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Lincoln High School’s Trauma-Informed Strategies: Jim Sporleder Reflects on Lessons Learned


“We had no clue whatsoever what it would turn out to be” Jim Sporleder, former Principal, remarks as he looks back on Lincoln Alternative High School, the growing movement of CRI’s trauma-informed community initiative, and the production of the documentary Paper Tigers.

Jim’s story is an iconic one. In fact, many have inevitably heard of Jim’s work if they have seen Paper Tigers; it chronicles the profound impact on Lincoln Alternative High School as Jim, the staff, and the community introduced trauma-informed practices and spread the movement throughout many partners and entities. Read the full story of Lincoln’s transformation here.

Reflecting on the journey, Jim highlights key pieces of the story that stand out: our self-regulation as adults, caring adult-child relationships, and the incredible power of community collaboration.

The most important place to start is ourselves, Jim notes: “I always say that we can’t get past the first step until we understand our own regulation.” In order for an adult to truly communicate their care and develop connection with a struggling child, Jim says “we adults need to be in a calm state.”

“It’s our biggest challenge right now that we have dysregulated adults working with dysregulated kids,” he says. “We believe we have to increase the fear to get control of the student. The research tells us that’s failing miserably.” Instead, managing our own fear models emotional regulation for a student; a calm adult can help “bring the calm” to a dysregulated student. This helps them feel safer, allows for more connection, and ultimately can lead to a change in behavior.

When Jim and his staff first began using this new model, the implications grew beyond discipline or punishment. “I was absolutely blown away,” Jim recalls. “We used to simply tell [students] what they did wrong and what the consequences were. When we started asking them what’s going on in their lives and validated how they were feeling, kids started talking to us.”

When students were sent to his office after losing their temper, Jim would ask them one important question: was the stress that caused the explosion coming from within school? Ninety percent of the time, the trigger was at school, but the root of the problem was coming from outside.

Thus instead of immediately choosing a punishment, Jim accessed information he learned from Teri Barila, CRI, and the conference “From Hope to Resilience” featuring Dr. John Medina- he asked kids about their stress levels using a red, yellow, and green chart. If they reported that they were in the red- too stressed to problem-solve- he would say to students, “you’re right. Your brain is not ready [to problem solve]; it would not be fair to force you. I care too much about you to do that to you.”

Not only did this allow for strategies to regulate emotion once the student was calm, but it built trust. It built relationships between the staff and students.

When an occasional doubt of this approach arose, Jim’s response was simple: “If ACEs are called the silent disease, we should never go outside our expertise as educators and try to determine who has trauma and who does not,” he states. "We know what the research says that one caring adult can change a life path. Why wouldn’t we want to put as many caring adults as possible [into a student’s life]?”

Indeed, one of the most powerful lessons from Lincoln is that many caring adults- the teamwork of multiple alliances within a community- can be impactful beyond expectations. Looking back on the number of sectors that came together for the students at Lincoln, Jim remembers the amazement of watching the Chief of Police, the local hospital, CEO leaders, and faith-based charities all offer their help. "The collaboration was just incredible.” Jim remarks. “When you’re working with a community that looks at trauma as a collective response, you’re speaking the same language. You have the same goal in mind. It is such a powerful model.”

We’ve learned much from Lincoln Alternative High School. These three factors- self-regulation, adult-child relationships, and the power of community- are merely the surface of the trauma-informed movement. Yet the results were profound. The movement is now growing beyond Lincoln, beyond Walla Walla, into schools across the country, into other sectors. “It’s growing faster and faster than I’m able to keep up with,” Jim observes.

The results that Lincoln has seen are bold, inspiring, and attainable by others. Trauma-informed community initiatives are radiating throughout the country, and much of it began in Walla Walla.

Jim had no idea what would become of this information taught by CRI, his role as Principal, and the successes we’ve seen. “I’m very humbled,” he notes. “And very grateful.”

Jim Sporleder will be presenting at the 2018 Beyond Paper Tigers Trauma-Informed Conference, June 27th & 28th in Pasco WA. Purchase Tickets and Register for the 2018 Beyond Paper Tigers Conference here.

To purchase The Trauma-Informed School, a guidebook written by Jim and Heather T. Forbes, visit

Learn more about Jim from his website:

Stream or purchase the DVD of the incredible documentary, Paper Tigers:


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