Minnesota children returning to the classroom after an unprecedented year of isolation and disruption may be dealing with trauma they had not experienced before the pandemic.

That's why experts and educators say it's more important than ever that teachers know how to recognize and de-escalate situations that may trigger trauma in the classroom. A new Institute for Trauma-Informed Education at the University of St. Thomas will seek to address this pressing need, training current and aspiring K-12 teachers and staff to assist students experiencing trauma.

"[Trauma] can have a direct impact on a child's ability to learn," said Kathlene Campbell, dean of St. Thomas' School of Education. "We need to provide some training for teachers, because you're the person in the classroom that's interacting with kids every day."

Campbell and MayKao Hang, the dean of St. Thomas' Morrison Family College of Health, will lead the new institute, which is supported by funding from the Carolyn Foundation and the Sauer Family Foundation and is slated to launch in May.

The two St. Thomas deans began envisioning the effort years ago in response to what they viewed as a shortage of trauma-informed educational offerings.

While some Minnesota schools do provide such training to their teachers and staff, it tends to be expensive to implement broadly, said Wendy Hatch, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education. Hatch noted that Gov. Tim Walz has proposed investing $4 million in competitive grants for districts and charter schools to train their educators in trauma-informed practices.

The state teachers union, Education Minnesota, also offers some trauma-informed trainings. The union has offered classes for the past four years, training more than 3,000 K-12 teachers, support staff, nurses and counselors, said Education Minnesota spokesman Chris Williams.

Students experiencing a traumatic episode while in school may express themselves through angry outbursts or by mentally withdrawing from their lessons. Whatever their behavior, it is important that teachers remain calm and de-escalate the situation instead of engaging in a "power struggle," Campbell said. Even well-meaning teachers can make a situation worse if they do not know how to appropriately respond.

The St. Thomas institute will focus on providing trainings, workshops and seminars for all educators — from teachers, administrators and support staff to social workers and counselors. The trainings will highlight de-escalation techniques and cultural competency. Teachers will not only learn how to best respond to their students' trauma, but how to cope with their own, Hang said.

The institute will strive to build a network of trauma-informed schools that can learn from each other, and it will analyze data from schools that implement the training to gauge progress and provide policy recommendations to state leaders.

"It would be new for us in Minnesota to actually have a trauma-informed educational institute focused in the way that we're designing it," Hang said.

The institute is offering an eight-hour online training, which costs $125, ahead of its spring launch. Campbell said the institute will seek grants and philanthropic funding in hopes of covering, or at least lowering, training costs for participating schools and educators.

Eventually, Campbell and Hang hope the institute will become a national model for trauma-informed teaching.

"Our long-term goal would be, we are working not only across the state but we're sharing this data with other states," Campbell said.