happy teenagers talking together

Recently The Spark was delighted to attend NHS Health Scotland’s conference on improving the mental wellbeing of children and young people. The event covered a wide range of key topics on the subject of youth mental health.

Led by Shirley Windsor, the head of Public Mental Health at NHS Scotland, it was one in a series aimed at contributing to the Scottish Government’s ambitious 10-year Mental Health Strategy. Senior Health Improvement Officer Carly Grant provided an overview of the strategy.

Making better use of cross-sector mental health support services


Though still in development, a number of important themes emerged. In particular, the importance of involving young people in the design and delivery of mental health services for their own age group.

partnership working in action

An integral part of those discussions  can better work together. Representatives from each discussed how barriers between delivery organisations can be overcome at a community level. A critical issue as we seek to make better use of the wide range of support services in those sectors.

The value of ‘trusted adults’ in the lives of children and young people


Dr Ross Whitehead presented early findings from his review of the value of the presence of ‘trusted adults’ in the lives of adolescents. Indications are that such relationships can be very positive, particularly where the quality of the relationship is high.

Ross pointed to the UK Home Office’s ‘Trusted Relationships Fund’ which is exploring the protective effect of trusted relationships on vulnerable young people.

Josh Shipp has an interesting take on the power of one caring adult in an adult/young person relationship. Josh himself is an illustration of the early findings of Dr Whitehead’s research.

A life turned around by a ‘trusted adult’


Josh was abandoned by his parents and spent his early life in and out of different care settings. In trouble with the police, there was one particular foster parent who became the caring adult that made a difference to Josh’s life.

The turning point came when the foster parent said: “We don’t see you as the problem, we see you as an opportunity.” Prompted by this intervention to turn his life around, Josh now spends his time encouraging adults to be a positive influence on the teens in their lives.

Playing a leading role in working for children and young people


At The Spark we will continue to play a leading role in the development and delivery of mental health provision for children and young people. Both at a strategic level as contributors to policy and at a practical level as a provider of counselling for children and young people.

As the biggest supplier of school-based counselling nationally we look forward to making a continuing contribution to this vital agenda.

Counselling and support services for children & young people


The Spark is the largest provider of professional, school-based counselling services in Scotland. In addition, we provide mental health training for teachers, school support staff and further education institutions.

We also play a key role in offering counselling to students and young people.

Find out more information about The Spark and our counselling services for schools, individuals and couples.

Contact us via our enquiry form or freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could help you.

Starting secondary school - back to school image

Starting secondary school can be daunting for children and their parents. To help smooth the transition our team of Children and Young People Counsellors have put together their top tips on helping your child prepare for starting secondary school.

Ask: how are you feeling about starting secondary school?


Every child is different when it comes to starting secondary school. Some will be champing at the bit, others will be anxious about the transition. This is why it is important to ask them – gently and non-judgementally – how they are feeling.

Where there are anxieties comfort them that such feelings are completely natural. Work with them to come up with coping techniques to deal with their specific concerns.

Starting secondary school - image of child with backpack

Remind them that they are not alone in feeling anxious about starting secondary school. Reassure them that many of their peers will be feeling exactly the same way.

Sharing your own experiences can be helpful, especially if you can demonstrate how you overcame your secondary school anxieties. Alternatively, enlist the help of an older cousin or family friend that has successfully managed the transition to high school.

Ask yourself: are these my fears or their fears?


Having a child is a bit like a long journey towards redundancy. In those early years, you are indispensable but as time progresses your child grows in their independence and detachment from you. This is, of course, a wonderful journey but starting secondary school can be a difficult milestone for some parents.

Starting secondary school - anxiety

Take time to consider how your emotions might be influencing their preparations. Often disagreements about clothing and how they travel to school are really a parental reaction to realising their child is accelerating towards adulthood.

Be sure that you are focused on the real concerns and fears of your child.

Buddy up


Many kids will start secondary school with a group of friends from primary school. The close bonds of friendship will help reduce anxieties about getting to and from school or the fear of not knowing anyone.

If your child is going to a different secondary school from their friends, find out which children nearby are starting in their school. Most secondary schools have social media pages where parents can communicate or do it the old-fashioned way and speak to your neighbours.

Having someone else to walk into secondary school with on day 1 can make a huge difference.

Don’t organise them, help them organise


Starting secondary school brings with it changes in how your child will need to approach their education. They will have to become more responsible as they attend their timetable of classes, manage homework and (hopefully) remember to bring the correct books.

Starting secondary school - image of school back and school pencils

It can be tempting to do this for them. However, the transition to secondary school is about increasing their independence and self-reliance. Therefore help them to get organised by planning a night before routine or make up a checklist of what they need each day based on their timetable.

Then step back and let them back their bag and prepare their kit for the school day.

Practice their route before starting secondary school


Starting secondary school often means travelling further from home. Now public transport or walking with friends to school will be their preference or a necessity.

Help calm any new term jitters by travelling the route with them in advance. Show them the route via car or take the public transport they will need to use to get to school.

After they are familiar with the route, encourage them to take responsibility for having the right money or travel card for a final couple of practice runs.

Expect a messy first few weeks


For even the most confident child, starting secondary school is a lot to handle. Managing a timetable of classes, completing more and varied homework, getting to know new people are just a few examples of the challenges they face.

Thus it is important to cut them some slack in the early days and weeks. Be prepared for tired, hungry and potentially grumpy children coming home each day. Expect some “I forgot my gym kit” incidents too.

starting secondary school - image of messy child's bedroom

At home help smooth their transition by giving them some leeway on the usual household chores. Try as best you can to be patient if you get a lot of moody-teenager replies.

Parents also need to stay calm during this time. A seemingly unhappy child might be cause for concern. However be mindful of the fact it will take time for them to adjust to this new way of life.

Talk to them at the weekend about how they are settling in. Ask if they want to talk about anything or need a bit of help. Ultimately, be there for them.

Encourage them to join groups/clubs at secondary school


We all know how tricky it can be to make new friends. Striking up a conversation is challenging enough without the added pressure of trying to ‘fit in’.

Starting a conversation with a like-minded individual, however, can be much less challenging, and more successful.

For that reason suggest your child looks into any school clubs or groups that fit their own interests. It can be a great way to meet new people and is especially helpful if your child is not graduating to secondary school with a group of friends.


For more advice on parenting and managing the tricky teenage years, The Spark website is packed with a wide range of free resources.

If you or your child is struggling at the prospect of starting secondary school, counselling can be a helpful way of pinpointing the issues and learning how to deal with them.

Talk – in confidence – to one of our team about counselling on freephone 0808 802 0050 or complete an online enquiry.

Follow The Spark on Twitter or Facebook for tips, resources and advice.

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 to be happy

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