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An exercise to understand ACEs: Emily’s backpack

This exercise was developed to help people understand adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and the need for trauma-sensitive learning environments.


You will need a backpack, a can of food, a drawing of a dad, a medicine bottle, preschool level books, and a pillow. You will also need a pencil box, crayons, notebooks, and a lunchbox. Print the script cards below.

Place each script card on its item. These items should be placed under random chairs, and the person in that chair will be asked to read the card, bring up the item, and place it in Emily’s backpack. 

Choose a volunteer to be Emily. Emily is silent throughout the exercise.

The presenter reads, “My name is Emily. I am 4 years old, and I go to Kindergarten in a rural county in North Carolina. Let’s talk about some stuff I take with me to school every day.”

Crystal Imes and Laura Byrch lead this exercise for a conference at The Duke Endowment. Photo Credit: Mebane Rash/EdNC

Food insecurity

Item: Can of food


Parental incarceration

Item: Drawing of a Dad


Adolescent mental health

Item: Medicine bottle


Access to preschool and parental engagement

Item: Preschool books

Inadequate housing

Item: Pillow


The presenter says:

Can everyone see Emily’s backpack?

How full is it?

Is there room inside of her backpack for the items most kindergartners would take to school such as pencil box, crayons, notebooks, and a lunchbox?

Have someone in the audience try to add these into the backpack.

The presenter says:

Though Emily may not literally take this backpack filled with these things to school everyday, she does carry it with her everywhere she goes in her heart, mind, and spirit.

How distracting to the learning process do you believe these issues would be for Emily, her teacher, the other children in her class?

Please learn more about ACEs and the need for trauma-sensitive learning environments.

You are the voice for all of our Emily’s.

Crystal Imes

Crystal Imes works with the Rural Faith Development Community Development Corporation (RFD CDC), implementing the NETworX Kids curriculum and serving as the NETworX Yadkin administrator and children’s facilitator.