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Talk a frown into a beaming smile

Edinburgh schools are helping primary pupils to offload their troubles with a trained counsellor in school, writes Miranda Fettes

The small white postbox in Forthview Primary, Edinburgh, is not for wish lists to Father Christmas. The sign reads "The Place2Talk" and a notice instructs children on what to do if they have a personal problem they want to discuss.

They write their name, class and, if they can, what their worry is, be it something minor, about class work, or major, such as bullying, bereavement, parental break-up or violence, and post the note. Then a counsellor or therapist from The Place2Be, a nationwide children's charity, will contact them about an appointment.

Forthview is one of 10 primaries in Edinburgh that have adopted the service, which was piloted in Balgreen and Murrayburn primaries three years ago. Today, it is being rolled out to another eight, with the aim being eventually to extend it across Scotland.

The service, which costs each school pound;5,000 a year, is confidential and open to children from P1 through to P7. It combines play and art therapy with conversation. Therapy sessions are held in each school in a dedicated room, where children are encouraged to express their feelings in whatever way they feel comfortable. At Forthview Primary, the room is bright, with coloured paper on the walls, art materials, colourful puppets, a big polar bear, a doll's house and a sand tray. Three counsellors work part-time on a voluntary basis, under the supervision of Llinos Couch, a Place2Be school project manager.

Forthview Primary launched the service in June for P7 pupils as some were anxious about the transition to secondary school, and then introduced it for all pupils in September.

Headteacher Sheila Laing has already observed significant changes in some of the children and is full of praise for the service.

"Place2Be offers one-to-one counselling and therapy," she explains. "We have 11 children being counselled and they have a 45-minute weekly session with their counsellor or therapist for as long as they need. We had to choose which children were most in need of the service.

"We have noticed a huge difference in two or three of the boys in particular," she smiles. "They have been much more calm and contented.

These are boys who were quite agitated last year. They seem much happier and it has an impact in the classroom.

"Working on the things that trouble them really has quite a remarkable effect.

"If these issues weren't addressed early in their life, they would be going through life with these problems without them being resolved. It gives them much more hope for the future of finding wellbeing and happiness."

Children's concerns range from falling out with a friend, worries about appearance, struggling with homework, low self-esteem or feelings of isolation to more serious issues such as a troubled family environment, bullying, parental separation, serious illness, bereavement, domestic and sexual abuse and community issues such as personal safety, violence and drug abuse.

"You get a whole range of problems," says Ms Laing. "Sometimes you get kids going along just because they want to talk to an adult. It's not just if you've got something difficult to talk about; if you've got something happy you want to talk about, that's fine too. They can take a pal if they want or a group of friends can go."

Ms Couch, a qualified art therapist, runs the service on Mondays, Tuesdays and alternate Fridays. She sees several children a day. "It's a safe place where they can express how they feel either verbally or creatively," she explains.

"There have been really dramatic changes. Children who have been very withdrawn or disruptive have been putting up their hand and contributing in class and becoming more sociable.

"They all respond really well."

When a child arrives for a Place2Talk appointment, Ms Couch shows them four brightly coloured faces, each with a different expression ranging from a big smile to an emphasised frown. The child chooses the one that reflects the way they feel. So even if a child finds it hard to articulate their feelings, she immediately has some idea of their mood.

Genevieve Smyth, the Place2Be manager for Edinburgh, says: "The response has been overwhelming on a number of levels.

"We don't want to nurture stigma; we don't want to nurture isolation and difference. We want to nurture inclusion at the earliest opportunity, so the child isn't seen as different but is seen as free thinking. We want to destigmatise mental health issues, but at the same time we want to be discreet.

"The ultimate goal is to have it in as many schools as possible."

Already the project, which was set up in England after a seven-year-old went to his headteacher and expressed suicidal feelings, is in place at 92 schools in the UK, reaching 34,000 children. The Place2Be aims to work with 150 schools by 2006 and deliver their accredited training programmes to a further 100, reaching 100,000 children annually.

Ms Smyth says: "If we can nurture a culture of emotional literacy and a culture where it's cool to talk about how we feel, we are going to, hopefully, have fewer problems later on."

As one child put it: "They can turn a frown upside down."

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