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This is the 21st article in a series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Camille Kolu, BCBA-D

I often hear from educators and behavior analysts, “What do you actually do differently if your client has faced trauma, given your role as a behavior analyst?” In this bulleted series we’ll get there, but we’ll start with what I would want you to understand about myself as your client (or teammate!) who has experienced adverse experiences. Here we list 25 different things I want you to know. (As a hint, each thing we can understand about a person could be a bridge, if you choose to walk through this difficult thing to a shared place of understanding on the other side. We’ll explain in more detail in future posts, or you can check out our course library over at CuspEmergenceUniversity if you’re interested in expanding your boundary of competence). But first, if I were your client or team member – if my past involved trauma – I would want you to understand that now, with the presence of historical trauma,


  • have difficulties calming down when under pressure
  • have difficulties using “appropriate” behaviors even after years of programmed reinforcement for using them
  • have mental health concerns that have never been appropriately addressed because my behavior masks my needs
  • have medical problems that are going unaddressed because my providers have never asked me about my trauma history, despite it being a fact that it confers serious medical risks. (See the incomparable Nadine Burke Harris talk about her work on this, and the amazing takeaways, in her classic TED Talk– or see some of her research and outcomes on using screening tools)
  • be more likely to use certain “challenging behaviors”
  • and find it more reinforcing, even important, to use behaviors you would describe as challenging
  • use behaviors that are more resistant to change than you are used to as an instructor, therapist, parent, supervisor or friend
  • find certain interventions painful, difficult, or harmful
  • find some kinds of social interactions difficult or painful
  • have trouble controlling some of my bodily functions, but may not be able to describe to you why
  • experience “triggers” in the environment that you can’t see (but that an experienced provider could locate, document, and learn to help me explore or move with, as appropriate)
  • experience some times of the day, week, month, or year that are marked by aversive events for me that you won’t know about
  • may not be able to explain WHY this time is difficult or why I am using an “old pattern of behavior”
  • find it more difficult to perform, or to learn and remember new things than others of my age, skill level, or occupation – even if “on a good day” I can do this just fine. (By the way, have you read The Four Agreements? Do you know how important it is to take nothing personally and know that others are doing their best (and how critical it is for you to do the same)? If not go check it out.
  • use occasional behavior that is mistaken as “ADHD” or “ODD”, or more, but that is actually related to how I was mistreated
  • have been given misdiagnoses, treatments that didn’t work, or medications that made my problems worse or that interacted with each other in harmful ways that hurt my body and cognitive function
  • attempt to advocate but get ignored when I try to communicate pain, mistreatment, or a medical concern
  • be more likely to experience FUTURE trauma because of what I faced before
  • lack a reinforcing and useful repertoire (e.g., full complement of skills and things to enjoy), especially if I faced treatments that just tried to “teach me a replacement behavior” for a few challenging things I did, instead of understand and grow me as a person in the context of my own community, needs and desires for my future
  • be part of a long line of marginalized people or one of multiple generations exposed to trauma
  • have a chance to change our lineage… if you help

After all, I AM:

  • a human being with interests, feelings, and great potential for growth and joy
  • more likely to experience certain risks (I may be at greater risk of losing my educational or therapeutic setting, go through harmful discipline practices, be exposed to law enforcement interaction, for example)
  • in need of understanding, an informed supervisor and system of support, and someone who will document my challenges so we can work on them, but not emphasize them so much they ignore my strengths, needs and skills
  • capable of much more on my best day than I show on a hard day… but I am always doing “my best” at the time, given what I have been through and what I AM going through, and despite what it looks like

Taking these points as a starting place, future posts in this series explore what I NEED as a person who may have faced these things, and what I DO as a behavior analyst who cares. We’ll also share some of what I need from my supervisors or systems administrators! What would you add to this list? What are some of your action items?