What is a Help Zone?

by David Sanchez


For the past three years, staff from the Gandhi Institute have been collaborating with a group of Rochester City School District (RCSD) schools and staff in supporting the spread of an initiative of a social-emotional support space called the Help Zone (HZ). The Help Zone was created through the vision of NorthWest College Preparatory (NWCP) School principal, Barbara Zalazny who saw the need for a system that would address the need of many students walking the halls, searching for a classroom item when they didn’t have one, or dealing with a conflict that could easily be remedied with a short break or mentoring session. When these issues go unresolved, the agitation in students and staff grow quickly, when they’re addressed, students are often able to return to class, maximizing learning, while at the same time having their social emotional and material needs met.


During the 2014-2015 school year, Gandhi Institute staff, Spero Michialidis collaborated with NWCP staff in piloting the Help Zone. Through working on the Community Task Force on School Climate, Spero, the group, and other advocates recommended that other schools adopt the HZ model. Gandhi Institute staff currently staff HZ spaces in School 19, School 17, Monroe Middle & High Schools, and the Stop Think And Reflect (STAR) room at Wilson Magnet High School. Help Zones are also found in many other buildings throughout the district.


Students who come to the HZ are “triaged”: needs are evaluated to see if they could be met by Help Zone staff, or if necessary, students can be referred to school counselors, social workers, principals, or other staff. Help Zone Essentials include: having smiling, open minded staff who listen, ensuring the space is non-punitive, having a clear system for student arrival, referral, re-entry to class, and for following-up. Help Zones should also be stocked with pens, pencils, paper, hygiene, clothing, snack items, calming decorations, de-stressing items such as glitter jars, stress balls, gum, coloring books. It’s important to note that although the model has important commonalities, each school’s HZ must be catered to meet the needs of the students, staff, and community within it. For example, some protocols allow for students to “self admit”, while other schools require students to gain a pass to go to the HZ.  As the initiative develops, we continue to evaluate processes such as protocol, data tracking and analysis, and their overall effects on social-emotional health, and school climate. Hiring diverse staff: race, gender, SES, staff of color, age

School Climate and Responding to Trauma & Grief

The Help Zone initiative is one component of the Gandhi Institute’s School Climate Transformation Program which also includes: teaching Social Justice classes to 7-8 graders at North West College Prep, facilitating leadership and mindfulness groups at Monroe High School, as well as offering professional development for staff at Monroe High School and School 17.  Gandhi Institute staff from each of our five partner schools meet monthly to share challenges and best practices and also participate in the RCSD Roc Restorative meetings, intersecting with other schools implementing Restorative Practices. Gandhi Institute staff also offering ongoing professional development for staff on topics of: restorative circles, conflict resolution, nonviolent communication, and mindfulness based stress reduction.

On March 21, Institute staff presented our work in the HZ model to 80 RCSD staff members participating in a Trauma and Grief professional development. Immediate: empathic listening and reflection, mindfulness exercises, breathing activities, visualizations, referral and or communication to school team members: counselors, social workers, admin. Ongoing: Journaling / writing activities, participation in groups, one v one mentoring, continual check-ins, and ongoing communication with team/school staff. As the first stop for students in conflict, crisis, and when positive life events occur, HZ staff utilize both skill sets and support systems to respond to students needs.

When responding to the following questions, Gandhi Institute staff shared:

1) What are effective ways that you respond to grief/ trauma that students are dealing with in their lives?

– You teach from experience keep it real and give them hope by being a living example

-When dealing with kids in the midst of trauma, I immediately let go of any desires or expectations of results of the conversation and focus on being in time with the needs and feelings of the student. Humor, extensive silence for listening purposes and sustained curiosity (avoid at all costs early conclusions or assumptions )

The most effective way I’ve been able to respond to grief/trauma that students are dealing with in their lives is by giving them time to process. That means meeting one-on-one with the student and making sure they know I’m fully present. I don’t meet with other students or adults during that time and also request that the other members of our Help Zone meet with incoming requests. I let the students share about the trauma/grief that they’re going through and I don’t diminish that experience. Instead, I typically also ask them about the situation directly. So if there was a death, I don’t just say “I’m sorry for your loss” but instead, ask them if they have a favorite memory about that person, what characteristic/quality they liked the most about this person, do they see that quality in another adult, discussing how I’ve dealt with deaths in my lifetime, etc.


2) what are “best practices” or, the must have skills/processes that you use to keep your Help Zone/ STAR Room running most effectively?

-I have student use a restorative walk, which has the restorative  questions but on a mat with the questions in a row on both ends so they literally can walk into conflict with a sense of structure and understanding.

-Humor and viewing the kids as your equal, your conversations with them as a human to human connection and not adult to child., I.e. building authentic and empowering relationships with the students.

-The best practice I have is checking in with my fellow community partners that are in my Help Zone. Keeping open and honest communication allows us to improve our approach. It’s also helpful, especially if there are students who gravitate towards one adult in the Help Zone and that person missed a crucial moment in that student’s day. Open communication allows us to meet the needs of students (and adults) in the building more effectively.

Gandhi staff member, Hoody Miller with the Restorative Questions Mat which students use to walk through conflicts.



Monroe High School, the Gandhi Institute, and Dena Swanson from the Counseling and Human Development Department at the University of Rochester have been conducting a multi-modal study using school climate surveys and restorative accountability forms. During the 2015-2016 school year our school climate research focused on the role of restorative practices impacting student experiences and perceptions. Significant and positive correlations were found between restorative practices and:

  • student’s increased engagement in school;
  • students’ ability to navigate adverse school events (flunking, fights, teacher challenges);
  • students’ report of supports that successfully help them navigate issues around bullying;
  • students ability to navigate adverse life events (changing residence, death of friend or family, incarceration of family member);
  • students’ report of support that affirms their sense of ethnic identity;
  •  students’ report of being effectively supported by teachers and staff, even when behavior problems are encountered.

Learn More

Learn more about Help Zones or the School Climate Transformation Project by clicking this link, or write us an email. To hear student perspectives on their experience with Help Zones and the Restorative model, take a look at this video created by Jessica Nordquist from the Roc Restorative Team. 



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