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St. Thomas institute will take a ‘head-on’ approach to addressing back-to-school trauma

The Minnesota Institute for Trauma-Informed Education (MITIE) will support professional development for teachers and administrators; build a statewide trauma-informed teaching network; and create a research and policy division.

empty school
Photo by Sin on Unsplash

In the days before a global pandemic changed the world, Kathlene Campbell, dean of the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas, was already thinking about the trauma’s impact on the way children learn.

“About two and a half years ago, when I first came to St. Thomas,” Campbell said, “I talked to my faculty and staff and realized that there was a need to embed trauma informed education into teacher and administrator preparation.”

In those early conversations, Campbell recalled her new colleagues explaining that one of the most pressing issues in education was the fact that so many children come to school with deep histories of trauma. In order to be effective, teachers and school administrators, Campbell said, needed to learn how to “de-escalate situations in classrooms. Many of those situations were inspired by existing trauma. We needed to understand the roots of that trauma and how to appropriately respond to it, but we didn’t yet have the tools.”

In search of those tools, Campbell turned to David Johnson, co-director of the Post-Traumatic Stress Center at Yale University, and one of the nation’s leading experts in trauma-informed education. Johnson, along with colleague Hadar Lubin, was the creator of Miss Kendra, a program that helps teachers and students talk about trauma through letter-writing and classroom discussion.

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Campbell asked Johnson to lead a professional training about trauma-informed teaching for her faculty and staff. The techniques and insight Johnson provided felt important, she said, and she began to make plans to make trauma-informed education a central part of her school’s teacher training curriculum. Johnson, along with two St. Thomas faculty members, created a professional development course for teachers called “Becoming Trauma Informed: A Primer for Educators.”

Kathlene Campbell
Kathlene Campbell
This approach to teaching felt timely and important, Campbell said: “The more we thought about it, the more we realized that teachers and educators are going to need more than one course.”

She began to hatch plans for taking this work to the next level, for creating an institute focusing on addressing trauma in young learners for teachers and other school-based professionals. She partnered with MayKao Hang, vice president of strategic initiatives and founding dean of the university’s Morrison Family College of Health, with the idea that trauma-informed perspectives could be included in the training of school social workers and other health professionals.

Then the pandemic hit, and the importance of understanding the impact of trauma on young people and the adults who work with them became even clearer.

“When we started talking about this, we couldn’t have imagined that we’d soon be in the middle of a pandemic,” Campbell said. Children, educators and other support staff have been out of school buildings for nearly a year, which is a trauma in itself, she continued: The eventual return to full-time in-person education will only highlight the need for programs like Miss Kendra.

“As adults and kids are coming back to schools, we have to recognize that all of us have been dealing with some type of trauma for months,” Campbell said. “For some of us, maybe it’s not trauma on top of trauma, but we all have been traumatized in some way by the events of the last year.”

Next steps

This month, as light slowly begins to appear at the end of the long COVID-19 tunnel, Campbell and Hang announced The Minnesota Institute for Trauma-Informed Education (MITIE), a program funded by the Sauer and Carolyn Family Foundations that will support professional development for teachers and administrators; build a statewide trauma-informed teaching network; and create a research and policy division that sponsors research and crafts recommendations for state lawmakers.

The institute’s official launch will be in May, Campbell explained, but the urgent need to spread trauma-informed practices to educators and other school workers inspired a “soft launch,” with the release of a series of professional development courses.

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Upcoming MITIE programming will include, Campbell said, “trainings for professional development. We will also have workshops and monthly seminars with national experts. The idea is that if an educator isn’t interested in taking a full-blown course, they may be interested in attending a 90-minute seminar from a national expert.”

Hang said that MITIE is unique in the collaborative approach it will take to training a range of professionals who work with children.

MayKao Hang
MayKao Hang
By focusing not just on educators, but also on people who work in an educational setting, like social workers and psychologists, Hang said, MITIE is acknowledging that “these are the people who help families get stabilized. They’re basically people who work in a school setting. It doesn’t have to be teachers. It could even be someone who coaches soccer. Everyone will play an important role.”

Professional training courses offered by MITIE will, Hang said, “equip these professionals with the skills and knowledge needed to actually help kids settle down in the classroom, to address their trauma and make it easier for them to learn and participate in school-based activities.”

Though trauma-informed education has been around for several years, Campbell said that MITIE’s focus on including trauma-informed perspectives in all aspects of teacher training and working to influence policy decisions will set it apart.

“What’s unique about what we are doing is we’re truly embedding this perspective and expertise into teacher training,” she said. “We’re closing the gap with pre-service teachers and we’re making sure people know more information on the policy side.”

Through its research and policy division, MITIE will work to help state lawmakers understand the importance of crafting legislation that addresses the potentially negative impact of trauma on children’s education.

“We’ll reach out to individuals who sit on the education committees in the Minnesota Senate and House as well as share our information with the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board,” Campbell said.

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What trauma looks like in schools

When all of the state’s children are finally cleared to return to in-person school, classrooms will likely feel quite different from the way they did in pre-pandemic days, Campbell said.

“When children come back to school, they may still be suffering from the trauma that they experienced over the months that they have been away. This could stop a student from being able to learn.”

Embedded trauma could show up in behavioral issues or diminished academic performance, Campbell added.

“There are so many different ways this could play out. One important question is, ‘How does a teacher or social worker respond when a child is in the middle of a traumatic episode? How do they recognize that they are in the middle of the episode?’” A trauma-informed approach suggests educators and other professionals remove themselves from a power struggle, take a step back and restate to the child in their own words what happened.

“In order to get students back on track academically when they finally make it back to classroom,” Campbell said, “trauma’s impact on learning has to be emphasized and directly addressed.”

It’s not just children who will be experiencing anxiety and trepidation upon their return to school buildings, Hang added. Teachers and other personnel will likely also have had their own share of traumatic experiences that need to be addressed.

“It’s going to be important to recognize that trauma has been experienced by lots of kids and lots of adults,” she said. “When an individual has experienced trauma, they’re less able to process and handle things that they used to confront on a daily basis.”

Because children come from a variety of backgrounds, teachers and other school workers will need to understand how to recognize trauma triggers and how to best address them, Hang said: “Teachers will be trying to teach, but the impact of trauma may make it difficult.”

MITIE trainings will emphasize cross-cultural understanding and approaches that support social/emotional well-being, she added: “If you don’t have a clear understanding of where a child is coming from, if you don’t understand how family trauma can impact learning and school performance, you’re probably not going to be making a lot of inroads into teaching math.”

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Trainings provided by MITIE will help educators and other school support staff learn to recognize and respond to signals that children are experiencing a trauma trigger, Hang explained.

“If the trauma was present before the pandemic and school was the one of the safest places in their lives, there will be even more trauma to process because the child has been away from school for so long,” she said. “The child has been living in an elevated sate of vigilance. Biologically it is hard to get up there and it is hard to come down.”

Understanding that we are all in it together, that healing from the pandemic’s emotional wounds will take time and patience, is an important lesson that MITIE staff will try to emphasize through courses and advocacy work, Campbell said.

“What I usually tell people is that trauma doesn’t discriminate. It happens to children and adults of all ethnicities and socio-economic levels.”

There won’t be a magical day when the world will wake up and discover that COVID-19 has disappeared. Going forward, trauma work will continue to be important, because, despite promising medical advancements, society needs to accept that this new reality is here to stay.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know what ‘normal’ is again,” Hang said. “We’ll get better about tackling this virus with vaccinations and other measures of public health, but I think that COVID is like HIV-AIDS: It never went away. It is still out there. We’ve just learned how to manage those things and live with them. That’s what we’ll have to learn to do with this disease.”

Gaining an understanding and acceptance of how this new reality has changed our view of the world may take time, Campbell said.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Campbell said. “You are going to have kids coming into school. They may be scared to be around more people than they’ve been around in many months. We have to be aware of that.”

For some time, many of the adults in the school may be scared, too, Campbell added.

“If you don’t feel safe it’s going to be really difficult to learn or teach. As a teacher, making sure you’re aware of that and acknowledging the elephant in the room, learning how to have that discussion with kids, is going to be important.”

But Campbell added that she believes addressing trauma and its impact head-on brings everyone one step closer to acceptance and hope.

“At MITIE,” she said, “that’s a big part of what we’re going to do.”