The Story of Lincoln High School

Blurb from this article on ACEs Too High News website:

In case you don’t know Lincoln High School’s story, here’s a quick summary: In 2010, Jim Sporleder, then-principal of Lincoln High School, learned about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and the neurobiology of toxic stress at a workshop in Spokane, WA. The ACE Study showed a link between 10 types of childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The Children’s Resilience Initiative (CRI) organized a group of 30 people from Walla Walla, including Sporleder, to attend the workshop in Spokane. CRI is a community organization in Walla Walla that creates awareness about childhood adversity and encourages all sectors of the community – business, faith-based, corrections, law enforcement, education, etc. — to integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices.

Here’s what Sporleder learned:

Severe and chronic trauma (such as living with an alcoholic parent, or watching in terror as your mom gets beat up) causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.

They can also act out (fight) or withdraw (flight or fright) in school; they often have trouble trusting adults or getting along with their peers. They start coping with anxiety, depression, anger and frustration by drinking or doing other drugs, having dangerous sex, over-eating, engaging in violence or thrill sports, and even over-achieving.

Sporleder said he realized that he’d been doing “everything wrong” in disciplining kids, and decided to turn Lincoln High into a trauma-informed school.

With the help of Natalie Turner, assistant director of the Washington State University Area Health Education Center in Spokane, WA, Sporleder and his staff implemented three basic changes that essentially shifted their approach to student behavior from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

  1. When a kid showed symptoms of stress, teachers intervened early to provide help – a quick talk, a longer chat with a school counselor, or intervention with a counselor at the adjacent Health Center.
  2. For behavior that required more follow-up, such as not complying with a teacher after numerous requests, teens talked with Sporleder, who walked them through where they are in their decision-making ability: green, yellow or red. If they’re fuming, for example, they’re in the red zone, are unable to think clearly, need a day to think about things before they can discuss how to handle similar situations differently, and what actions will get them to that point.
  3. In staff meetings, conversations switched from how to discipline kids to how to help them and their families.

Two years into the new approach, CRI brought in Laura Porter, co-founder of ACE Interface and former director of the Family Policy Council in Washington State, to work with Lincoln High teachers and staff to find out exactly what they were doing differently. They came up with four sets of new, interrelated practices:

  1. Safety practices – Teachers provided an increased sense of safety to decrease trauma triggers and provided emotionally safe spaces.
  2. Value practices – Teachers and staff held and expressed values of hope, teamwork, healthy family feeling, compassion and respect; more conversations that matter increased the quality of relationships that reinforced the values.
  3. Conversation–relationship normative practices – The more “conversations that matter” that took place – the “What happened to you?” conversations — the more descriptions that occurred of behaviors of compassion and tolerance, the more behavioral norms were set and enforced.
  4. Learning practices – Greater learning occurred due to fewer trauma triggers, generated by a greater sense of safety, due to different values and more ‘conversations that mattered’ between teachers and students, sustained by students’ own reinforcement of different skills and new normative relations.

In Spring 2014, Longhi surveyed 111 students for their ACE scores AND resilience scores, and obtained attendance, grades and test scores from school records. The survey also asked students to reflect on their school and life experiences since coming to Lincoln High. (You can download the report from the Children’s Resilience web site.)

The four types of students’ experiences, related to the practices that teachers and staff put in place, included:

  • Learning to trust, confide, be liked and loved.
  • Learning to respect themselves and others.
  • Learning to be responsible for their actions.
  • Learning that others were proud of their academic achievements.

The three dimensions of resilience that increased included supportive relationships, problem solving and optimism.

The results? “Resilience trumped ACEs among students who had gained resilience at Lincoln High,” says Longhi. “Resilience completely moderated” the negative impact of ACEs on students’ grades and test scores.


  • 72% percent of students with an initial low resilience level improved to average and/or high resilience levels.
  • Resilience made a difference even among higher ACE students: Higher resilience students had higher grades for all ACE groups.
  • Among low-resilience students, ACEs continued to affect their grades: Students with higher aces had lower grades.
  • Among high-resilience students, their ACEs did not impact grades: Grades were high, even for students with higher aces.

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