SPARCS Intervention Helps Youth Cope in the Here and Now

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A smiling teen girl.

DJ’s mom gave him a marijuana pipe when he was five. Through a difficult, drug-filled childhood, the pipe was one of DJ’s only friends. Finally throwing it away, accompanied by his counselor, represented a huge therapeutic release. He’d found healthy ways to relate to people and the world. He didn’t need the pipe anymore.

Today, DJ (not his real name) has a business cleaning air conditioning ducts. His breakthrough happened during a session of Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress, or SPARCS. The evidence-based therapy aims to help youth cope moment-to-moment, cultivate consciousness, create connections and meaning, and ultimately connect with others more effectively. SPARCS therapists call these steps “the four Cs.”

Some effective trauma treatments focus on enabling youth to deal with specific “triggers” or issues. SPARCS takes a broader approach, teaching youth to solve problems and make connections regardless of their circumstances. The intervention may be particularly useful for youth who haven’t yet left the streets and may be made too vulnerable by “reliving” traumatic experiences. These young people may also still need the street skills and heightened survival senses they’ve developed, such as being extremely vigilant to the possibility of danger.

“[We are] looking at young people’s behaviors as adaptations to very difficult life circumstances, looking at them through a ‘trauma lens,’” says Mandy Habib, co-creator of SPARCS. “A lot of activities are presented in a way where youth don’t have to discuss traumatic events if they don’t want to. There is a focus on how past experiences are impacting them in the present without having to go into detail about what happened the night your friend was killed, for example. This allows emotional safety.”

Flexible Structure

Provided in 16 group-therapy sessions or as a five-session adaptation for homeless youth, SPARCS has built-in flexibility.

“There are a number of concepts you have to teach in order to be true to the model, but they don’t have to be in order,” says Nik Stefanidis, DJ’s counselor at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where staff have used SPARCS for about a decade. “That’s what attracted us to the model versus others of the many we looked at.”

In one session, says Stefanidis, who directs the hospital’s counseling program for high-risk youth, a young person was very upset because he had just been asked to leave the emergency shelter where he’d been staying. Before coming to the session, the young man had threatened to attack the shelter worker who was supposed to escort him on the bus.

Stefanidis and his co-facilitator skipped ahead to a chapter that helps youth figure out what’s making them “lose it,” why they feel that way, and what they can do next.

Going out of order that day was the right choice for the young man, Stefanidis says. “He recognized his feelings and calmed down.”

Training: Extensive But Thorough

Agencies that train staff to use SPARCS commit to an intensive year-long relationship with the trainers, with a cohort of SPARCS practitioners-in-training from different agencies, called a “learning collaborative.” At least two participants – one supervisor and one to two counselors, either from the same agency or other agencies also pursuing SPARCS training – take part in the training, which happens in three phases:

  1. Planning: SPARCS’ developers assess the agency’s readiness to administer the intervention.
  2. Two face-to-face learning sessions: These two-day sessions may require travel to New York City where the training agency is located. Sometimes regional training can be arranged through agencies able to host their own learning collaboratives. Partial learning collaboratives, where certified trainers provide brief training on a specific skill or SPARCS technique, may also be available locally. For example, Stefanidis is a certified SPARCS trainer and has trained staff at five agencies in California.
  3. Consultation calls: Trainees from various agencies speak once every two weeks for eight months and receive ongoing e-mail support.

While the training is time-consuming, Habib feels it prepares counselors to adjust to youths’ day-to-day needs and teach the core SPARCS skills in relevant, engaging ways. As with any evidence-based practice, program managers should consider whether they have the resources to put SPARCS in place.

To learn more about SPARCS, contact the developers.

This article is meant to be descriptive and does not constitute an endorsement of SPARCS by NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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