exam myths fail

Exams are on the horizon for young people up and down the country. So we decided it was time to bust a few exam myths which can create unnecessary stress and anxiety before exams.

Exam myths busted #1: poor exam results will ruin your life


Exams are a part of your development and growth as an individual. They are a way to assess whether you have retained what your lovely teachers have been trying to teach you.

They are important but they are unlikely to ruin your life. Here are a few reasons why.

By the end of your education, the idea is that you walk out as a well-rounded individual, not just an exam passing machine. Therefore skills you develop from part-time jobs, school/uni clubs or voluntary work are just as vital as exam results.

What comes after these exams?

Secondly, consider the fact that exams tend to be followed by, well, more exams.

Of course, that means going through the emotional wringer more than once but it also means poor results can be overcome.

Next time you might need to take a few more classes or do some additional study but it is possible to recover from poor exam results.

Exam myths busted #2: your parents will be ashamed by your poor results


This is one of the exam myths that cause many young people to carry a crippling level of expectation upon their shoulders.

What we might interpret as pressure to avoid the shame of poor results, is often well-intentioned encouragement from our parents.

They just sometimes do it really badly.

We believe in you

Your parents want you to realise your potential because – and sit down for this one – they believe in you more than you probably believe in yourself.

Though it might not seem like it at times, your parents love you no matter what. And the possibility that you might not get straight A’s in all your exams is nothing compared to what you’ve already put them through.

They loved you then and will still love you now

They loved you when all you would do is poop, cry and throw up. They loved you when you rolled around in the muddy grass all day and then sat on their new cream sofa. Or that time you threw the mother of all tantrums in Asda.

I could go on but you get the picture. When it comes to something as tough as high school or university exams, does it seem likely that they will disown you if results don’t go your way?

Rest easy and know that your parents want you to do well for yourself, not because they want to boast about you on Facebook.

Exam myths busted #3: failing exams makes you a failure in life


Exams are important but their ability to ‘make or break’ your life is another one of the most damaging exam myths.

It is easy to lose sight of one simple truth: your life is yours to live. Therefore what are you looking for in your life?

What will success look like for you based on your perspective and not the opinions of your parents, friends or society?

Getting into the toughest university courses and becoming a brain surgeon might be what you want to achieve. Or it might not.

How do you define ‘success’?

From that truth, a logical conclusion follows: what constitutes ‘success’ is defined by literally thousands of decisions and experiences over the course of your life.

Exams are a part of that process but not the be all and end all. For example, if you don’t get the grades needed for your chosen university course, you might wrongly assume that is it. Game over.

exam myths fail

There are plenty of alternative options: start a related course and transfer across later; retake classes at college to bag the results you wanted; find a company that takes on school leavers as apprentices/trainees. The list goes on.

Ultimately what you want to do in your life is up to you. Exams will form part of that journey but they certainly will not mark the end of it.

Don’t let exam myths stop you in your tracks.


Coping with exam stress

To help students and parents navigate the difficult time before, during and after exams, The Spark has produced a series of articles.

These cover our tips on how to approach exams and ways to manage and reduce the stress and anxiety you might be feeling.

Exam stress: tips for parents and students

Exam stress tips for students

Do exam results define your future?

Tips for parents during exam time

Exam results: a young persons’ guide

Parents’ guide to exam results day

The Spark is one of Scotland’s leading providers of counselling services. We provide youth and family counselling, alongside our couples and individual counselling.

If you need support with issues in life – exams, relationships or just the challenges of growing up – we are here to help.

Find out more about counselling or talk to a member of our team on freephone 0808 802 0050 during our opening hours.

Alternatively, complete an online enquiry.

You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more tips and advice.

spend time with people

We continue our series of Q&A sessions with members of The Spark team with part 2 of our chat with Jen Graham, Education Services Director.

Catch up with part 1 or dive in to part 2 as we learn more about how The Spark is equipping teachers to improve the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils.

Plus why we only use experienced counsellors to deliver school based counselling.

Q. How is The Spark supporting teachers and other school staff improve the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils?


Teachers have such a positive role to play in the lives of children.

It’s fundamentally important that they are provided with opportunities to improve their knowledge, understanding and skills to support pupils most effectively.

parenting teenagers

That’s why we offer Scottish Mental Health First Aid for Young People and Relationship First Aid for Teachers as continuous professional development options.

From these, we’ve seen an increasing confidence in Teachers understanding of mental health, in how relationships are impacted by attachment, and in the skills required to offer the most effective first response support.

Q. Some youth counselling providers place trainee counsellors in schools. Why has The Spark chosen to only use fully-qualified practitioners?


We understand that for many organisations, utilising trainee counsellors is their preferred model.

However, for us, there is nothing more important than ensuring children receive professional support from a fully qualified, professional counsellor.

We don’t deploy trainees or volunteers in schools. We manage to balance the costs of this and still make our services affordable for schools.

Q. The Spark has become Scotland’s biggest provider of school-based counselling. Is there further expansion in the pipeline?


We have experienced significant growth over the last 18 months but it is built upon 10 years’ experience of working with schools. So we’re not a new kid on the block!

It’s our intention to continue this growth to ensure children have access to the best school based counselling service. That requires all CYP counselling agencies in Scotland to play their part.

Ultimately we all want to reduce the pressure on CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

Collectively we can ensure that emotional and mental wellbeing is considered fundamental to every pupil’s readiness to learn.


Take a look at our Children and Young People content for more information about:

school counselling deputy first minister John Swinney

In the latest of our Q&A sessions we took some time out to speak to Jen Graham, The Spark’s Education Services Director about school based counselling.

Jen heads up our team of children and young people (CYP) counsellors and trainers. Across Scotland they are supporting over 5,000 pupils, their teachers and families this academic year.

Find out why schools are turning to The Spark for support, the issues our counsellors help children with and the real benefits of school based counselling.

Q. Jen, why are many schools in Scotland choosing to host their own school based counsellors?

“Schools recognise that when pupils are struggling with their emotional and mental wellbeing, they’re not in the best place to learn.

Specialist services such as ours give pupils a confidential space to explore their worries and concerns with a trusted professional.”

Kids learning

“Head Teachers and class teachers recognise the importance of health and wellbeing for pupils. It makes a fundamental contribution to help raising attainment in the class room.”

Q. Are the issues pupils are struggling with in school common across the board?

“The range of issues pupils are referred with are wide ranging and often complex.

Our CYP counsellors can be handling attachment issues, anger and aggression, parental separation, loss, trauma and abuse. Unfortunately we often work with pupils who have had multiple Adverse Childhood Experience’s (ACEs).”

Q. There has been a lot of mention in the media recently about ‘early intervention’ approaches. Is that something The Spark looks to achieve?

“Absolutely. That always has been and continues to be one of our founding principles.

In an ideal world our therapeutic services would be available to pupils as soon as they need support. Not just when an issue has become something more serious. This is why we operate school based counselling from Primary 1 right up to S6 in Scottish schools.

It is of course not always possible to take this approach. But with the creation of the Scottish Government’s Pupil Equity Funding (PEF), more schools have been able to take an early intervention approach.”

Q. You mentioned PEF funding as a way schools have been able to improve mental health. How much of a positive impact has PEF funding had?

“The Spark has worked in schools for many years but the landscape has changed massively in the last 18 months.

In the past, schools didn’t have the budget to address the needs they could see were there. School based counselling was therefore largely reliant on grant funding.  But all that’s changed with PEF.”

school counselling deputy first minister John Swinney
Members of The Spark’s CYP team discuss the impact of school based counselling with Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP.

“We can now engage with Head Teachers and local authorities directly when the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils is considered a priority. With over a decade of experience in this area we have refined our model to one that schools know is effective.

Not all schools need to provide additional support for the emotional and mental wellbeing of their pupils. For those that do, The Spark has a bank of highly experienced, fully-qualified CYP counsellors ready to go into schools.”

Q. How do The Spark’s CYP counsellors integrate into a new school? Does it take long for them to gain the trust of pupils and teachers?

“By working in schools every week, our CYP counsellors become part of the school team. They operate in partnership with teachers and support staff to get a real understanding of the school and its pupils.

Sometimes that’s just one day per week but increasingly there’s a greater need. Many schools have increased their services to 3 or 4 days per week, every week of the academic year.

When it comes to pupils, our aim is to normalise speaking to a counsellor about your emotions and wellbeing. By getting closely involved in pupil assemblies, parents presentations and teachers meetings, we do whatever is needed to show the whole school community that we’re there to support them.”

Q. What outcomes are schools seeing as a result of school based counselling?

“The benefits to schools and individual children and young people vary as much as the difficulties they come with.

At times the changes are small improvements in self-esteem or confidence. In other cases there we will see a significant impact upon attendance/timekeeping and behaviour. Ongoing evaluations and assessments mean we can continuously monitor the progress made by pupils.”

relationship education evaluation
Related article: Evaluation of school based counselling for Clackmannanshire Council

“Feedback from parents is an important aspect of our work. Youth counselling is at its most effective when we are able to work collaboratively with families and teaching staff. In fact we’re told of happier, more communicative children at home by parents regularly.

This positive feedback often spreads to surrounding schools who then decide to work with us. As a charity this is a real positive as it helps us realise our ambition of helping as many children and young people as we can in Scotland.”


In part 2 of our interview we talk about how the The Spark is equipping teachers to improve the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils, and why the organisation only uses fully-qualified, experienced counsellors to deliver school based counselling.

Take a look at our Children and Young People content for more information about school based counselling, education programmes and training/support for teachers.

CAMHS

Data released last month again highlighted the scale of the challenge Scotland faces as it seeks to improve youth mental health.

Waiting times for young people to be assessed by their local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) grabbed the headlines once more.

In some regions over 80% of referrals are seen within the Government’s stated 18 week limit for referrals. However in many it is as low as just 20%.

CAMHS youth mental health

The data also highlighted the number of ‘rejections’ within each NHS board area. These are the children and young people deemed unsuitable for support through the current system.

CAMHS services are not the problem


The current model of treatment was intended to route all forms of mental health issue – low and high tariff cases – to CAMHS. However in reality CAMHS is now restricted – by various factors – to helping the most vulnerable young people.

Even the terminology – rejections – implies CAMHS services are not interested in helping. The truth is they simply cannot.

And this rather than the headline grabbing statistics on waiting times and rejection rates is where solutions to the problem lie.

What needs to change?


As Scotland’s largest provider of school-based counselling services, The Spark is well placed to understand the realities of the current youth mental health system.

CAMHS self-harm unhappy teenager

The present model – which allows personal issues to escalate into full-blown mental health problems before children are seen by a professional – needs to be turned on its head.

50% of all diagnosable mental health issues in children begin before they reach the age of 14. Scotland therefore needs to break new ground by focusing on prevention first and foremost.

Making early-intervention a priority


Taking an early intervention approach – as The Spark does with our school-based counselling and education programmes – offers a more efficient and effective solution. By focusing on preventing minor issues from becoming major problems we can achieve a step-change in how we tackle youth mental health.

Expanding the current model of youth mental health care


The current model of care is based on a restrictive set of options for young people struggling with mental health issues. Through the NHS model – irrespective of severity – a young person attends their GP and if they cannot resolve the issue the final step is a CAMHS referral.

This ignores the highly skilled youth mental health practitioners’ operating out with NHS infrastructure. Directing young people to third sector providers like The Spark could provide a more inclusive approach.

For those who do not meet criteria for CAMHS support, third sector providers could offer an effective alternative. Thus reducing pressure on CAMHS services and cutting waiting times/rejection rates without the need for huge investment.

Utilising the third sector in support of CAMHS


To achieve this there needs to be better understanding of available services for those on the frontline. GPs, parents, carers, CAMHS themselves need to be equipped with better knowledge of the services available.

CAMHS youth mental health new direction

And more importantly they need to be given permission to signpost and recommend services that sit outside the NHS infrastructure.

Time to move on from the NHS-only model


We owe it to current and future generations of young people to get a better system in place. In order to do so we must no longer be slavish to the old ‘NHS-only’ models of provision.

Joining up services from both the public and third sectors can fill the gaps in the current model. CAMHS should still have a vital role to play but alongside additional support services.

Indeed this something specifically referred to in the Scottish Government’s own 2017-2027 mental health strategy.

Using the skills and expertise available Scotland can create a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to youth mental health.


School based counselling, education programmes and support

The Spark is Scotland’s largest supplier of school based counselling and support services.

Our specialist Children and Young People counsellors are embedded within the school community, working in partnership with teachers, support staff and families.

Find out more about our school based counselling for Primary and Secondary schools and our dedicated training for teachers.

If your child has been rejected by CAMHS, we may be able to support them with youth counselling. To find out more make an enquiry online or freephone 0808 802 0050.

conflict and the brain

Colleagues from The Spark attended the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Annual Conference (SCCR) last week entitled ‘Conflict. It’s all about the brain…or is it?’

The conference focused on how the interaction between our body, feelings and mind determines how we behave.

In particular there was a focus on how this relates to the mental health and behaviour of children and young people, issues that are central to the work we do here at The Spark.

Scotland’s Mental Health strategy


The Ministerial Address was given by Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Childcare and Early Years.  The Minister covered a broad range of Scottish Government policies including the 10 Year Mental Health Strategy and Education Attainment Challenge.

conflict Scottish Government Mental Health Strategy

We have talked elsewhere about The Spark’s increasing contribution to the Scottish Government’s agenda. Our school based counselling and support services are available to over 5,000 children this academic year.

This is complemented by educational programmes building emotional resilience in children and tackling issues like cyber-bullying and violence.

The triumvirate of support is completed by our dedicated training for teachers and support staff in schools.

‘We do talk about our feelings – just about a year after we’ve had them’


A particular highlight from the conference was the presentation by James Docherty from Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit.

James offered up one of the most memorable quotes from the day: ‘In Scotland we do talk about our feelings – just about a year after we’ve had them.’

conflict SCCR 2018 conference images

This brought a laugh of recognition from the audience. Unsurprisingly we still have some way to go in Scotland when it comes to feelings and emotions.

The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences


James talked about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which are a key area of focus for those working with the excluded.  Troubled family relationships lead to troubled children at home, school and in the community.

Those children with ACEs of neglect, household adversity and overt abuse have been shown to have a greatly increased likelihood of health harming behaviours in later life.

These significantly impact on the behaviours we exhibit towards others, subsequently undermining family and community cohesion and leading to a wide range of societal problems.

The Spark’s Tackling Violence programme


The Spark operates the ‘Tackling Violence’ programme in schools and evaluations regularly demonstrate the effectiveness of the course. Developing awareness of the damaging impact of violence on personal, family and community relationships is the objective of the programme.

Typically 90% or more of participating young people have a greater awareness and understanding of:

  • the impact violence can have on their community
  • the consequences of being in a gang and
  • the impact their choices have on their future.

This awareness of the impact of feelings on behaviour ties in with the main theme of the SCCR conference.

Conflict and the Emotional Homunculus


Dr Sara Watkin, SCCR Medical Advisor, introduced us to the Emotional Homunculus – the part of the brain that uses feelings and emotions to decide how we will act and react.

This included a whistle stop tour of the brain and an overview of the five primary emotional states we experience. These states along with the associated chemicals released in the body (the ‘Drugs Cabinet of your Mind’) impact upon our behaviour and responses during conflict situations:

  • Anxious and Afraid
  • Fight or Flight
  • Freeze and Shutdown
  • Rest and Digest and
  • Alert and Engaged.

In using the Emotional Homunculus model SCCR is ultimately aiming to help us cope better with conflict situations by understanding how thoughts and feelings impact upon our behaviour.

Tackling conflict through emotional resilience


The Spark has made a commitment to utilise the resources and information created by SCCR.

By sharing with our counsellors working schools we intend to help children and young people improve their understanding of how their emotions and bodies work to influence their well-being.

The Spark – counselling and relationship support for all


Through our work with individuals, couples, families, children and young people we are helping people to get the best out of their relationships.

The Spark provides a range of support services including counselling, free online resources, the free Relationship Helpline, Relationship MOT and school-based counselling.

For more information on the Emotional Homunculus and your #CranialCocktail visit the SCCR website.

youth mental health

Research published this month revealed 66% of staff in Scottish schools feel ill-equipped to help pupils with youth mental health problems. Commissioned by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, the survey highlighted the need to properly train teachers and support workers.

youth mental health

Mental Health training for teachers


Working in partnership with schools and local authorities, here at The Spark we are actively addressing that skills gap.

Through our Scottish Mental Health First Aid for Young People (SMHFA-YP) and Relationship First Aid for Teachers (RFA) courses we are equipping teachers and support staff to spot the early signs of mental distress in children.

The Spark’s training provides staff in schools with a better understanding of youth mental health issues and how to signpost families to suitable, professional support.

Many schools are now investing their Scottish Government Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) in these programmes.

Teacher training is available right now


Rolling out the SMHFA-YP and RFA courses to all schools in Scotland could bridge the current skills gap. Both programmes are proven to deliver improved outcomes for pupils, school staff and families.

youth mental health

Importantly this training is readily available to schools and local authorities right now. Meaning it can be implemented almost immediately – a significant advantage over the time-consuming and costly process of commissioning new training.

First responders


Whilst suitable training for teachers and school support staff is vital, it is not enough to simply train education professionals in mental health first aid.

The role of teachers and school support staff in the drive for better youth mental health must be very specific. Within the context of a comprehensive, nationwide strategy they must be considered as first responders.

youth mental health

Youth mental health support pathways


Training – through programmes like our Relationship First Aid for Teachers – can and should be used to develop a community of first responders within our schools.

From there suitable pathways to refer pupils and their families to professional support need to be in place.

School based counselling


It is optimal for school staff to work alongside and not in place of professional mental health experts. Teachers are best placed to pinpoint changes in behaviour that might highlight underlying issues that could benefit from counselling and specialist support.

The provision of school based counsellors allows pupils to be referred for support within their own environment. With minimal administration pupils can receive help within a matter of days.

Clearly defined pathways allows to focus on teaching and local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to concentrate on the most complex referrals.

A comprehensive approach to youth mental health


The Spark has helped schools and local authorities make a genuine positive impact on the mental health of children and young people. Our commitment to this work will see us support over 5,000 school pupils this academic year. This will be achieved through school based counselling and education programmes.

youth mental health school pupils

Rolling out a comprehensive training programme for teachers and support staff in Scotland’s schools would be a worthwhile objective. To be effective however it must be matched with a similar commitment to placing professional youth counsellors in schools.

By training teachers and support staff as first responders, providing suitable referral pathways and embedding counsellors in schools Scotland can lead the way in improving youth mental health.

School based counselling, education programmes and support


The Spark is Scotland’s largest supplier of school based counselling and support services.

Our specialist Children and Young People counsellors are embedded within the school community, working in partnership with teachers, support staff and families.

Find out more about our school based counselling for Primary and Secondary schools and our dedicated training for teachers.

Alexa Amazon Echo dot

You might have spent time over Christmas and New Year listening to children play with their family’s new ‘Alexa’. The Alexa in question – if you are not into your gadgets – is the name of the personal assistant service (and ‘wake word’) on Amazon’s range of Echo intelligent speakers.

Along with Google’s equivalent ‘Home’, intelligent speakers are set to become a permanent fixture in our homes. With basic voice commands they can complete an ever increasing range of tasks.

Alexa Amazon Echo dot

Alexa? Play ‘Let It Go’…


Watching and listening to young kids play with Alexa recently was fascinating.

At first it started with wide-eyed disbelief at being able to play ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s Frozen by just asking. Excitement reached fever pitch as Alexa told jokes, named all the Disney princesses and offered to book tickets for Paddington 2 at the cinema.

At the time a few of the parents joked that once the kids realised Alexa could order pizza and new IPads they would be in trouble (more on that later).

Pizza ordered by Alexa
Who ordered 30 pizzas?

Gradually the kids started asking more challenging questions of Alexa. Of course, with the system connected to the constantly expanding body of knowledge that is the Internet, there was little it could not answer.

Alexa knew everything. And that concerned me.

Why would I ask mum or dad? I can ask Alexa…


Back in the dark ages before the Internet we would go to our parents or grandparents for answers.

They would impart their own knowledge or find a book in the library that could do the same. Though neither understood it at the time, this represented an important bonding experience between child and parent.

The importance of parent child bonding


Here at The Spark we talk a lot about the importance of parent and child bonding from birth.

Babies brains make connections at 1 million times per second as they learn in the first 1000 days after birth. The cuddles, face to face interaction and kisses we share with them encourage that brain development.

The importance of the invisible bond between parent and child does not however end when they, for example, can ask Alexa to read them a bedtime story.

Throughout the journey from childhood to adulthood, maintaining that bond is vital in shaping confident, resilient and happy adults.

Child reading a book not asking Alexa the answer

Parents with older children will attest to the huge challenge in keeping any opportunities to bond intact.

Education is one of the few constants in this regard and as far as The Spark is concerned, we believe these opportunities need to be protected and encouraged.

The downsides of Alexa and the Internet


There are already concerns that children are learning about relationships, sex, self-worth and self-image via the Internet and often in potentially harmful ways.

Child development specialists have, in particular, reservations about the nature of the artificial intelligence that smart speakers use to ‘learn’.

Questions posed to Alexa and Home need to be formed using limited vocabulary and required only limited language skills. Their concerns are what this could do to the development of communication skills among younger children.

Furthermore none of the relationship nuances and social skills required in human to human contact are needed when using intelligent services.

In short, the child demands and the system provides with no questions or limitations.

Is Alexa safe for children?


For parents thinking about introducing artificial intelligence systems like Alexa to their home, The Spark has prepared some advice on how to manage the process:

1 Set some ground rules

When introducing new technology to the home set rules on how kids are and are not allowed to use it. For example, explaining the difference between asking Alexa for something and how they would ask another adult or child for something.

2 Get them reading books

Try to avoid allowing kids to solely learn via the Internet. Get back to reading encyclopaedias and atlases, and taking the occasional trip to your local library.

3 Use your own knowledge

Explain and educate them with the knowledge you have. Enjoy the opportunity to spend time and bond with them.

4 Learn together on the Internet

Where the Internet is the best or only option for learning, sit with them and be available to answer other questions. Discuss what they have learned and what else they might want to find out about.

5 Limit time

Limit use of intelligent systems by younger children, particularly when they are developing their language and communication skills.

6 Use parental controls

Update parental controls on your web browsers and intelligent speakers. Unless you have controls in place – for example, turning off voice purchases in Alexa – your kids could be ordering toys galore and enough pizza to feed the whole street.

If you have music and/or video streaming services check there are restrictions on explicit lyrics/adult content. You don’t want your 5 year-old singing the original version of Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’.

Artificial intelligence and therefore artificial relationships are going to become part and parcel of our lives. It is important that children use such technology safely and don’t lose opportunities to bond with their parents.

After all we don’t want to get to a point when our kids ask: “Alexa? Why do I need parents?”

Specialist support for parents, children and families


The relationships we have as parents and families are the most important in life. Even without new technology they can at times be very challenging.

The Spark’s specialist counsellors can provide support to parents and children in managing the ups and downs of life.  Find out more about counselling and support services with The Spark or have a look at our free online resources for parents and families.

Christmas family fun

Christmas spending does not stop at presents and turkey. We now have plenty of ways to spend cash on Christmas family fun. But as tip 18 for a stress free Christmas shows, Christmas family fun does not have to cost a lot.

Throughout December we will be offering up advice on how to enjoy a stress free Christmas!

You can catch up on all 21 tips for your stress free Christmas on our website.


Christmas family fun doesn’t have to cost a lot of money

The retail industry around Christmas is no longer limited to convincing us we can buy our way to happiness with perfect (expensive) gifts. It now extends to perfect décor for your home, the perfect Christmas dinner and the perfect Christmas family fun days.

Cue lots of adverts about ice skating, trips to Santa’s Grotto, festive films at the cinema, panto and more; and of course the pursuit of perfect Christmas fun for all the family invariably comes with a price tag.

Spending quality time with your kids at Christmas, however, does not have to cost a lot.

christmas family fun

A welcome side-effect of the digital age is that old fashioned board games have become a real novelty for children.

The fact that classic games like Operation, Monopoly, Kerplunk and Snakes & Ladders are not played on a tablet makes them desirable in the eyes of the IPad generation.

Kids may spend most of their time watching, swiping and drawing on their own tablets these days. There is however still a huge attraction in the novelty of getting the old arts and crafts box out.

Spend an afternoon helping them decorate their own Christmas baubles. Let them design and colour in their own ‘wrapping paper’ that you can use to wrap gifts for grandparents.

christmas family fun

Why not get them baking some festive treats?

It might come as a surprise but our digitally savvy kids really enjoy simple activities that offer actual and not virtual interaction with their parents and the world around them.


Catch up on all of our 21 tips here or follow on Twitter and Facebook

youth mental health

Scotland, like the rest of the UK, faces a crisis in youth mental health.

Studies and reports detailing the mental health issues faced by children and adolescents are regularly making the news headlines. The existing NHS-provided child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are under severe pressure which has led to extensive waiting times.

A consultation on youth mental health services in Scotland


The recent announcement of a consultation on youth mental health services by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) represents a cause for optimism.

Young people and their families/carers will be consulted on what does and does not work. With the intention to use this feedback to restructure the current system.

Radical overhaul is needed


This project represents an important step forward.  For too long the status quo in youth mental health has been deemed fit for purpose.

Similarly the views of the young people using those services have been underrepresented.

With some 17,500 young people referred to CAMHS in the past three years not receiving any support, it is clear a radical overhaul is needed.

What about the young people still waiting for support?


Undoubtedly the insight from the consultation will be invaluable in reshaping youth mental health provision in Scotland. However important and valuable those conclusions may be, they will be small comfort to the thousands of young people currently struggling unsupported with mental health problems.

Particularly when we consider that a number of potential sources of additional support exist right now to tackle these challenges.

Too many young people, not enough appointments


Demand for CAMHS services outstrips the available resources in most of Scotland’s NHS board areas. This leaves many young people to wait anywhere between 18 and 50 weeks for an appointment with a specialist.

The tragedy of this scenario is that third sector organisations like The Spark could support NHS services.

Providing more youth mental health services to meet demand


With professional Children and Young People Counsellors employed by third sector organisations, issues like anxiety and depression could be supported out with CAMHS.

By providing much needed additional resources waiting times could be reduced. Over-stretched CAMHS services could then be focused on those young people with the most complex and challenging issues.

An out of date attitude to youth mental health


Young people are referred to CAMHS for assessment and diagnosis of a mental health problem. Support is, therefore, focused on treating young people once a problem is established. This approach is outdated.

Half of all diagnosable mental health problems in children start before the age of 14.

Furthermore 10% of children aged between 5 and 16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.

Adopting an early intervention approach


An early intervention approach offers a more effective solution by working to prevent minor issues escalating. Third sector organisations like The Spark are leading proponents of early intervention approaches for youth mental health.

Child crying youth mental health

Firstly through school based counselling we are supporting children to deal with life challenges that can escalate in to more serious issues. Secondly we are able to foster life skills like resilience and emotional regulation amongst children in order to deal with the challenges of growing up.

Indeed evaluation of The Spark’s school-based counselling has demonstrated the significant impact early intervention can make on the mental health of young people.

Furthermore the Scottish Government’s Mental Health Strategy (2017-2027) sets out a commitment to review counselling services in schools.

Equipping teachers to tackle youth mental health challenges


Pressure on CAMHS services has resulted in additional responsibilities falling to school teachers. Yet Scottish teachers feel underequipped to provide an initial source of mental health support to young people.

Where school-based counselling provision is not possible, The Spark provides dedicated training courses for teaching staff.

Dedicated training for teachers


Our Relationship First Aid for Teachers and Scottish Mental Health First Aid courses can equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to provide first responder support.

A long-term step in the right direction


The commitment to consult with young people in shaping future policy on mental health services is to be applauded.

Here at The Spark we stand ready to support both the Scottish Government and SAMH however we can.

In the interim however we must use the resources at our disposal to help those young people currently suffering mental health problems.

One of the common problems presented by school pupils to our counsellors is the tricky issue of social media.

Children and young people are the section of our society that first embraced social media platforms.

The highs and lows of social media

They have been the first to experience the highs and lows of social media.

Sadly they are also, in many respects, the least well-equipped to deal with the emotional and mental challenges presented by various social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat.

We recently caught up with Lucy Gordon, one of our senior Children and Young People counsellors to pick her brain on social media.

Lucy Gordon talks social media platforms

The advent of social media has made us more connected than ever but at what cost to young people?

Lucy: “Social media has become an amazing way for people of all ages to broaden their horizons.

It can open up new possibilities, create new relationships and provide a forum for self-expression. These are all positives that are valuable to children and young people as they grow and develop.

There are however some downsides. In particular from the way children and young people are now bombarded by perfect selfies, images of friends laughing and joking together.

They are constantly scrutinising other people’s lives and lifestyles and making comparisons to their own.

The reality is that a lot of these images are not a true reflection of people’s lives. It is hard for anyone not to be deceived by these photos.

For young people it is especially so and that is one of the ways social media platforms can be bad for their mental and emotional health.”

What is your experience of the negative effects on children and young people of using social media platforms?

Lucy: “What is presented through social media is curated by each individual. Images on Instagram or Snapchat are often taken multiple times. Just to try and get the right angle, the right lighting.

Young people – as many adults do – crop, tweak, add filters and manipulate the images to present an impression of how they want to be perceived. The difficulty comes when young people consume those images of friends and celebrities.

Separating the reality from the artificial reality created on social media is tough.

Too often young people believe the doctored reality and look very unfavourably upon themselves as a result.

Typically this is in terms of their appearance, popularity or perceived success or failure in life.”

Is the challenge of social media just related to the carefully managed images young people consume?

Lucy: “It is a big part of it but not the only one. Social media has become a source of validation for young people. Naturally we all seek the approval of friends and peers and social media has become an extension of that.

We post images and wait in anticipation to see how many ‘likes’ we get to validate our being. When they do not come it can create all sorts of additional anxieties, fears and concerns for young people.”

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So are we giving social media platforms a big thumbs down?

Lucy: “Absolutely not! Like I mentioned before, social media has the potential to do great, positive things for children and young people.

As a society we need to educate and support children and young people so they fully understand the risks and potential implications of how they behave online and on social media platforms.

The doctored reality often presented on social media has the potential to exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety. This can feed into a cycle of unrealistic social, physical and lifestyle expectations.

It can create a real negative impact upon their sense of self-worth, confidence and wellbeing.

That’s the risk we need to guard against through education and support, like our work providing counselling and education programmes in Scottish schools.”

Are the challenges of social media specific to certain platforms?

Lucy: “A recent survey of almost 1,500 14-24 year olds looked at the impact of the four most popular social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

The research for the Royal Society for Public Health found that all four contribute negatively to young people’s sense of self, body image, levels of anxiety, sleep and fear of missing out.

Each platform does have its own challenges but across the board these main issues are present on all of the main platforms commonly used by children and young people.”

How can the work of The Spark in schools help with the challenges of social media?

Lucy: “Our education programmes can help to teach children and young people about the risks and potential implications of using social media, and online media in general.

It’s important to help them fully understand the risks but also make them confident enough to make sense of social media.

Where our counsellors are based in schools they provide a safe and supportive environment for children and young people.

If they feel overwhelmed or anxious about social media, they can find support there.”