Student Well-Being

New Film Explores Students With Emotional, Behavioral Disabilities

By Nirvi Shah — July 25, 2012 3 min read
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When Kelsey Carroll gets mad, she says, “I don’t think. I just do.” She’s a self-proclaimed “bitch” who says she’s into safety pins, piercings, and tattoos (she has at least five). Life isn’t “Barbies and glitter.”

The reaction of one of the teachers at her high school: “I don’t want that kid in my class.”

Kelsey’s struggles with her ADHD, her anger, and graduating high school—after five years—are the subject of a new documentary, “Who Cares About Kelsey?” which was screened this week at a federal Education Department special education conference.

The movie, by Dan Habib, the filmmaker in residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, is intended to show one approach to working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Of students with disabilities, students with emotional and behavioral disorders are among the least likely to graduate high school.

Habib, whose other work includes the film “Including Samuel,” about his own son, said he wanted to make this movie to tell the story of students who are often judged because of the way they behave and perceived as acting out solely to get attention.

In Kelsey’s case, in addition to ADHD, Kelsey had experiences with self-mutilation, sexual abuse, and homelessness. Her mother has had problems with drug and alcohol and her father finds it difficult to be supportive of Kelsey or tell her he’s proud of her, even the day she graduates from high school. She decides to quit taking her ADHD medication (which she says she’d taken “since I was in Huggies”) because of its side effects on her health—keeping her very thin and uninterested in eating—although it contributes to her nearly failing her senior year. Habib said he briefly considered naming the film “Kelsey’s Minefield.”

“She’s a tough tough kid to deal with,” Habib said. “She was on a trajectory toward trouble with the law, substance abuse, failing out of school.” The movie shows “what does it look like when the school changes that trajectory.”

Kelsey’s high school, in Somersworth, N.H., instituted PBIS—positive behavioral supports and interventions—during one of her sophomore years. In addition, the school adopted RENEW, Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural supports, Education, and Work, a facilitated planning and support process for students like Kelsey.

Several school staff members, who Kelsey chose to be her RENEW team, helped her set goals and work to attain them. For example, they arranged to make one of Kelsey’s interests, learning to be a firefighter, into an activity that helped her earn high school credits toward her goal of graduating high school.

Building a support network through the weekly meetings, giving Kelsey an extra incentive to stick with firefighting, and other efforts were among the school’s goals for Kelsey. “For a lot of kids that perhaps grew up in poverty, they don’t always have those connections,” Habib said. “There was a conscious effort on part of Kelsey’s school to build up her social capital.”

While there are students with more extreme anger and violence issues than Kelsey, and students who are less motivated, Habib said he chose her to illustrate the type of student teachers might be the most likely to see in their classrooms. But his project also includes several mini-films featuring students with other emotional and behavioral issues.

Habib ended up showing Kelsey thrive, graduate, develop a better relationship with her family, and land work as a speaker for RENEW. Kelsey, now 21, is considering community college and also works part-time at a clothing store. But Habib said he had no idea how Kelsey’s story was going to end. The filming crew found out only the day before her high school graduation ceremony that Kelsey would be walking across the stage to collect her own diploma.

But early on in the film, Kelsey seems to predict what it took to got her there, and into a productive adult life beyond high school.

“I’ve had a crappy life and a little bit of caring will take me a long way.”

Photo: Here, Kelsey Carroll, now 21, is with some of the goals the staff at her high school helped her work toward. Photo by Dan Habib.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.