Eye Opening Documentary Addresses Challenging Behavior

WhoCaresKelseyposterIn today’s post, Phil Stegink reviews Who Cares About Kelsey?an eye-opening film that raises questions about school practices and strategies that create a supportive school environment. 

In the documentary, filmmaker Dan Habib (director of Including Samuel) confronts a challenging and critically important issue facing students, families, and schools:  supporting students with emotional and behavioral challenges. In this film, Habib tells the story of Kelsey, a high school student who is significantly at risk for dropping out of school and becoming, in her words, “… a screw up like my brothers and sisters.”

Through this video, Habib confronts the real difficulty of supporting students who, like Kelsey, have difficulty regulating their emotions and modulating their behavior. He shows the raw pain of isolation, abuse, and self-mutilation. In this story, we meet committed school staff who seek to reach Kelsey and we learn about Kelsey’s family, who want the best for her, but who do not know how to consistently support her. The story ends with Kelsey’s graduation from high school and her finding a powerful purpose to move forward with her life.

Who is Kelsey?

Who Cares About Kelsey? opens by introducing us to the players in her story: Kelsey, who lives with her dad and stepmother; her dad; her mother; her siblings; and, her boyfriend, who is four years her elder. Though we don’t know this until the end of the film, if Kelsey graduates from high school, she will be the first one from her family to do so.

Failing Grades + ADHD + Self-Mutilation + Abuse Does Not Equal DropoutThe story begins when Kelsey is a senior in her fifth year of school. She was retained during her middle school years, and reports that she was diagnosed with ADHD in 4th grade,. Kelsey says she is a “… mean person …,” supposing that she is “mentally disabled,” but “… not really disabled. You know?” Teachers and support staff of Kelsey’s high school report that she is, among other things, “… stubborn, obstinate, mature, immature, and a champion of the underdog.” Kelsey says that she usually wins arguments, because she has the “… ultimate meanness.”

Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports

During Kelsey’s first year of high school, the administration decided on a very intentional effort to change the trajectory of graduation percentages. They implemented a program known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), designed as a school-wide approach to creating a safe school culture. The goal of this program is to reduce the dropout rate for all students, particularly those who are at significant risk of dropping out. Empowerment, rather than control, is an essential element of this program. At Kelsey’s school, this program was known as “RENEW.”

Kelsey receiving help with schoolworkA team of school staff, including teachers, administrators, and support professionals was created to envelope Kelsey in order to support her throughout her high school career. The RENEW team began with and returned often to visioning and goal setting with Kelsey. As is true for many students who struggle with emotions and behavior in school, Kelsey’s vision of self was grounded on her personal definition as “mean,” which led her to view her future as short term. Before she began to give voice to personal dreams in the context of the RENEW team, her vision for self centered on dropping out of school and finding a job. Through supportive planning and visioning with the RENEW team, Kelsey came to articulate hopes and dreams that including having a home, having an intact family, having kids, and having a job that would fulfill her desire to help others.

The Journey Forward

Firefighter KelseyThroughout Kelsey’s story we journey through the ups and downs of her holding and molding a vision that evolves from the “mean girl” persona, to a time when Kelsey is able to accept the reality that it is OK to seek and accept support from others. This isn’t a smooth, forward motion journey, however; steps forward are balanced with steps backward. Finally, after ups and downs, Kelsey passes a final exam for an Emergency Medical Technologist course, which allows her to graduate; the first person from her family to do so.The film ends a year later with Kelsey returning to her high school to speak with students who are participating in the same program from which she received support.

Final Notes

This documentary is not an easy movie to watch. It is not a simple how-to video. Though it ends well, it is not a feel good film. Habib and his associates explore the painful life in which many students live. The filmmakers do not presuppose a positive outcome, though by the end Kelsey has made great progress to managing her challenges and in letting down the walls that formed her boundaries for many years. Throughout the film, the viewer wonders, however, whether or how she can possibly “make it.” There are times when the film brings the viewer to the edge of despair as Kelsey struggles mightily with who she is and what she will be. The producers do not expunge harsh language used by Kelsey as she confronts challenges and speaks out her frustrations. If harsh language is upsetting, I suggest a viewer activate the “bleep” function in the DVD settings.

I think this film is targeted to schools that struggle with high dropout rates for emotionally at-risk students and that are looking for ways to include successfully those students in a positive learning community. The content of the film can be used to stimulate discussion about what faculty and staff believe about school culture and climate. Questions will emerge regarding practices intended to promote positive school culture and strategies used to manage students. The producers of Who Cares About Kelsey? partnered with a variety of educators to prepare discussion guides that should be useful to guide school development teams. I recommend this film to schools interested in implementing PBIS for students who bring challenging behavior to school.

Later this week, I’ll share strategies schools and educators can take to help students with challenging behavior and create a positive and supportive school community.

Phil SteginkPhil Stegink is the director of educational services at CLC Network and an assistant professor of education at Calvin College.

Why I Choose Person-First Language

Sisters on Swings

Photo credit: R.Nial Bradshaw; Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/fHn9tX

You were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). You have value and worth because of this truth alone. Your personality, your talents, your capabilities, your IQ – none of these qualities determine your value. You are a child of God and because of that, I celebrate your existence.

I choose to recognize your inherent worth-one that is not defined by your abilities-by addressing you by your name.  You are a human being, just like me. Though we are different people, with different strengths and challenges, we are foremost united by our equal value in the eyes of God.

If the occasion arises when others need to understand why you might behave, appear, or think differently, I’ll gently explain your diagnosis. “This is my friend, Alyssa, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder,” I’ll say. By saying your name first, I’ll show that we can connect with you through our common humanity, and not by what distinguishes us.

But if you want to be known as Autistic Alyssa, I’ll respect that. You have a right to declare your identity to others and as a friend, I’ll respect your decision.

We share this common truth: our level of ability does not determine our status. For all of humanity is an interwoven mix of strength and weakness, gift and need. I need you in my life, just as you need me, for we each belong to the body of Christ and must work together to make it complete (2 Corinthians 12:3-8). Thank you for accepting me as a complete person, and for embracing my piece of humanity.

See Also:

Theology of Inclusion

Why Person-First Language Matters 

G.L.U.E. – A process to help faith communities understand, support, and include one another


Katie Barkley ImageKatie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network

Why Saying “Congratulations” Matters

For today’s post, we asked our friend Dan Quist, Church Relationship Coordinator at Elim Christian Services, to share this personal story on the importance of celebrating each newborn’s life.
babyfeet - storyvillegirl

Photo credit: storyvillegirl, https://flic.kr/p/7vDUa9

I had the opportunity to present the 5 Stages at a church in Hudsonville, Michigan, in January 2014 and in attendance was a friend of mine from high school.  I have not kept in contact with her, outside of seeing her Facebook posts, since we graduated in 2002.

Because we were friends on Facebook I was aware she and her husband had their third child about 11 months ago and he was born with Down syndrome.  She of course, like every new proud parent, posted a picture of him on Facebook with all his birth stats and explained he was born with Down syndrome.  Without even giving it any real thought I just wrote the typical “Congratulations!” on her post and then wrote a little bit about how I work at Elim and I would be more than happy to walk down this road with them as they figure out their sons unique needs.  Keep in mind I must have been the 50th or 60th person to comment on this post.

quist_quote2Before I posted it on her wall I sat there staring at it thinking, “What if she gets mad? What if she responds, ‘Who do you think you are, not talking to me in 11 years and the first thing you say to me is this?’” I was worried about her reaction, but I posted it anyway.  Flash forward to me talking to her face to face in Hudsonville about the day Owen was born; and for the first time I found out her reaction.  Through tear-filled eyes she recounted the details of that day and then mentioned my comment on Facebook.  She told me I was the first person to say, “Congratulations…everything was going to be ok…her son was going to be an incredible blessing in their life.”

Thinking back on this story has reminded me of a couple of things.

First, every life…EVERY life, is a blessing from God. Whether a baby is born without deficiencies, or with Down syndrome, or with cerebral palsy….. each life is created in the image of God.  My friend’s son was born with Down syndrome and will live with it his entire life, but God has a plan for him just like every baby born that day, or week, or month.

Secondly, I’m reminded that disability awareness is lacking in our world. We need to help others recognize that a baby born with a disability is not something to mourn.  God creates each of us uniquely, with different abilities.  Our abilities or inabilities do not determine our value; we have value because of who we all are – God’s children.  God has placed a call on each of our lives, including the lives of those with disabilities, and we need to equip each other and all of God’s children to answer that call.

We need to change attitudes.

I hope my story helps you start by saying, “Congratulations!”

Quist PhotoDan Quist has been the Church Relationship Coordinator at Elim Christian Services since 2012.  He has also served as a paraprofessional in Elim’s Autism program.  Quist has a degree in Secondary Education and a Master’s in Educational Administration.  He resides in Palos Heights, IL with his wife and two kids.

Depression in the Classroom

The sun will come out soon…right?

Many of us are still attempting to plow (pun intended) through our historically dark and deep Winter of 2014.  And it gets exhausting.  The grown-ups get exhausted, and eventually, even the kids get exhausted.  As exhilarating as numerous Snow Days can be, the whole thing becomes tiring and starts to feel relentless.  Will it ever end?  For just a few minutes, maybe we should think about how relentless, hopeless, and exhausted it feels…if you are a kid.

Most of us grown-ups find it hard to believe that kids can feel hopeless, but they surely can.  Some students are stuck in families that are dysfunctional due to conditions over which they have no control including poverty, mental illness, physical illness, or domestic violence.  Some students are stuck in a school “job” for which they are not cognitively or emotionally equipped so they struggle with it and come to fear it every day until they graduate, or just stop attending.  Some students are from great families in which they get a lot of support, and they are quick to understand and use all the new information they are presented with in school every day, yet they were born with a temperament or predisposition that makes them emotionally vulnerable.

Here are some of the behaviors these students may exhibit in your classroom or home: 

  • Expressionless face, no smiles

    Bored by john-morgan

    Photo Credit: John-Morgan, https://flic.kr/p/6DLBJ9

  • Quick to become tearful
  • Reports lots of aches and pains
  • Lose their appetite
  • Stop doing the things they used to enjoy
  • Become irritable and moody
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Express feelings of hopeless, worthless, or guilt
  • Avoid peers at recess and lunch
  • Demonstrate low self-esteem
  • Try to hurt themselves or talk of suicide
  • Have trouble concentrating

Most likely, you are now thinking about the number of times you or your child have demonstrated some of these behaviors.  And to demonstrate some of these behaviors some of the time is entirely normal (especially when the sun doesn’t shine for days at a time and you are stuck in the house all day unless you want to muscle through snow and shimmy across ice in single-digit temperatures).  But when you or one of your students or kids demonstrates several of these behavior frequent or severely, and those behaviors make it hard to remain productive and involved in healthy relationships and activities…you need to find professional help.

In the meantime, here are some strategies that teachers and parents can use in the classroom and at home to relieve the depression.

  • Get to know your students individually early in the year
  • Be consistent with your home/school communication, reporting both strengths and difficulties
  • Remind the student of his or her strengths using genuine, descriptive praise
  • Encourage the student to concentrate on what will happen today rather than looking way down the road when that anticipation may scare or discourage them
  • Rephrase your students’ extreme language (e.g. “They all hate me.” to “Some of these kids aren’t my friends.” or “I’m stupid.” to “I need a little more practice.”, etc)
  • Make sure they have healthy habits that encourage good sleep
  • Continue to encourage their involvement in positive activities, even if it’s just attendance and not participation
  • Supervise unstructured activities (e.g. recess, lunch) to provide support if the student is withdrawing entirely (e.g. assign a “recess buddy”, provide an alternative activity)
  • Model positive self-talk
  • Smile

Everybody gets sad and lonely at times, even kids, but that can be a “slippery slope” for kids if the grown-ups don’t get busy recognizing and addressing it.  So even though we may be exhausted from this whole winter thing, or from any of the other things we deal with every day, let’s be sure to give some of our energy to brightening up our students who are dealing with depression so can do their “job” every day too!

Sherri Rozema photoSherri Rozema, Ph.D. is a School Psychologist at CLC Network where she enjoys working with individual students to study their strengths and difficulties, and THEN working with parents and teachers as a team to improve their school experiences. 

Vacation Guide for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Spring break is coming up soon, and for many families with children with special needs, this can be a week full of change and anxiety. We’ve put together a guide to make this vacation (whether at home or someplace warm) enjoyable for ALL family members. 

Preview your trip:

Photo credit: EpSos.de,  http://flic.kr/p/d5AzPW

Photo credit: EpSos.de, http://flic.kr/p/d5AzPW

The internet is amazing. Before leaving on any trip, I can generally check out the layout of my aircraft and see exactly where I will be sitting. I can look up the hotel and view pictures, video footage, and ratings that others have given the hotel. I know what they will serve for breakfast, where I can park, and if they have an in-room coffee pot.

Some children and youth will find it MUCH easier to enjoy a vacation spot if you make them part of your trip preview. Let them see the hotel pictures. Show them the sleeping arrangements. Check out the places you may visit and how those day trips may go. You can even write stories together about what MIGHT happen on our trip. Make sure you include plenty of words like “maybe” “perhaps” and “probably” so that if trip plans change, your story is still accurate.

Changes in routine:

Here’s a DIY school picture schedule from TheCraftRookie. This can be easily adapted to fit your family’s schedule.

One of the joys for some is the change in routine that vacation can bring. But for others, that change in routine is distressing. Try to help calm the jagged nerve endings by coming up with a written or picture schedule to look at each day (find printable pictures on this website). Carry a calendar where you can show clearly what day you are leaving, when you are returning, and something about each day you are gone. If plans change, make sure you note those new plans on the calendar and schedule. This can be very helpful.

Remember, sometimes changes in climate and surroundings can bring joy, other times NOT! Moving from long pants to shorts may be very uncomfortable for some people as the wind and sensations hit the legs differently. The restaurant oatmeal may never be able to compare to the oatmeal Dad makes each morning in the home kitchen. Trading in your TV where you know each channel and turning that into a different set of channels and networks can be difficult for some. Watch for some of these reactions.

Be prepared to take home along with you in as many forms as are needed. Home oatmeal packets, a favorite TV show or movie, and a variety of clothing options might help ease the transition to a new place. If you know some of the “distress” spots from previous vacations, plan in advance. It’s possible, for example, that the hotel will share the TV station listing guide with you for your child to preview before getting to the hotel. You might be able to hold “beach day” in your living room before heading out on vacation. Practice wearing some summer clothing before you leave the house. Pull up some of the menus from restaurants you may visit and allow your child to see what might taste good from those options.

Plan a vacation photo creation:


Photo credit: emrank, http://flic.kr/p/4yJ6Qz

Some individuals really enjoy being in pictures. Since many of us carry multiple devices with the option to take a photo, talk to the family about wanting to get some pictures. For some, it’s easier to pose for a picture in the sandy beach and perhaps even in the water than it is to be told to walk in the sand and get in the water. Photo creations sometimes make people a bit more bold, and it’s a wonderful way to bring back some memories.

Give choices:

When possible, think of choices individuals can make with times and activities that can be challenging. Being able to choose allows people to feel more in control. With you, the parent, giving the two choices, you are also creating two acceptable options to you.

“Would you like to swim in the pool or in the bathtub tonight?” “Would you enjoy walking on the beach or shall we rent a bike?” “Would you like to eat breakfast at the table or would you like to take it along in the car?” You can’t always offer a choice, but be creative when you can.

Think for safety:

One parent heading to Disney World had a set of t-shirts printed. It said “I have autism. If I get lost, please call (123) 456-7890. This parent knew the child would be safe even if they were parted. One parent invited to pay for a college student to join the family and help with some of the events. This gave a college student free vacation while providing options for parents to have a “date” night and an extra pair of hands during the day. Talking to parents who have blazed this trail before can sometimes bring up great ideas for you to try.

What about you? What strategies or tips do you have for making your vacation enjoyable for the whole family?

Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is a teacher consultant and the director of church services for CLC Network. Some of her previous posts include Sharing Jesus with a Child with Down Syndrome, Sharing the Christmas Story with Kids with Disabilitiesand Supporting Persons with Disabilities Through the Holidays.