On the Ground

Dispatches from community organizations committed to creating healthier lives.

Healing Power

Teaching young people to cope with trauma can pave the way for workplace success.

By Dan Rhoton

In early December, The New York Times challenged readers to name one good thing about 2020. It was quite a year for trauma and anxiety — and recovering from such emotional wounds can be hard for people unless you give them time to heal. This reality is the reason my organization, Hopeworks, struggled for years.

We work with young people who have grown up amid poverty and violence in Camden, New Jersey, and we train them for careers in technology. For more than a decade, our success rate — the number of people who were able to land and hold a job after completing the program — hovered between 20% and 30%. The reason for the struggle to achieve better results wasn’t our mission or commitment or the caliber of our technical instruction. It was that we were expecting these youth to overcome too many barriers.

A group of people in masks gather outside.

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The behaviors that people adopt in response to trauma are normal and natural, and can help them endure extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But at some point, those survival mechanisms can begin to overwhelm and interfere with their lives.

To help young people understand and address this, we adopted a trauma-informed approach in 2012. For people who have experienced trauma, the most emotional moment of their lives was also often the worst — and we have to help them with the associated emotions. After that, we work with them to develop a plan to keep those feelings and emotions in check.

For example, we have one student who is brilliant at coding, but because of trauma in her past, she experienced difficulty accepting negative feedback in the workplace. She would either blow up and act defensively or disappear for a few days because her instinct was to withdraw before she got hurt. Now she uses a safety plan to manage her reactions: She takes copious notes and asks clarifying questions until her emotions are under control. Today, she is a dream employee who works in digital marketing.

Since we adopted our trauma-informed approach, the share of students landing and retaining a job after 12 months has risen to 94%. The program’s success can be attributed to many factors, including talented leaders who teach our students to be exceptional employees. But I believe the main reason for the improvement is that these young people are learning to heal emotional wounds.

We discovered how well they are managing after the coronavirus hit and added and amplified trauma for many. Our students have been holding up well, in part because of the techniques we’ve taught them. One student said, “I know how to deal with this stuff. I feel like the rest of the world is feeling this for the first time, and it’s not easy, but I feel prepared for it.”