About Arielle Ben-Zaken
Arielle has worked with youth her entire professional career. Whether in summer camps, high schools, and hospitals, Arielle has committed her life to becoming a source of hope and support for young people.
Connect with Arielle: Email | Linkedin
Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.
CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS)
West Island Therapy and Wellness Centre
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Arielle Ben-Zaken. She is a clinical social worker. She has worked in summer camps with students. She has worked as a school counselor in a high school. A lot of her work stems around the idea of helping young people. I mean, she’s been surrounded by youth in all of her different roles and responsibilities, and she also works with an amazing organization called Cell 360 to promote social, emotional learning in high schools and across North America. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Arielle. It was very insightful and enjoyable, and I will see you on the other side. Arielle, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of your journey that brought you to where you are today working with young people?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (01:31):
Totally. Firstly, Sam, super, super excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to be on a podcast, so this is great. So I am a social worker here in Montreal. I’ve been a social worker for the last five years and I’ve been working with teens from, since I can remember. I did a lot of summer camp work where I was staffed with teens and my most amazing job that I loved so much other than the one I do currently was a, like I took kids on trips around the world. So I was like a teen tour guide, but I wasn’t actually a tour guide. I just took kids really you know, en engaged with them; I was their counselor kind of like overseas, and it was such an amazing experience. I think that for me was the eye opening experience that made me wanna come into social work.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (02:16):
I had had a kid on the trip. This was before I wasn’t even considering social work who opened up to me about struggles that she had gone through. And I thought to myself like, this is the type of population I wanna work with. They are malleable, impressionable. They’re a really wonderful population to work with. I have a lot to learn from them. They have a lot to learn from me. And so that really opened up my eyes to kind of how this whole thing started. So now I’m a social worker here. I work for the government, so I work like I do public job and then I also work for found medicine clinic. And then I also do some part-time therapy through a therapy clinic called the west island therapy center.
Sam Demma (02:54):
Oh, that’s awesome. And let’s go back to the beginning. Yeah. So the, the first way that you started teaching and engaging with youth was through summer camps.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:04):
Sam Demma (03:05):
So what got you into that and what was that experience like?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:08):
So it, first of all, it was amazing. I reminisce about that every day. It was like my favorite times of my life. I started going to summer camp at a young age. So at the age of eight I was at sleepaway camp from eight till 22. And so for me being a camper, there was really like a, a wonderful experience where I met a lot of staff that really had an impact on me. And then when it was my turn to become a staff, I was not gonna pass up the chance cuz I wanted to be the person who can have an impact on someone else as well. So I started there and that was my journey at summer camp.
Sam Demma (03:40):
Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. And then the next role was in a school.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:45):
Yeah. So exactly. So, well actually not, no. So the next role after that I went on to get my master’s, my master’s in social work. Nice. Then I worked in youth protection, so child protective services. Okay. For a couple years. Yeah. Which was also a really interesting experience, both personal and professional. I learned a ton about myself difficult job obviously. You know, seeing kids going through situations of abuse and neglect is really tough. Yeah. But rewarding because of the role that I had, which was really working with the families to to, to, to help them out and really bring them back together. And then after that I went to the school, which was also super cool because it was a different way of working with teens. So again, I did like some of the counseling, so they came into my office and we had some conversation and I helped them with things they were struggling with, but I also just got to interact with the kids in a different way. You know, taught them I did like the drug and alcohol program where I went into the classes and I with, with the other social worker and we taught them about drugs and alcohol and healthy use and did some sex ed stuff too. Like it was just a really interesting way of, of engaging them. And it was so much fun.
Sam Demma (04:51):
What brought you into the classroom? Like the, the work that you do could take you in so many directions and it, it seems like you so many tried a bunch of different avenues, which is awesome. It gives you a diverse perspective, but what brought you into a school setting as opposed to just going to like working at a hospital or at a social work clinic, you know?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (05:08):
Yeah, yeah, totally. I think for me it was really engaging one on one with the teens. Whereas like in a hospital setting, you’re kind of you’re you, there’s not necessarily one specific role. Sometimes you could switch around departments. You’re not necessarily only working with teens. Like I knew if I got myself into a high school, I’d be working specifically with teens and youth. And that for me was, was important. Because like I said, they’re, they’re really fun, fun crowd to work with at the same time. They’re also struggling a lot. There’s a lot of issues there with like mental health. Especially now with the pandemic, things are like on, on a rise. And I really felt like it was, you know, again, like I’m not a superwoman or a superhuman and I can’t just like help everybody, like I want to, but I felt like I could at least have an impact on them and really create relationships with the students that I worked with and have them sort of like, like look up to me in a way and really be able to impart knowledge on them, which was important to me.
Sam Demma (06:00):
And have you, have you heard different things due to the pandemic this year from the students you interact with and engage with and what is like the number one thing students you think, and everyone has a diverse challenge and they might all be, not all be the same, but what is something that you hear coming up very often among lots of different teens?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (06:19):
Yeah, so I no longer, I no longer work at the school, but I do do like private clinical work with teens. Got it. But we’re seeing a lot of issues with body image self-esteem eating disorders. I was actually just part of a really amazing sort of work workshop with an NEB, which is like a, an organization that works with eating disorders. And I had it last night and they’re, I mean, the numbers are on a rise, like really, really completely on a rise. Kids are at home doing nothing but scrolling through social media. And you know, I I’ve, I’ve said this before that they’re they’re positives and negatives to social media and the positives are that there’s a lot of kids that are having kids, teens, whatever it is, adults that are having a voice now and, and a platform to use their voice, but on the other end there’s a lot of comparison and, and, and this is what my life looks like and all these, like what I eat in a day videos that are coming up now that kids are watching, teens are watching.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (07:15):
So lots of body image issues. Like I, I just read yesterday in the, in the top that we had, they spoke about I actually wrote it down if you don’t mind me reading it. Cause I thought it was, it was a oh yeah, 80. It was a statistic that 80% of Canadian girls ages, 10 to 17 downloaded a filter or used an application to change the way they look in pictures by the age of 13. Wow. Like it’s. Yeah. Yeah. So for me, like in what I do right now is I work a lot with body image and self-esteem, and it’s sort of like where I wanna continue going. Because as a woman who lives in society where these like there’s these beauty standards and all these things, it’s so important for me to help girls understand that it’s, this is not the only way to be the only way to go. Yeah. So, yeah.
Sam Demma (08:01):
Yeah. It’s so true. I’m actually working on a spoken word album called dear high school. Me and one of the poems is all about the pressure that society puts on us and how it can make life feel like an uphill battle. And it’s like, it’s crazy companies, large companies, and, you know, big corporations don’t sell us clothes and, you know, filters, they sell us the fact that we’re flawed quote unquote, and that we need these things to be perfect. And it’s so false, but it’s like, I deal with it. Everyone deals with it and it’s yeah, it gets exhausting, you know?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (08:31):
Yeah, totally. And it’s almost, it’s, it’s, it’s all we know, right? Yeah. Like it’s all we, we have grown up in this society where it’s, it’s really, we’re, we’re someone once said this it’s like we’re coming into a disordered society. Like society itself is really messed up. And so how can we be okay. Coming into a society? That’s not okay.
Sam Demma (08:48):
Yeah. I, I feel that a hundred percent I want to go back for a second. See your trips. Yeah. Around the world. Yeah. Where did this come from? What are these, can you tell, tell me more about it and an impact it had on you and also the students.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:01):
Totally. again, like I said earlier, like one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and I’m so grateful to have done it. It was with the company called B B Y O passport. I literally, it was like, I don’t know, six years ago I had no summer job didn’t know what to do. So my mom, and she’ll be very happy that, you know, she’ll hear me say this looked upon the internet for me to see like what, you know, I don’t know, like summer jobs and this popped up. And it was really, it’s a Jewish organization. B B Y O is an, is a, like a youth group, like a teen youth group. And so this is like their passport division. And really like, I started, I think the first trip I ever did, they got trips that go like all over the world.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:38):
They go to Eastern Europe, they go to the UK, they go a lot to Israel because of the, there’s a Jewish component to it. And I did my first trip to the west coast of the us, which was a three week trip. And I saw the entire west coast of the us. And then every other year after that, I went to Israel. A bunch of times I went to Italy, I went to Eastern Europe. Am I missing anywhere? I went, yeah, no. And that’s where I went. And it was just such an amazing opportunity. Like, firstly for me, it was a very different job compared to being a camp counselor because now you’re a counselor overseas. So at camp you’re their, you’re their parents, sister, brother, whatever it is, 24 7 here. You’re that also, but you’re really their only connection because they can’t turn around and go home as easily as they could up north here in Montreal.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (10:24):
So that was, that was a really interesting added experience of, or added part to the whole thing as well. And really like, again, there was like that Jewish component too. And I really like, I, I did not go to like Jewish, private school when I was growing up. I went to public school, so I didn’t really have a lot of Jewish knowledge. So I learned it a lot at camp. And then on these trips too, I was learning while also trying to help the kids learn as well. And I think for me, like you know, I love Israel. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m, I’m part, I’m half Israeli, so it makes sense. Nice. And so for me, watching them fall in love with Israel was also amazing cuz I remember the time that I fell in love with it.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:00):
So there was like all those kind of added components. And then as I got older, right, as, as I sort of became more, I guess you can say like, like a senior staff in these trips there was a lot more of a mental health component that became obvious. Like when I started there was no mental health issue. I mean there were kids had mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, but my last time working with the voo passport, my role was very different. So I went to Israel for six weeks. I was sort of like the mental health professional that ran around from trip to trip to deal with these issues. When I started, we didn’t have that, that wasn’t known to us as staff. And it just goes to show that mental health issues are increasing amongst teens like exponentially. So yeah.
Sam Demma (11:43):
And what do you think is the big life learnings that students took away from those experiences? I think that travel is such a transformative experience and curious to know what the students were saying after those or what you think they took away from that experience.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:59):
Yeah. I think, I think travel was obviously, you know, a big, a big part of it because that’s the reason they came on the trip. I think also though there was a sense of community that we created. We really worked hard to create. I think it’s easy for kids to be at school be impacted by those around them and then come on these trips and meet people. They may not necessarily be friends with at school and get to know people in a different way. It was a really intimate setting, right. I think like the biggest trip I was on at 40 fourteens, but I remember one year when I went, I had like 20 cuz I was the first trip going out. Wow. And so we’re like a little family and you could really get to know each other as you, as you go on these trips.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (12:34):
And there’s a lot of like personal learning, right? Like traveling for the first time away from mom and dad you know, seeing certain sites and learning history about, about wherever it was that we were that was also really, really big for the teens. And just a lot of fun, you know, like I think, I think for me the biggest thing when I worked on these trips was that I wanted to make sure that they walked away saying that was an amazing summer. I had such a great time. Can’t wait to do it again. Or now, nowadays when I see like on Facebook, my kids hanging out with each other from like previous trips years ago, I feel, I feel so. So like my, my heart is so warm because I see that they’re still connected. So it’s that sense of connection and community that was created that lasts quite a, quite a long time
Sam Demma (13:13):
And on the topic of mental health being on the rise and students, you know, it’s always been there, but students openly talking about it more and reducing the stigma, you know, you’re a board director, I believe of SEL 360. Can you tell us more about that initiative, why it started and you know, what you’re hoping to accomplish with it
Arielle Ben-Zaken (13:31):
Of of course. So cell 360 is an in initiative that was created to work on reducing the stigma, mental health in teens in the youth population. I jumped on board about a year ago now. We’re really like, everything’s starting to kind of get going now, which is super, super exciting. We’ve done a lot of Facebook live events to really get topics out there that are not discussed normally. Like, like normally I guess you know, in like that are not really discussed, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And, and just really getting people awareness, really creating awareness around, like we just had a, a few videos go out about ed disorders and exercise addiction. Things like that that are sort of, we, we hear the term, but nobody maybe sits down to have these types of conversations, at least not the way we do.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (14:17):
You know, we interview professionals, we interview people that are struggling’re in their own way. And I think that, I think ending the stigma for mental health for, for teens is so important. Because you’re right. Like you said, things are, you know, people are talking about it more now, so it’s really, they’re lucky to be part of a generation or, or of a generation where these conversations are happening. But I remember when I, when I was growing up, like I never had these, these conversations didn’t happen. People were really hush hush about them. It was embarrassing. You know, a lot of people didn’t even know what anxiety was or what depression was, but they knew they felt something different, but we didn’t talk about it. Right. so that’s really what, what cell 360 does and really tries to work on, on ending that stigma. We’re a board of wonderful people and I’m so honored to be a part of it, like really, really it’s super cool. And, and we’re just, we’re just growing and we’re, we’re starting to kind of really things are taking off right now, which is really exciting.
Sam Demma (15:12):
Where do you and the team see the organization or the work in like five years?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (15:18):
Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good question. I guess for, for me I’d really love to get into schools and start like a type of a workshop, like a cell 360 workshop program where we’re really getting into schools and really working with the, with teens and with youth on, on mental health. And yeah, like that’s where I see it going. I’ve always said this though. Like I think it’s super important that kids in high school, somewhere along the line have a class on psychology, have a class on mental health. Because if we can start it young, it will only get better as we get older. People will feel more comfortable talking about it as they get older. And I think that that is so, so, so important, like on, on top of math and English and French and Quebec and all those kinds of things that are super important. So is mental health and really getting teen to understand what they’re feeling, you know there’s nothing worse than feeling something different and not knowing what it is and kind of walking around feeling that whatever let’s say, depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms and having no label or nothing to connect it with. Yeah. So I think that would be really important.
Sam Demma (16:19):
Yeah. As a student myself, I always found it weird that we learned so much about other things except for ourselves, you know, like totally the one thing that is that is with us our entire life we don’t learn much about. And you know, even now as I’ve grown up and I’m grown up, I’m 21, you still pretty young. But even now I’ve started to realize like your mind is the most powerful thing that you have that anyone has, right. Like everything that’s around us in our reality was once started and crafted in someone’s mind before they brought it to life. And we learned nothing about it and it’s like, we need to know more about this and feelings and emotional intelligence and there’s so many awesome topics. So I can’t wait to see that come to life because it surely will in the next couple years. So, oh, that’s amazing. And when a student approaches you as a social worker or somebody approaches you as a social worker, mm-hmm what do those initial reactions look like? Or sorry, interactions look like, is it a very open conversation? Do you encourage sharing? Like what does that look like? Yeah,
Arielle Ben-Zaken (17:19):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So totally encouraged sharing. Something I think that’s really important about my job is that we, you know, I have to respect confidentiality. So yeah, I really let them know that everything that, that this person and I speak about is kept confidential. I can’t tell anyone about it. I think that initial understanding creates comfort already by just knowing that no one else will know about this kind of thing. And, and that I have no, I’m like legally bound. And can’t talk about these things openly. Yeah. I know for me, like my, my most important thing when I work with a client is I really work to create a safe space. It’s been a little awkward on zoom because I’ve do been doing a lot of my work on zoom, but I’ve been successful. And I feel like I’ve really created a safe space and, and really provided this, the, the support for the client to be able to share.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:03):
And yeah, I encourage sharing. I always say, like, I tell clients, you wanna cry, cry, don’t stop yourself from crying. Crying’s an emotion you need to let it out. I really try and make them feel comfortable. For some it’s really awkward and, and, and, you know, I’ve had clients say to me, like, this is really uncomfortable. And so take the first couple of sessions, just get to know them. Yeah. Like let’s chit chat about what music you listen to and what shows you watch and really try and get to know them that way. Because at the end of the day, I’m human too. And so if I can, if I can show them that I’m human and they can understand that about me as well, that I’m not just like this robotic, like social worker they may open up a little bit more to me.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:39):
So it’s, it’s, it’s a really interesting experience too. Like I’ve, I’ve been lucky in my jobs to be able to watch people progress from the moment I meet them to sort of like when our work ends together. And I find that the most rewarding and I tell clients all the time, like sitting from where I am, and I only see these people on our sessions, let’s say I’ve been able to see their progress. And they’re always like super they’re really, you, you really think that about me. It’s like, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to think about it. I’ve been able to watch that progress. And I think, yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of sharing. I, I really encourage that, cuz there’s no other way to know about someone than if they don’t share.
Sam Demma (19:14):
And some schools are blessed to have a social worker mm-hmm , but a lot of them don’t, you know, and a lot of local high schools that might not have the budgets or might not have the resource available. They don’t have a social worker in place. Yeah. In those situations, typically a student might actually go to their teacher and a teacher might be unsure how to handle the situation. You know, if you have to give some advice to a teacher, you know, they realize that a student in their class is struggling, don’t know how to approach the student. Like how would you advise them to go about starting that conversation or doing that?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (19:49):
Yeah. I think the, the biggest thing for a teacher let’s say is just to listen. I think that we forget that listening is one of our greatest skills. And that sometimes for someone listening is really all that they need. Mm-Hmm, a lot of people don’t listen to teens. And so it’s like, you know I’ve, I’ve read articles and read things and have conversations about when teens say to their parents, like you know I need to talk or something or they kind of give them an in about a conversation. Sometimes parents don’t listen. Sometimes parents are really easy to say, yeah, I’m busy. I can’t talk right now. But when the kid comes to you, that’s like a very important thing that they’re doing, cuz they’re ready to talk about something. Yeah. I think the same goes with teachers. Like just be, just listen, be open-minded.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (20:28):
There is obviously an, you know, sometimes situations where the teacher like is their hands are tied. Like they really can’t help. So I would always, you know, suggest to seek additional support either from the principal of the school or, you know, maybe look on the internet. There’s tons of really amazing. Especially here in Quebec, I’m only familiar with the resources here, lots of really awesome hotlines and you know, like team texting, they can text numbers now that they’ve opened up so that it’s not just on the phone cause some feel uncomfortable. So maybe even like reaching out to those to those types of, of help lines would be really helpful for teachers too. And yeah, I really think like I’m repeating myself like a broken record, but listening is so important, like such an important tool. Because when, when a Tina’s given time to talk and someone’s listening, let me tell you, they will, if they’re comfortable, they will talk. So it’s, it’s good to sort of make that connection.
Sam Demma (21:23):
Oh, I love that. I, yeah, it’s so funny. I once had a mentor tell me, you know, listening super important and you know, it’s, it’s the most underrated skill. And I didn’t know at the time that he was gonna test me on my own listening skills, but he’s like, Sam, I’m gonna read out some information for you. And he just told me this out of the blue and he’s a lot older and it was his, it was his professional bio and it had a set number of pieces of information in it. And after he finished reading, he just asked me, he’s like, Hey, can you recite however many pieces of information you can remember? And there was like 60 or 80 something pieces. And I, I recited like eight or nine. Yeah. And, and he was like, you failed miserably. And I was like, well, you didn’t, you know, you didn’t tell me it was a test. Yeah. And he said this sentence, I’ll never forget. He said, every time someone else opens their mouth, it is a test. Wow. And it was just like, I was like, whoa, like listening so important. And I can’t think that I’m listening. Good enough. I need to always try and be more present and turn off my phone and make sure I’m fully engaged in the conversation and not thinking about something else while the person’s speaking. So yeah. I just wanted to share that as well. I think you’re absolutely listening is like such a important thing to do. Not only in, you know, scenarios where you’re with a student, but overall just in life in general
Arielle Ben-Zaken (22:40):
Overall. Yeah. Like you just said, the thing to me that, that that is so important is that listening makes you be in the present. I think we live a lot of our lives in the past, in the future. And we rarely, rarely remember that the present is the most important. We’re never gonna get these moments back. So if we’re always living, trying to do something or, or wishing we did something different, we forget about what’s going on in, in, in, in this moment right now. And when you listen, you’re like you said, you’re off your phone, you’re connected, you’re engaged. You’re there. You’re like, it’s such an important thing. And we are like, I feel like sometimes we live life on autopilot, so we’re always going, going, going, going. And we rarely remember, like you said, listening will make you be in the present moment, just, you know, sit down and, and, and use your ears and hear what someone’s saying is so, so, so important.
Sam Demma (23:25):
I hear you there you go. I love that. No pun intended. Speaking about important things, if you could give your younger self advice, like if you could go back in time to the first year you got into social work and working with young people, knowing what you know now and having the experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (23:45):
I love this question cuz I think about it a lot. I think I would tell my younger self that it’s gonna be okay, don’t worry. You’re gonna get this done. Or things are gonna pan out the way you want them to, but like, don’t rush anything. I was a very rushy like student. I remember I just wanted to get good grades, get outta school. And now I look back and it’s like, I wish I would’ve known that. And really to don’t sweat the small stuff, like a lot of stuff that I worried about back then, didn’t matter. Like I got to where I am now just because life happened and opportunities are arose and I was able to take them. Yeah. And just like go with the flow.
Sam Demma (24:19):
Love it. And if someone’s listening to this and they enjoyed the conversation and wanna reach out to you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?
Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:28):
That’s a great question. I’d be more than happy to connect with anyone that wants to reach out. If people are on LinkedIn, you can find me on LinkedIn as well. Yeah. Anyway.
Sam Demma (24:39):
Awesome. Ariel, thank you so much again for coming on the podcast. This has been awesome.
Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:43):
Thank you so much.
Sam Demma (24:45):
You’re welcome. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
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