the bears – unlocking children’s voices

Posted: 22/05/2024

understanding the importance of children’s voices

When Judy Hall describes The Bears as, ‘an opening of the floodgates’, it comes from a place of deep understanding of how important it is for children’s voices to be fully heard.

judy hall’s background in child care

Judy’s instinct for caring and listening to children stretches back to her initial training as a kindergarten teacher and her role as manager of an after-school program on an inner suburban housing estate back in the 1980s.

‘It was during this time that I became involved in out of home care,’ she says. ‘The communal household I lived in hosted many children, providing respite care for families.’

Over the years, Judy has delivered modules in Child Care studies at TAFE, provided family day care, and was a foster carer. She even organised and supported a troupe of young circus performers, so her credentials when it comes to juggling the needs of young people are well founded.

It was during her time as a foster carer that Innovative Resources card sets became part of her ‘toolkit’—in particular, The Bears.

‘My experience with very hurt children in my care was that The Bears were easy to use and gave very young children a wide vocabulary to express their feelings,’ Judy says. ‘The Bears allowed children to communicate they were existentially alone, even when they appeared cheerfully social.

‘They could quickly tell me how safe they felt in a variety of contexts.’

using the bears to hear children’s stories

In 2017, with The Bears still tucked away in her toolkit, Judy headed to South Africa to volunteer at Fikelela Child and Youth Care Centre, a temporary safe care facility in the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town.

Her experience in working with children who’d experienced trauma and loss, combined with her training in therapeutic play, was put to good use.

One of her roles was to help prepare reports for the courts, to assist the Magistrate in making decisions regarding some of the children’s futures.

‘I worked with one young boy who had been removed from a home that was the centre of some gang violence,’ Judy recalls. ‘The authorities were considering transferring him to a specialist adolescent institution, but Fikelela felt strongly that his best interests would be served by remaining with them.

‘I spent time with him over a number of days, using The Bears to help him tell his story, and express his hopes. I wrote these accounts up as dispassionate observations and submitted them to the social worker. She used them in her submissions to the court, and thankfully the boy was able to remain.’

Judy introduced The Bears to many children during her six-week stay at Fikelela. She describes their reactions as a ‘kind of quiet desperation’ and she thought deeply about how to make sure their voices were being heard.

‘I would very simply explain that the bear pictures represent how we feel, and ask, “Which one is you when..?”

 the bears transcend language

‘Often a child’s first language was Afrikaans or Xosa, so I needed to keep the language clear and simple,’ Judy says. ‘The Bears enabled them to respond in a nuanced way to questions such as, “Which is you at school?” or “Which is you when you think about Mummy?”

As the children became more familiar with The Bears, Judy was able to take the conversations deeper and broader.

‘It never ceased to amaze me how focused the children were, and how decisive their choices,’ she recalls. ‘I struggle to describe the relief and delight—a kind of urgency the children expressed—as unsayable things tumbled out, and we listened with compassion.’

by John Holton

2 responses to “the bears – unlocking children’s voices”

  1. Jo Adams says:

    I love this! We are focussing on trauma informed practise in NZ, and I usually only use a select few of the cards to say ” how do you feel about…” but to ask, “which one is you?” and letting the children choose, is a much better way of letting them tell me how they feel, and maybe not restricting their choices. Thank you for the insight.

    • Sue says:

      Hi Jo, I’m so glad you found Judy’s experiences and insights valuable. We always learn so much from people sharing their stories with us. It sounds like you are doing incredibly valuable work with children too (and it’s great for us to hear how you are using the cards!). Thanks so much for checking in!

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