When Kelsey Sisavath enrolled as a freshman at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington, in the fall of 2012, her mother was struggling with drug addiction. Kelsey herself was using meth. The multiple traumas in her life included a sexual assault by a stranger at age 12. She was angry, depressed, and suicidal. Her traumatized brain had little room to focus on school.
Today, much has changed in Kelsey’s life. She graduated from Lincoln this spring with a 4.0 GPA while also taking classes at a community college. She is articulate, confident, and happy. Kelsey believes Lincoln changed her life.
A deeper understanding of Kelsey’s journey could offer answers to critical questions about how to help millions of traumatized children—particularly those growing up in poverty—succeed in school and beyond.
Neuroscience tells us that the brains of kids regularly facing significant trauma or toxic stress are wired for survival and likely to erupt at the smallest provocation. A major study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente found that the higher a young person’s ACEs score, the greater the risk in adulthood of chronic disease, mental illness, and premature death. These children also have a far greater future likelihood of either inflicting or being the victim of violence.
Now two decades old and widely validated by other studies, the ACEs test measures experiences such as abuse, neglect, and the prevalence of mental illness, drug addiction, and violence in a child’s home life. Those taking the test get one point for each type of trauma experienced on the 10-question survey. Research shows that children with a score of four have a 1200 percent greater chance of committing suicide and are seven times more likely to become alcoholics. In one class at Lincoln, where most kids come from troubled home environments, 13 out of 17 students who took the test had scores of at least five. Four kids had a score of eight.