Two Takes on “Paper Tigers”: A Film About Trauma Sensitive Schools

Last fall, a number of SaintA staff got to see the film “Paper Tigers” by James Redford when the agency sponsored it at Milwaukee Film Festival. With another one of Redford’s documentaries, “Resilience,” making a splash at Sundance and other film festivals, it’s a good time to think about how far the topics of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma-sensitive schools have come in the media.

“It gave me hope to see a film shining light on this topic,” said Adrianne Walschinski, Supervisor of Staff Development and Clinical Services at SaintA. Sara Daniel, Director of Clinical Services and Staff Development at SaintA agrees. “It’s a hopeful piece that shows the big impact educators can have on the lives of students,” she says. “Healing comes from relationships and everyday positive support.”


“Paper Tigers” is a documentary filmed at an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington. “The story is told from the point of view of several students who struggle with many issues, including poverty, parental drug abuse or mental illness, and abandonment. These are all part of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs,” explains Sara. “Principal Jim Sporleder learned about toxic stress and its impact on the brain and decided to make changes to his school practices as a result.”

Movie reviews

Both Sara and Adrianne have extensive experience in school settings and specialize in training schools to be trauma informed and respond to students’ behaviors accordingly. Below are their takes on “Paper Tigers,” how it explains ACEs and demonstrates the power of trauma sensitive schools.

Sara Daniel

Sara’s take:
Whole-child view

“One of the themes that had the biggest impact on me was the ‘whole child’ view. The school didn’t just focus on math or reading; they helped students develop their talents in theater, music and art. These things didn’t take away from academic performance, they enhanced it. The school also didn’t do it alone; they were very connected to their community and even had mental health services and medical care available on site.”

Students always welcomed back

“Another theme was the unconditional nature of the relationships teachers formed with students. The film shows how, even when students got off track, they were always welcomed back and encouraged to learn. At one point, a student calls his teacher a ‘really bad teacher’ (in much less flowery terms) and the teacher just responds, ‘Come on back to school, we’re waiting for you.’”

Perspective shift

“Because they knew about the impact of toxic stress on the brain, these teachers were able to shift perspective. Rather than seeing bad behavior or poor life choices, they saw the underlying challenges. This allowed them to provide support beyond the traditional, consequence-based system of suspensions, for example.”

Adrianne Walschinski

Adrianne’s take:
Touching and poignant

“I saw the youth in this film as a reflection of the children everywhere who struggle daily to make school a priority when their personal lives are so conflicted, unstable and difficult. Having worked in the school setting for some time, I was already aware of the challenges caused by childhood adversity, but the documentary was still incredibly touching and informative. It put the everyday lives of youth and school staff into perspective and showed how difficult it can be when youth want to do well, but have so many barriers to becoming successful.”

Impact of teachers

”What struck me was how these teachers and staff supported students no matter what. It was encouraging to see that staff recognized seemingly defiant, disrespectful and attention-seeking behavior for what it really was: a response to the toxic stress of childhood trauma. It speaks to the relational connections they had with students and just how important those were.”

Highly recommended for educators

All teachers need to see this documentary because it’s relevant for everyone. There is no classroom that’s devoid of the impact of adverse childhood experiences.”

A documentary that hits home

The perspective shift Sara mentioned above is actually one of 7 Essential Ingredients of Trauma Informed Care, which was developed by SaintA. “Trauma informed care is a very active conversation in Wisconsin. We are one of the leading states for implementing trauma sensitive schools, and I’m working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to train and coach schools throughout the state,” explains Sara. “Many districts now recognize that toxic stress has a significant impact on student learning and behavior.”

Want to learn more? Check out our Trauma Informed Care section of our website.

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