Dan Habib

Is Your School Doing Everything It Can to Support and Include Students with Emotional and Behavioral Challenges?

My son Samuel is a Red Sox and NASCAR fan, an avid bird watcher, an honor roll student and a gregarious 13-year-old who also experiences cerebral palsy.

I began making my first film—a documentary called Including Samuel—for selfish reasons. I wanted to try and make the world a more welcoming place for kids with disabilities like Samuel.

As I screened my documentary nationwide, however, I noticed a trend: at almost every screening, someone would pose this question in some form: "What about kids with 'hidden' disabilities? Can they be fully included like Samuel?" These hidden disabilities can include depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and a host of other diagnoses.

My background is in journalism. It was obvious that this was a pressing issue that could make a powerful film project. As I honed in on Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances (EBD), an umbrella diagnosis that can cover a range of problems from depression and anxiety to atypical communication patterns to aggression and impulsivity, I was shocked by the statistics. The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders report that students with EBD

  • Have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, fewer than 50 percent of students with EBD graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent.
  • Are among the most segregated of students—65 percent are not included (i.e., they spend less than 80 percent of the school day in regular, general education classes).
  • Are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to live in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center, or on the street after leaving school.

I was inspired to pursue a film project that would catalyze progressive education reform for students with less visible disabilities than Samuel. Fortunately, Somersworth (N.H.) High School, a public school one hour from my home, has become a national model for supporting and including students with emotional and behavioral challenges.

In 2006, Somersworth High had one of the highest dropout rates in the state, and discipline issues were rampant. That year, the school implemented a program called RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural Supports, Education, and Work), which was rooted in the federally developed, evidence-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) approach.

The results were dramatic: by 2010, Somersworth reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent, and behavior problems were reduced by 65 percent.

Who Cares About Kelsey?Who Cares About Kelsey? When Kelsey entered Somersworth High School, she was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. She had a diagnosis of ADHD and carried the emotional scars of homelessness and sexual abuse as well as the actual scars of repeated self-mutilation. As a freshman, she didn't earn a single academic credit and was suspended for dealing drugs.

The film follows Kelsey through her senior year and beyond and shows what successful school transformation looks like on the ground, in a real school, through the eyes of a student. It's been a long, sometimes exhausting process as the documentary moved from filming to editing to screenings, but Kelsey stuck with it, explaining, "I knew that this film would have the power to open minds and help a lot of other teens like me."

Kelsey had never gone on a plane until her senior year in high school. Now she is traveling all over the country talking about RENEW and also copresenting with me at film screenings. She can stand up in front of 1,000 people without being nervous—she's a powerful public speaker. She has also completed a financial literacy course, purchased a new car, lives on her own, and is training to become a full-time firefighter.

This is not a fairy tale. Kelsey still has challenges and obstacles. But by sharing her life story, she has already made a dramatic impact on the way tens of thousands of people view hidden disabilities like ADHD and other mental health disorders.

Kelsey and I hope that the Who Cares About Kelsey? project will make viewers reconsider the "problem kids" in their own high schools and spark new conversations about empowering—not overpowering—youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

For more information about how to see Who Cares About Kelsey? on public television and receive a free education DVD kit to host a community screening, go to www.whocaresaboutkelsey.com.


Rather than cling to ineffectual strategies like "zero tolerance," many schools around the country are embracing proven (also known as evidence-based) models that help all students, including those with emotional and behavioral disabilities and autism, achieve success in school. These models are effective because they are rooted in prevention, build upon the inherent strengths of each student, and seek to address the underlying causes of problem behavior. Here are my top 10, in alphabetical order:

  1. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): Tools and strategies that foster full participation of people with complex communication needs into mainstream society. The overarching goal of AAC is to provide a means for individuals with complex communication needs to effectively express themselves. Learn more.
  2. Differentiated Instruction: Instruction that is responsive to student diversity—in learning preference, ability, interest, aptitude, culture, social skills, communication skills, and more.
  3. Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs): A broad range of programs occurring outside of the traditional classroom that support learning (primarily at the high school level) by providing safe, positive activities for youth to explore their interests, develop their talents, and, in some cases, earn school credits.
  4. Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) [PDF]: Founded on the principle that if behavior can be predicted, it can also be prevented. FBAs involve a broad array of assessment procedures that identify the problem behavior, looks at what prompted the behavior (the "trigger"), and what happened as a result of the behavior.
  5. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): A decision-making framework that guides the selection, integration, and implementation of best practices that improve the academic achievement and behavior of all students. PBIS is instrumental in creating safe and effective schools and developing positive behavior among students.
  6. Person-centered planning (PCP): An ongoing, flexible, and empowering process for students with disabilities, which focuses on planning for students' preferred lifestyles, goals, needs, and dreams. Students are supported in guiding and directing their plan for the future by a team that often includes family members, teachers, friends, community members, and caring professionals.
  7. Response to Intervention (RtI): Also called "multitiered systems of support"—RtI is an education framework that schools use to provide interventions at increasing levels of intensity, depending on how much progress a student is making. Learn more.
  8. Systems of Care (PDF): A spectrum of effective, coordinated, community-based supports for youth with, or at risk for, mental health challenges.
  9. Universal Design for Learning (UDL): A framework for designing curriculum that gives all students equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone, while maintaining high achievement standards.
  10. Transition planning: A coordinated set of activities which promote a student's movement between grades and into postsecondary education or employment and independent living. The transition planning process is collaborative and team based, involving the student and family, transition facilitator, and other school staff.

Dan Habib is the creator of Including Samuel and the new film Who Cares About Kelsey? Habib is the Filmmaker in Residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. His films have been screened at universities, national conferences, and independent theaters and have been used as a catalyst for inclusive education across the country and internationally. Who Cares About Kelsey? was recently featured in Education Week and has been screened at 10 film festivals, winning "Best Feature Film" at the Lights. Camera. Help. Film Festival. In 2012, he received the Champion of Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, a whole child partner organization. Habib and his wife, Betsy, live in Concord, N.H., with their sons Isaiah, 16, and Samuel, 13.

Comments (1)

Sarah Bilinski

November 7, 2013

Hello! I wanted to take the time to express what an inspiration your film about Kelsey and her story was to me. It has become a topic that I have spent much time researching because of your film. It is clear that more professionals need to embrace students of all types and realize that every student can succeed in their own way.
Do you have any advice for someone that is trying to think of strategies for inclusion from what you have seen in your filming experience?

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