Trauma-informed fitness leads to skill building for youth

Crossposted from Zero Youth Detention

“Our job is to listen.”

That is how Upower coaches describe their role in offering fitness classes at the King County Juvenile Detention Center.


Upower offers trauma-informed fitness and wellness classes at no cost to underserved teens in King County. Their classes are fun, safe and open to all fitness levels. Upower’s sensitive approach to trauma-informed fitness means that they advocate for physical fitness and social-emotional well-being for every teen served.

Upower coaches get teens moving through activities such as cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, flexibility and fun fitness games. Equally important are the regular check-ins that help teens build trust with peers and coaches, develop social skills and pro-social connections, increase self-awareness and regulation of emotions as well as encourage leadership skills. Together these activities are a therapeutic outlet that helps teens practice coping skills, focus on the future and become positive members of society.


Stafford Mays, Kate Holman, Leighla Webb, and Zo Jackson–some of the many Upower coaches and staff who provide fitness classes at the King County Juvenile Detention Center.

Upower brought their trauma-informed programming to the King County Juvenile Detention Center through their relationship with Interagency Schools–the alternative school for Seattle Public Schools, which is present within the Juvenile Detention Center. The average number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) for kids in interagency schools is seven out of a list of 10 recognized ACEs. It is likely higher for kids in the interagency school in Juvenile Detention. These are very high numbers that speak to a lot of past trauma and place these kids at high risk for negative long-term effects. Therefore a trauma-informed approach is necessary across all Juvenile Detention programming and partnerships.

What does an Upower class look like in Juvenile Detention?

Upower classes are structured but with a lot of flexibility to be responsive to the youth. The coaches describe it as “meeting kids where they are at and determining a workout based on energy levels.” This can look like a yoga and stretching class, or an intense game of basketball. Whatever the format, the youth walk away feeling good after class.


This was a high energy class so the coaches led a full hour of flag football!

The value of Upower fitness classes for youth in Juvenile Detention

Upower’s fitness programming supports youth in building a number of skills including coping skills when faced with triggers and stress. Physiological responses are similar to working out and it’s not always a bad thing–youth learn you can experience a physiological response and it can be okay.

Youth learn to regulate emotions

Emotion regulation is a social skill. When youth feel the same adrenaline and stress responses in a fitness class that they may feel in other stressful situations, they can learn coping skills that will benefit them when they leave Juvenile Detention. Coaches are trained in de-escalation and model the skills they want the youth to build. In tense situations, coaches ask consistent and calming questions, while being authentic and 100% genuine. As one coach said, “Kids are a good judge of character–they see through you!”

With consistency and care, comes trust as the youth learn that the Upower classes are a safe place. Another coach shared, “They [the youth] don’t perceive us as a threat. The kids feel loved by us.” Because the coaches are good listeners, youth often open up to the coaches and sometimes share things they don’t share with others. The physical and the emotional are connected.


A youth hangs out on the sidelines, talking with a Upower coach and King County program staff.

Not only do youth make personal connections with the coaches as mentors, but they make personal connections with their peers. While running and bonding during a team sport, kids can be physically affectionate with one another, which may not happen often otherwise. In doing so, they are building accountability to each other and learning to regulate emotions in a healthy way.


A moment of encouragement during a flag football game.

Youth learn to problem solve

Upower fitness classes create a safe environment for kids to learn and sometimes fail. Coaches describe an environment in which kids don’t get to pick their “teams” the same way they would on the “outside.” In order to make things work, the youth have to figure it out and the coaches are there to help facilitate problem solving.

These problem solving skills follow them when the youth leave the Detention Center and they model these skills (and others) with their community outside Detention. In fact, many of the youth that participate in Upower classes inside Detention continue to be involved with Upower on the “outside” and even recruit many of their friends to participate as well!


Connections to relationships and resources

The Upower coaches build relationships with the youth who attend their classes and are a positive adult mentor in the kids’ lives. These relationships matter when the youth transition out of the Detention Center back into community. The coaches offer connections to resources and other positive relationships on the “outside,” and will ask the youth, “Who can we connect you with to help you?”

Trauma-Informed Approach

Trauma and toxic stress negatively impact the health of communities. Public Health-Seattle & King County promotes resilience and protective factors to reduce the negative impacts of trauma on our community’s health. Public Health’s goal is to promote integration of core concepts of trauma informed practice by creating a shared culture and common language, beginning with staff and programming. With Public Health now overseeing Juvenile Detention programming, programs that are trauma-informed like Upower’s fitness classes are excellent examples of existing partnerships that the County hopes to expand upon.

Stay tuned to the blog for future stories on other trauma-informed programs taking place in the Juvenile Detention Center.