Millbrook student seeks to educate educators on childhood trauma using her own game


Kennerly built the game entirely on her own, from designing the characters to coding

FREDERICK COUNTY, Va. (WDVM) — Could video games make someone more empathetic? A Virginia teen thinks so, and she built her own game to do just that.

After interning with a school counselor as part of her gifted independent study program at Mill Brook High School in Frederick County, Va., senior Kylee Kennerly learned quite a bit about the adverse childhood experiences study, also known as ACE study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control in the 1990s.

The study examined whether childhood trauma had longterm impacts on a child’s health. Permanente and the CDC found adverse childhood experiences are common–they can include issues such as sexual abuse or household dysfunction–and they can lead to an early death.

By the end of the semester, Kennerly had learned about not just ACEs, but also about the subtle ways the trauma can be expressed by children: irritability, anxiety, and absence. Things that teachers might just brush off as a “bad” or “lazy” student.

She completed a slideshow presentation for her class, but thought it wouldn’t have enough of an impact on the teachers, who, in her eyes, needed the information as much as the students did.

“I didn’t feel like that, having just a Google Slides presentation with just a speech to go with it would really impact teachers,” Kennerly said. “I wanted to make something more interactive so they would remember the information and they would want to learn about it more.”

She decided to make a computer game, called Project ACE. At the start of the game, the player begins as a teacher, working with students who present challenging scenarios in the classroom.

“A student can have an issue in class like they’re sleeping in class or they have a mysterious scar on their face and you as the teacher have options as to how you react to the situation,” said Kennerly.

Her gifted independent study teacher Robin Owens, who works at all three of the county’s high schools, has seen the project grow, and thinks it can be used as a training module for teachers in the district.

“Kylee’s project ace can impact the lives of so many students, so many young people,” Owens said.

Kennerly’s mother Clarissa is an English teacher at Mill Brook as well. She says when her daughter first showed her the game, she was trying to get through to a student who just didn’t show up to class. She was surprised to see the experiences she faced in the classroom on the screen.

“I didn’t realize that there were subtle behaviors as well that could be indicators of trauma,” Clarissa Kennerly said. “And her game is all about those subtle behaviors.”

For someone who has lived those experiences in the students’ shoes, seeing the characters come alive on screen is even more striking.

Tina Stevens-Culbreath, the founder of the I’m Just Me Movement, says she saw herself in the game’s scenarios, having grown up caring for her siblings and facing numerous other challenges in childhood.

“I was flying under the radar purposely,” she said. “Because I didn’t know who I could trust.”

Today, she wishes her teachers had known to dig deeper.

“Instead of assuming the kid is lazy or doesn’t want to do the work, I can go the extra step and ask the question: ‘How are you doing? How are things going?'” Stevens-Culbreath said.

Kennerly is continuing to improve the game, including redesigning some of the characters. She hopes it can be used to train teachers, both in Frederick County and beyond. When she graduates, she plans to pursue a career in psychology, with her sights set on earning her PhD.

To learn more, you can reach Kennerly at

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