Can School Heal Children in Pain?


After learning about the overwhelming effects of childhood trauma, I decided to make a film about a school that’s adopted a “trauma-informed” lens.

Documentaries are no walk in the park. They take a lot of time and money; they have a way of making a mockery out of your narrative plans. They must share the attention of an audience that is increasingly losing more and more of it.

Why bother? It’s a good question. For me, I have one simple bar that all my films must clear: an “oh my God!” moment. If a story does not elicit that reaction from deep within my bones, I don’t do it. I count on that sense of awe, concern, wonder, and alarm to carry me through the long haul of making the film. To do otherwise, well — it just seems stupid.

After three years of hard work and uphill battles, my latest documentary film, Paper Tigers, premiered last week at the Seattle International Film Festival. And yet it seems like yesterday that I first encountered the explosive research that linked poor health to childhood trauma.

I didn’t know that adverse childhood experiences — like assault, emotional abuse, observing domestic violence — could fundamentally alter a child’s body and brain. These kids are at risk for every single major disease, including (but not limited to) cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. That risk doesn’t include the increased likelihood of “self-soothing behaviors” like smoking, drinking, eating too much food, doing too many drugs, having too much sex.

Put that all together and you have the underpinnings for some of the greatest societal challenges we face.

This is where my story started, but it is not where it ended. It quickly became clear to myself and producer Karen Pritzker that social support systems require a deeper understanding of adverse childhood experiences.


Pediatricians could incorporate stressful experiences into a child’s health history. Juvenile judges might understand that a teen stuck in “fight or flight” from living in violence needs mental and physical support to avoid the prison pipeline. A teacher might not take it so personally when a teen whose parents left them alone with no heat or food loses their temper in class.

The good news is that there are schools, clinics, courts, and communities that are starting to adopt a “trauma-informed” lens. The results are often spectacular. Lincoln High School, located in the struggling community of Walla Walla, Washington, is a great example. In the years following their adoption of a trauma-informed approach to teaching, Lincoln has seen attendance, GPAs, and graduation rates rise dramatically, while fights, suspensions, and arrests have all fallen.

What does that success actually look like? What’s the secret sauce? It’s one thing to be informed about the health risks of untreated childhood stress, but another thing entirely to do something about it. Our film attempts to answer these questions.

I watched as teachers countered poor attitudes and poor choices by asking, “What’s going on?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” I watched as a science teacher used the experiment setting as a time to quietly talk to kids about their problems. I watched as kids streamed in and out of the principals’ office, seeking guidance and support. I watched as a teacher didn’t take it personally when a teen boy lashed out in pain.

One cannot exaggerate the difference that one caring adult can make in the lives of at-risk teens, and to witness that truth, to tell that story, has been my unique pleasure.


Some may feel that “trauma-informed care” is asking too much of teachers. Of anyone, really. It is not a tangible pill, a law, a policy. It is an opening of the heart, and it can be hard to manage effectively. But the folks at Lincoln High do not consider themselves terribly unique, they will tell you that if they can do it, so can others. So can all of us, for that matter. And, to me, that’s a story with telling.


This story first appeared on Bright, a section of Medium.

6 responses

  1. How can I find the Paper Tigers movie? I want to use it for my senior nursing students.

    Amy F. Cross, RN, MN, PHN | Lead Instructor
    P.O. Box 1495 | Spokane, WA 99210-1495
    103 E. Spokane Falls Blvd, Nursing Building, Room 214 D
    Office: 509-324-7253 |Cell: 509-720-4209 |Fax: 509-324-7341
    Email: Web:
    integrity | caring | social justice | altruism | maximizing health potential


  2. Pingback: Can School Heal Kids? | "Don't Try This at Home"

  3. I am an RN that works for the local health dept in school health. I see first hand the number of children that come to the school health room looking for attention. The school health assistants do a wonderful job of making these kids feel validated and cared for even if their reason for coming to the health room seems insignificant. After working in this area for a very short time, I realized that what these kids really need, and come in search of, is caring attention. It is very sad to know that the only caring, loving words that some kids get is from a teacher or a school health assistant. I don’t think that most people are aware of the huge role that school health programs play in child development. I was shocked at the number of “frequent flyer” kids who seek out the school health assistant daily and sometimes several times during the course of the day. They do not come with complaints that would be considered medically necessary. They come looking for someone for kindness and caring from an adult. Our schools are in the difficult position of not only educating our kids, but also providing for their physical, emotional and psychological needs. Our teachers, health room assistants, principles and other school staff deserve a huge thank you from all of us!


  4. Thank you so much for the informative story of Lincoln High in Walla Walla. I am an adult child and have been involved in ACOA (Adult Children Of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Family’s) for a year now after my abandonment pinata was shattered a year ago. I have learned more in the last 12 mo.s than in the last 71 years about myself and how I have behaved in relationships, and why so many have failed. Because of my passion for ACOA I am paying it forward by establishing meetings up and down the coast of Oregon. I have started 3 meetings, and soon a 4th. It is an awesome 12 step program and I encourage you to explore it, it you haven’t done so as of yet.



  5. Reblogged this on deersings and commented:
    Aces study — Adverse Childhood Experiences. I’m excited about this study and more excited about the success showing in schools choosing to implement trauma-sensitivity training. It’s not so much about yet another program, it’s that I know the positive effects those singular moments can have on a child living with a trauma-based life when an adult reaches out. I’m happy to see progress made on such matters in my lifetime. Simple enough, powerful enough in giving child resilience to withstand the trauma, moving away from the trauma moment to learning moments!


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