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Trauma-Informed Care Principles for Social Workers

8 Min Read

Social workers are often called to the field by their passion for helping others through difficult times. A social worker’s success depends on their ability to form genuine connections with those who have been through traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed care allows social work professionals to foster holistic perspectives that make a powerful difference for the people they serve. To develop a trauma-informed approach, social workers often turn to online MSW programs.

What is Trauma-Informed Care?

Trauma-informed care acknowledges that extreme stress and trauma can affect someone’s well-being for months, years, or even a lifetime. The long-term symptoms are well documented — intrusive memories, avoidance, negative thinking, self-destructive behavior, cardiovascular disease, and more.1 For patients and clients who have a history of trauma, a compassionate, supportive environment is essential to their overall health.

If implemented successfully, trauma-informed care empowers clients and communities who have experienced adversity. Trauma-informed professionals understand the impacts of trauma, recognize its signs and symptoms, foster healing without re-traumatization, and build awareness in their policies, procedures, and practices.2 Through this approach, social workers perceive their clients not just as people who need help with problems but as humans situated within complex circumstances often out of their control.

Why is it Important in Social Work?

Each day, social workers interact with populations and individuals who have experienced trauma. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) calls social workers the nation’s largest provider of mental health services.3 They guide others through social, political, economic, and cultural situations as part of their day-to-day work, but their training might not be enough.

In a 2023 study from the Journal of Social Work, researchers draw attention to the prevalence of trauma in the lives of those seeking mental health services, which necessitates ongoing professional education.4 These opportunities can come from professional development, continuing education, or a Master of Social Work with an emphasis on trauma-informed care.

What are the Advantages?

Trauma-informed care benefits social workers, clients, organizations, and communities. Social workers can better reflect on their practices and improve their services, while clients are more likely to engage in their care and follow through with treatment plans. According to the Center for Health Strategies, trauma-informed care can enhance health outcomes and promote staff wellness throughout an organization.2 Among these significant benefits is the ability of social workers to avoid re-traumatization.

Sometimes, social workers and organizations can accidentally trigger re-traumatization with their procedures, environment, language, and interactions. Several scenarios can lead to re-traumatization:

  • Intrusive questioning can bring on painful flashbacks.
  • Intake paperwork that requires explicit information details can make clients uneasy.
  • A counselor inadvertently using the same words or phrases as an abuser can cause a stress response.
  • An office environment that reminds a client of inpatient or institutional care can transport a client back to a traumatic past.

It’s impossible to predict every re-traumatizing situation, but social workers can do their best to minimize risk by remaining sensitive to their client’s needs.

What are Trauma-Informed Care Principles?

Trauma-informed care is not a set of rigidly defined practices; It is made up of guiding principles that influence individual contexts. Many organizations and institutions have their own principles for trauma-informed care, but most are influenced by a set of principles provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.5

6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach Infographic

6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach

The CDC’s Office of Readiness and Response (ORR), in collaboration with SAMHSA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTIC), developed and led a new training for CPR employees about the role of trauma-informed care during public health emergencies. The training aimed to increase responder awareness of the impact that trauma can have in the communities where they work. Participants learned SAMHSA’s six principles that guide a trauma-informed approach, including:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness & transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration & mutuality
  5. Empowerment & choice
  6. Cultural, historical & gender issues

Adopting a trauma-informed approach is not accomplished through any single particular technique or checklist. It requires constant attention, caring awareness, sensitivity, and possibly a cultural change at an organizational level. On-going internal organizational assessment and quality improvement, as well as engagement with community stakeholders, will help to imbed this approach which can be augmented with organizational development and practice improvement. The training provided by CPR and NCTIC was the first step for CDC to view emergency preparedness and response through a trauma-informed lens.

According to the CDC, social workers should strive to:

  • Prioritize their clients’ physical and emotional safety.
  • Build trust with their community through transparent communication.
  • Seek peer support and encourage their clients to do the same.
  • Foster collaboration and mutuality in their practices.
  • Empower clients by giving them a voice and a choice.
  • Consider broader contexts that impact client experiences, such as cultural, historical, and gendered influences.

To fully embrace the CDC’s six tenets of trauma-informed care, social services professionals must diligently maintain care and sensitivity. They might propose appropriate organizational and cultural changes that align with CDC principles.

Social workers can explore the best ways to address these principles in a program like Utica University’s online MSW, which features progressive coursework in trauma-informed policy, assessments of mental health, motivational interviewing, and cognitive-behavioral therapies.

What Social Work Jobs Utilize Trauma-Informed Care?

With specialized skills from an MSW, aspiring social workers and experienced professionals can successfully implement trauma-informed care across every facet of the field. Now is the time for social workers to invest in their MSW because social services careers are booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of employed social workers will reach 782,500 by 2032, which breaks down to about 63,800 openings annually from 2022 to 2032.6 Some of the most sought-after roles are in:

  • Counseling: Due to widespread efforts to destigmatize mental health issues, more people feel comfortable accessing counseling. From 2004 to 2022, the percentage of adults who reported having visited a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional within the past year rose from 13 to 23 percent.7 Counselors are urgently needed in behavioral health, domestic abuse, substance misuse positions, and more. Marriage and family counseling jobs, for example, are projected to grow an astonishing 14.9 percent from 2022–32.7
  • Criminal Justice: Social workers in criminal justice are frequently called corrections counselors, parole counselors, or forensic social workers. Nearly every individual, staff member, administrator, and provider involved in the criminal justice system is impacted by trauma. With this widespread need, corrections professionals need help delivering high-impact practices and programs.8 Trauma-informed education builds their skills in grounding strategies, de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention skills, and more.
  • Child Advocacy: The U.S. foster care and adoption system is incredibly complicated, and social workers (also called caseworkers) are the “glue that holds the process together,” according to the national organization Considering Adoption.9 These professionals serve as trusted mentors, connections to community resources, and points of contact between agencies and organizations. A trauma-informed approach is essential for caseworkers; Considering Adoption states that every child who has been placed into foster care has some history of trauma.9
  • Early Childhood Education: School counselors work alongside students, teachers, and administrators with the common goals of academic progress and social development. They address behavioral issues, provide access to learning services, and determine each individual’s measures for success. Because of their proximity to students, the NASW points out that school counselors can be among the first to notice a child’s struggles at home and in school.10 They must be able to recognize early signs of trauma so children can receive the help they need.

How Can I Advance My Social Work Career?

If you would like to add trauma-informed care to your social work skills, an MSW is a great place to start. You can show employers that you understand how to advocate for individuals, families, and groups in health care, schools, corrections, and other social service settings.

Utica University’s online MSW program is the one of the few clinical social work program in the nation that centers on recovery theories, values, and skills. You can learn how to support clients using proven trauma-informed interventions. Complete the traditional online MSW in two years or choose the 12- to 16-month online MSW: Advanced Standing option if you already have a BSW. Discover all the benefits of Utica University’s social work program with a quick visit to the MSW page or submit your information to talk with a member of our team.


  1. Mayo Clinic. “Post-traumatic stress disorder.” Dec. 13, 2022. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  2. Center for Health Strategies: Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. “What is Trauma Informed Care?” 2021. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  3. National Association of Social Workers. “About Social Workers.” Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  4. Journal of Social Work. “Beyond medicalized approaches to violence and trauma: Empowering social work practice.” Jan. 9, 2023. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024 from
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. “Infographic: 6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach.” Sept. 17, 2020. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. “Social Workers.” Sept. 6, 2023. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024 from
  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. “Beyond the Numbers: Projected employment growth for community and social service occupations, 2022–32.” Feb. 2024. Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024 from
  8. National Institute of Corrections. “Becoming Trauma Informed: An Essential Element for Justice Settings.” Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  9. Considering Adoption. “3 Questions You Have About Foster Care Adoption Social Workers.” Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from
  10. National Association of Social Workers. “Types of Social Workers: School Social Work.” Retrieved Feb. 15, 2024, from

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