially marginalized groups and individuals.

We recognize and make linkages in our programming between the different types of violence and harassment that members of marginalized social groups (children, women, LGBTQ2+, IBPOC, etc.) experience every day, and that are normalized.

Our understanding is that trauma is widespread and that those affected by it are everywhere, including in our workshops and trainings. Thus, every time we work with a group of people, we ensure that we actively recognize the presence of survivors and take their experiences into account.

Psychological and Physical Safety

Safety is key to a trauma-informed approach.

In COPA National programs, we begin to create psychological safety at the start of every workshop by generating a set of agreements with participants - children, youth, and adults. Participants identify their needs for a safe environment and commit to:

  • fostering a positive and inclusive space for LGBTQ2S+

  • respecting what others say

  • practising non-judgment,

  • listening when others speak

  • holding in confidentiality what others share

We continue by recognizing that survivors may be present, and naming their courage. We acknowledge that some topics we will discuss may be difficult and may elicit painful emotions, while emphasizing that we will also focus on positive strategies for prevention. We encourage those who feel the need to seek support, either from COPA National facilitators or from services in the community.

We ensure the physical safety and well-being of survivors by:

  • arranging in advance with schools that kids who are triggered by the content in the workshops have permission to leave in order to protect themselves.

  • ensuring there are at least 2 facilitators in every workshop or training: one to facilitate, and one to observe and offer support to those who are visibly triggered by the content of the workshop.

  • inviting participants to speak with us at the end of workshops, providing an opportunity for them to access support and resources. COPA National facilitators have all received empowerment-based crisis intervention training offered in-house and are up to date with what resources exist so that they can link those who need them with the appropriate resources.


Active listening is foundational to everything we do. Whether we are facilitating discussions or providing support to individuals during program implementation, we listen deeply to the stories of those who have experienced assault and trauma. New programming and resources are created in consultation with them and adapted according to their feedback. We know that listening, consulting, and integrating them within our programs is part of the healing process for survivors of trauma.

For example, A Circle of Caring and Joining the Circle, toolkits intended to foster the well-being of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students at home and at school, were developed by COPA National in grassroots collaboration with Indigenous communities all over Ontario. We sought the wisdom and guidance of people and groups from different communities, and met with hundreds of family and community members, and leaders. It was important to us to ensure that the content in the toolkits was what was needed by the communities and that it was also responsive to the context of historical and cultural trauma.

Another example of this type of collaboration is Virtu-elles, COPA National’s cyber-violence prevention program, an online workshop developed in consultation with witnesses and survivors of online violence against women and with front-line workers from women’s organizations.

Our Whole School Prevention program Change Our World is part of a repertoire of educational resources to promote equity and inclusion. It was developed through a consultation process with a wide range of equity-seeking individuals and organizations. Change our World also includes a consultation process with each school we work with. A committee of allies is created within the school to assist the change process. In this way, we not only recognize and elicit the experience and knowledge of those within the community, but we deepen the potential for ongoing and transformational change by leveraging allies of this change.

Yet another example of this is in our role as provincial coordinators of Ontario’s Francophone network of Settlement Workers in Schools (TÉÉ). When creating the conditions of success in schools for new arrivals, we form committees of student allies within the schools we work with that include those who have already gone through the experience of being a new arrival.

COPA National approaches program delivery as an ongoing and never-ending consultation. Our contact with students, parents and guardians, teachers and other schools staff represents a precious opportunity to listen and learn about their experiences and to identify emerging issues.

And fundamental to how we work and how we view things at COPA National, is our belief that kids have much to contribute, and wisdom to share with us. We share power with kids, and we recognize their knowledge and elicit their wisdom. We also model this way of being to the adults we work with.

Capacity Building

We believe that certain social factors such as a lack of information, dependence, and isolation, make children and women (and all marginalized social groups) particularly vulnerable to assault.

Therefore, all resources and activities created, developed, adapted, and disseminated by COPA National strive to reduce the vulnerability of children (and women, and members of all marginalized social groups) to assault. We do this in the following ways.

1) We facilitate people’s empowerment with TOOLS NOT RULES, sharing problem-solving tools and strategies that build their capacity to prevent violence and take care of themselves and others. We always frame it as tools not rules – in other words, as choices and not imposed. Trauma comes from loss of power and choice, so we aim to provide those who experienced trauma with opportunities to take back their power and build their confidence by making choices and taking action.

2) We aim to break the silence and secrecy surrounding violence against children, women, and other marginalized groups by providing accurate information and resources, addressing stereotypes and myths/false information around all forms of violence and its root causes, such as sexism, racism, etc.

3) We encourage children to seek and develop peer and adult support, and we educate adults on how they can provide empowering and respectful support to children. Problem-Solving Together is an excellent example of a tool that builds this capacity. It is a practical guide to supporting children who are struggling with a problem and also to helping them develop the ongoing ability to solve problems. This approach can be used with adults as well as children, modifying it as needed.

We suggest that adults who support safe, strong, and free children model positive action, respect the rights of children while seeking opportunities to share power with them, and recognize the capacity of a person to change. In our blogs, you will find many tools to support this approach. Here are 3 blogs about bullying that explain how to do this, step-by-step.

The importance of community

The Child Assault Prevention curriculum (CAP) was originally developed in response to the need of a community to know how to prevent the tragedy of child sexual assault. Thus, the whole idea of CAP is community-based. We believe that trauma-informed work needs to consider a more holistic approach through community mobilization and capacity-building. We know it can be a powerful force for positive change when we create spaces in our communities and schools where marginalized people are seen and heard and have a voice – and where they can explore together how to take care of themselves and others.

Our belief is that anyone can learn our approach, and we pick and choose our own facilitators from the community, based on their perspectives and their communication skills, and not only their professional standing. We provide them with training in respectful and empowering approaches to facilitating discussions, and to supporting and listening to children and adults. We do not set ourselves up as the experts, rather we recognize the wisdom of children, trauma survivors, and community members.

One of the ways in which COPA National is unique is that we offer programming to kids, their parents and caregivers, and to educators – the whole circle of care surrounding a child. When everyone is equipped with tools and strategies, kids reap the benefits, as the adults in their lives are collaborating to enhance their well-being. When everyone shares a collective understanding, it is more likely that each child will be safe, strong, and free.

Another innovative aspect of how we approach trauma-informed programming, is through whole school interventions such as Change Our World and Our Power in Adversity. These programs align not only with trauma-informed principles of consultation, collaboration, and capacity building, but also with the current understanding of successful approaches to change management (Peter Block, 2011 & Edgar Schein, 1999). This systemic approach to individual and collective transformation through empowerment can have a profoundly healing and transformative effect when embedded in a system like a school or a community.

COPA National has been operating according to trauma-informed principles for almost 30 years now – since our inception. What has impelled us more than anything over the years is our wholehearted commitment to the PREVENTION of violence and child abuse. Our trauma-informed approach, and the underlying theory of who is vulnerable and why, is what makes our prevention programming effective. Recognizing the social roots of all forms of violence including child abuse, we seek to bring about the social change needed to ensure that all children, from whatever social group, are safe, strong and free. By eliciting the wisdom and participation of survivors, we have been able to develop programming, interventions, and resources that are powerful, engaging, and that really work.


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