Frontline Initiative: Health and Wellness

Supporting Students' Psychological Health and Wellness


Zoe Korengold , as interviewed by Chet Tschetter, co-editor of Frontline Initiative. Zoe Korengold is an Educational Assistant at Lionsgate Academy in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Teacher and student in a classroom with white board and books on shelves in the background. Both are sitting. Female adult is sitting with legs crossed, leaning toward the student. She has dark should length hair, and glasses, is waring a pink v-next sweater and blue pants. She has a clip board on her lap and is holding a pencil. The male student is sitting across from the teacher. He has short dark hair with his banges hanging over a white bandana that is ties around his head and over his forehead. He is wearing a light gray tee-shirt and blue jeans. He has a black backpack on the ground next to him.

Tell the readers about yourself.

Zoe: My name is Zoe. I am autistic and use the pronouns they/them. I am in my second year working at Lionsgate Academy (LGA), in Shoreview, Minnesota as an Educational Assistant on the Support Response Team and Crisis Team. LGA is a charter school that is inclusively designed to address the unique learning styles of students on the autism spectrum, as well as students with other learning differences.

What does your employer do to let you know they value you?

Zoe: My team helps me feel valued by listening to me. I feel like what I say is very much valued. I feel like people are open to new ideas for the most part and open to what I have to say. They see and acknowledge my compassion and care for the kids. And I also feel appreciated because I'm a community member here. I am a role model here for the students. So yeah, I feel valued.

At Lionsgate Academy, you are part of both a Support Response Team and a Crisis Team. Tell us first about the Support Response Team.

Zoe: This team does a lot of different things for students that help them get what they need. It might be that the student needs to take a break and walk away from the classroom to process, so I walk with them. Sometimes I help students who are going through stressful mental health issues in their lives, and they need to kind of just talk to someone. I can get connected with other people that can help support them in school, like social workers or case managers.

This team also goes through all the behavior referrals. At our school, we use the term referral, but you may be more familiar with the term incident report. It includes the antecedent (what happened before the action or behavior), and what happened during the action or behavior. It also includes who was involved in the situation. The team members read through all the referrals each day so that we are familiar with all the behaviors that turned into referrals each day. When there are problems we can solve, we do that. We let case managers know when there is a referral for a student they are supporting. We make connections between teachers, case managers, and students about situations that occur so that together, we can make a plan to support the student.

What about the Crisis Team?

Zoe: The crisis team is a team of about 12 people. It includes our social workers, the principal, some other teachers, and administration staff. This team handles situations where you need more people to respond to a crisis that is occurring in the classroom. The crisis team is called when a student is expressing actions that are unsafe for themselves or others. Our role is to work together to make the situation safe, which might mean getting other students out of the classroom. We remove “the audience” to avoid further escalation.

What training did you receive to handle crisis situations at your workplace? What did the training entail?

Zoe: I received the Crisis Prevention Institute’s training in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention. The training teaches how to handle different situations, whether it's a student who is starting to show oppositional defiance, or if the student is getting physical by hitting, kicking, biting, or grabbing someone. Everyone on the Crisis Team and the Support Response Team are trained using this curriculum. This training focuses on preventing situations that might escalate. It also provides training on how to do physical holds correctly. They are only done when necessary, as a last resort for safety reasons. We have to try a lot of different strategies before using a hold. We know that holds have a history of being very traumatizing. As an autistic person who has been traumatized by the school system, it's of utmost importance to me to only use holds when absolutely necessary to prevent further/potential harm.

What are some of the principles behind the Crisis Prevention Institute’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training and how do you apply them to your work with students?

Zoe: One cornerstone is that when a student is in crisis, we should not return that same level of energy. This means staying away from a power struggle with the student who likely really just wants autonomy to make their own choices and the ability to say, “No, I don't want to do this.” A lot of it is about respecting someone as a human being and taking the path of least resistance. We respect that the student has made a choice and understands the consequences. Or, they may have big emotions, and that is okay. Another cornerstone is to support the student while they figure out another way to handle the situation in the future. We do this after they have completely calmed down and are thinking rationally again.

Tell us about how you support the students' psychological health and wellness. What are your priorities?

Zoe: For me, it's telling them what I wish someone would have told me when I was in school and being there for them. When I was in general education, I had no one who understood what I was coping with as an autistic student. It's very healing to be able to literally tell the student word-for-word: “You are valued. You're important. You need to stay here. You're a part of this community.” It's amazing to be able to say to them, “I have been there, too. I know exactly how that feels. I don’t completely understand your situation, but I know, at least through my experience, what it feels like to be feeling what you're feeling right now, since I am an autistic person.” Honestly, that has been one of the most healing experiences that I've had. It is an amazing feeling to really support the student like that so that they know they aren’t going through it alone.

How I support students this way has a huge impact on the students and on me. I really take seriously what I say to the students. Not causing trauma or pain is incredibly important to me because I know how easy it is for adults to misuse their power, even if they don't mean to and to really hurt someone for a long time. I want to make the type of impact that gives them self-sustainable growth instead of impeding them in any way. That's something very important to me.

When the crisis is over, tell us about the steps taken to debrief with everyone involved.

Zoe: It’s incredibly important to have closure, and to have next steps when a crisis does happen. We do this in a debrief session. During the debrief, the crisis team checks in with everyone and together we discuss what we learned from this crisis. We want to avoid having the situation happen again, but if it does, we want to have a plan for what we are going to do as a team. There have been times when I missed a debriefing because I was absent and then I don’t have closure on that experience. I find that I carry it around for a few days. It makes it harder because I haven’t gotten to verbally process with the people I trust and look up to. I treasure the team members’ advice and they help me to filter through the incident. After I process, then I can let it go.

We debrief with our students in another way that is separate from the staff. We usually have a restorative circle, where you talk about, 1) the facts of what happened, 2) how it affected our community, and 3) how it affected other people. Then we make a plan with them on how to handle things differently next time they feel that way.

What would like to tell others who are supporting people in crisis situations?

Zoe: You're not alone. And for some of us with mental health issues, it's dangerous to be on our own handling those situations when you try to just push through by yourself. It's important that you have trusted team members and supervisors to lean on as a resource. You're not a burden to them for needing to talk through these situations.

And another thing I would say is, really know your worth. Because if you weren't there supporting the person, who would be? And for some people, the answer is no one, and sadly that's real for a lot of students on the autism spectrum who are in public schools. They’re going through all these things alone and hiding it. Know that you're making a really big impact on the people you support, just by being there for them.

A Closer Look

In episode 3 of this podcast, Zoe Korengold from Lionsgate Academy in Shoreview, Minnesota on supporting students' psychological health and wellness.

Listen to all episodes here, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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