The school helping traumatised children thrive

Melissa Hellmann

Staff at a US high school created an environment built on empathy and redemption. Using a framework called trauma-informed care, they acknowledged childhood trauma when addressing behavioural issues – and suspensions dropped by 85 per cent in just a year

A few months into her freshman year at Lincoln Alternative High School, Kelsey Sisavath got into a fight with a girl outside of class. She was sent to the principal’s office and arrived still fuming. There was a time at Lincoln, a school once known as a last resort for those who were expelled from the area’s other high schools, when fights often ended in suspensions or arrests.

But principal Jim Sporleder didn’t immediately scold her. Instead, he asked how she was doing, then left her alone in the office with a granola bar, a water bottle, and some tissues to dry her tears. When he returned half an hour later, Sisavath was feeling calm enough to talk. “If he would have asked me the details and talked about punishment right away, it probably would have just pushed me even more off of the edge,” she reflects.

At the time, her personal life was riddled with pain. For years, Sisavath had bounced back and forth between her mother, who was addicted to opiates, and her emotionally distant father. Just two years earlier, she had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. All of these experiences left her feeling emotionally and physically neglected. In the eighth grade [the equivalent of UK year 9] she started hanging out with kids in gangs and skipping class to smoke marijuana.

That kind of behaviour followed her to high school, where she could have faltered. But Sisavath’s experience at Lincoln was different. Sporleder and the staff created an environment built on empathy and redemption through a framework called trauma-informed care. It acknowledges the presence of childhood trauma in addressing behavioural issues. The practices vary depending on the environment, but they begin with the understanding that childhood trauma can cause adulthood struggles such as lack of focus, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.

Practices begin with the understanding that childhood trauma can cause adulthood struggles such as lack of focus, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide

Lincoln Alternative High School is in the small city of Walla Walla in south-eastern Washington. It had been a place for students with disciplinary issues, those removed from the area’s other high schools, ordered there by a judge, or those who had performed poorly in middle school.


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Tucked in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, Lincoln’s brick edifice and cherry-red doors now serve as a place of opportunity for many students. At Lincoln, the first trauma-informed high school in the US, the graduation rate increased by about 30 per cent and suspensions dropped by almost 85 per cent a year after implementing the framework. The school’s success, along with the efforts of relentless community leaders, convinced service providers throughout the city to adopt trauma-informed care in their own fields.

Childhood trauma can cause adulthood struggles

The tipping point began in 1998 with a landmark study of more than 17,000 patients in southern California that showed the pervasiveness of trauma. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study asked participants if they had experienced any of 10 types of childhood trauma, called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

ACEs include direct emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; a mother treated violently; a family member with substance dependence or mental illness; parental separation or divorce; a household member who was imprisoned; and emotional and physical neglect. The more types of trauma a person had experienced, the study found, the more predisposed they were to social, behavioural, and emotional problems and the adult onset of chronic illness. Nearly two-thirds of the participants were found to have experienced at least one traumatising childhood event. Some specialists have since added other ACEs, such as experiencing racism or witnessing violence.

The more types of trauma a person had experienced, the study found, the more predisposed they were to social, behavioural, and emotional problems

Around the same time as the ACE study, a group of researchers and paediatricians at Harvard University and elsewhere were conducting research showing that toxic stress – the frequent or continual strain on a young child without adequate adult support – could negatively impact the child’s brain development. Out of this research came an increased interest in trauma’s impact on the brain. Educators and doctors began wondering if childhood trauma could be prevented, or if its impacts could be minimised.

Looking beyond punitive traditions

On the first day of her freshman year in 2012, Sisavath noticed that her high school was different. The hallways were plastered with large posters that listed traumatic experiences such as emotional abuse beside examples of how to build resilience. On one, the words ‘attachment to a caring adult’ accompanied a colourful cartoon of an adult and child ice-skating. Sisavath started adding up her own childhood traumas as she walked past the posters and soon realised that she had experienced seven of the 10 ACEs.

At Lincoln, students and teachers mingled in a natural way, unlike traditional school settings, where student cliques often dominate campus. Even during bouts of cold weather, principal Sporleder stood bundled up at the school’s entrance greeting students with a high-five and a smile. “I’m happy that you’re here,” he said as students rushed past him.

Students from Lincoln Alternative High School on the school steps

But the relationship between students and staff at Lincoln wasn’t always so symbiotic. When Sporleder first arrived at the school in April 2007, he says, about five or six gangs roamed the halls. The building was in a constant state of chaos. Students freely hurled profanities. So Sporleder took a hard line by handing out automatic three-day out-of-school suspensions for every “f___ you”.

Then, in the spring of 2010, he attended a workshop in Spokane, Washington, on the impacts of stressful childhood experiences. Keynote speaker John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explained how toxic stress overfills the brain with cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Sporleder suddenly understood that his students’ behaviour wasn’t completely in their control; their brains were affected by toxic stress. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning that my discipline was punitive and it was not teaching kids,” he says. He hunted for curriculum to bring this understanding into the classroom, but found none. So he set out on a mission to bring trauma-informed care to his students.

Most of the students he oversaw at Lincoln had experienced multiple forms of trauma, and were in poverty and on free or reduced-price lunches. “That’s like running the trauma hospital,” Sporleder says. “We were dealing with crisis after crisis after crisis.”

It just hit me like a bolt of lightning that my discipline was punitive and it was not teaching kids

He brought a researcher into the school to train the teachers in trauma-informed care and started replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school ones. He allowed students to ask for a break when they could sense that their traumas were being triggered. Staff members visited the homes of students who skipped class to try to work what was wrong and how they could help them return to school. The school also provided students with free on-campus counselling and basic health care through a health clinic that received initial funding from a local medical centre. There, students could get birth control pills and ibuprofen. “I don’t know what it is,” Sisavath remarks about the staff at Lincoln. “They just have such a great connection with kids and it’s unreal.”

Kelsey Sisavath in a scene from Paper Tigers – a documentary that explores Lincoln Alternative High School’s approach

So what changed in the US psyche in the past 20 years for trauma-informed care to gain momentum? Jane Stevens, a veteran health reporter who created a social journalism network called ACEs Connection after learning of the Kaiser study, says her network and the work of many leaders in the movement has helped raise awareness. She likens it to the slow and steady progress of every scientific revelation. “It’s sort of like plate tectonics in geology: For hundreds of years, people thought that the continents never moved,” she says.

Although scientists proposed well beforehand that plates moved, “it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that plate tectonics was accepted and integrated into geology; and then in earthquake-prone zones, the science was the foundation for changes in building codes, engineering codes, urban planning and emergency response.”

A city gets involved

Walla Walla now serves as a model for resilience-building in the burgeoning trauma-informed care movement. Today, an electric utility provider, the Division of Children and Family Services, the police department, and others in the city have committed to raising awareness of traumatic childhood experiences and to providing internal resources to foster a safe and healthy community.

Theresa Barila was instrumental in introducing ACE awareness to Walla Walla. Today, she is the director of the Children’s Resilience Initiative, a community response to childhood trauma. Walla Walla county sheriff John Turner has incorporated some of those practices into law enforcement. Barila trained all of the deputies to acknowledge that toxic stress affects brain architecture.

“I think it just added another layer of understanding to some of the issues that [deputies] come across in the field, and it’s easier for them to manage their own emotions toward people that are being unruly toward them,” Turner says.

A scene from Paper Tigers filmed in a classroom at the school

Along with crisis intervention and mental health training, trauma-informed practices gave deputies a deeper understanding of human behaviour. It helped them to exercise patience with people who exhibit disorderly behaviour and to de-escalate situations.

“It might be something in the person’s physiology, anatomy, or brain structure that they can’t help,” Turner adds. “It’s easier to not take it as personally, and it’s easier to deal with the actual situation, as opposed to dealing with the emotions of it.”

Acts of understanding, patience, and kindness have helped transform strangers into partners and friends. To Annett Bovent, a parent in Walla Walla, ACEs awareness helped illuminate the roots of her own problems and connected her to her neighbours. “People care. Before, I always felt like I was alone, and I don’t feel that way anymore,” she says. Suddenly, the town seemed to transform from black and white to colour.

Suddenly, the town seemed to transform from black and white to colour

“I feel like, to me, the information is common sense, but it was like I was the only one who heard it. And now it’s like everyone wants to know.”

For Sisavath, trauma-informed care has had a lasting impact on her life. She graduated last spring with honours and is currently working part time at a Dairy Queen restaurant while she attends a local community college. She says she doesn’t take things as personally as she once did, and has learned that behaviours often derive from childhood trauma. Her high school experience also sparked an interest in psychology and philosophy, which she hopes to pursue in college.

“There’s so many things that happen outside of the classroom that can’t be helped in school,” she explained. “If every teacher knew the techniques, knew what to do, knew how to support these kids, it would make a huge difference.”

This article was originally published in YES Magazine.


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Images: Stills from the Paper Tigers documentary, by KPJR Films 

  • What synchronicity! I just saw the movie yesterday in Los Angeles and it moved me to tears. I was back at school and saw so many familiar things. I went to school in an alternative system in the US in the 70s, not exactly like this one. There were two alternative systems where I grew up. One for students who were not doing well and another for those who were simply bored and not working to their potential. We never saw a grade, nor sat in chairs with desks. I was asked what I wanted to study and not imposed a mindless curriculum. I learned about eastern philosophies which has had a life long positive effect on me. At 51, I now want to go back to school, hopefully finish a degree and work with mental health, probably with schools.

    This movie is a must. Notice the use of “Love you man”. I might sound odd to a European, but it had amazing consequences. This movies shows how mental health professionals can put that human touch into their work again. That is the key. That movie is a must see!

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