Meeting Hope…exploring the Persona Doll approach

Our little gold Renault enters the driveway as the four of us girls await in excited anticipation for the meeting of our “new friend.” Peering through the passenger window, the 3 girls get a glimpse of the 70cm little blonde-haired, blue-eyed friend, safely secured behind the seat belt. “Look, our new friend!” I sign, “We have been so excited to meet you, welcome!” Eden starts giggling hysterically, whilst the twins look questioningly to Graeme and I – this wasn’t exactly what they were expecting.

Hope, our new little friend, is a Persona Doll. “A what?” Was my first response when I had first heard about this intriguing approach to challenging concepts of prejudice, diversity and inclusion with young children. The Persona Doll approach has been used in many countries and has been practiced in South Africa for over 10 years. It’s a creative and stimulating way to engage with children about a variety of topics whilst fostering language development in a non-confrontational way. The Doll takes on a persona and becomes a real little person in the eyes of the children. Emphasis is placed on appreciating the individuality of children and addressing topics that really, can be as simple as practicing the use of language and vocab around simple everyday things, to discussing more serious matters such as bullying, feelings and issues around safety. The sky really is the limit for the use of Persona Dolls.

Excited at the myriad of possibilities for the use of such a concept in educating deaf children and addressing topics around emotional literacy and theory of mind, I wanted to find out more. I contacted the national head office for Persona Doll training to see how I could access more information. Amazingly, there was a course scheduled for trainers who would subsequently teach other providers on the use of the dolls, and in the process, I’d learn how to actually use the Persona Doll myself. I jumped at the opportunity! Last week I attended the intensive week-long training and it far exceeded my expectations! As the only non – professional attending the course, initially I wondered how I would be received. Yes, I’m a doctor, but last week, I was first and for mostly, a mom of three little deaf girls, with a desire to access whatever tools possible, to grow our ability to communicate with each other in a way that is fun and engaging. The facilitation of the packed programme was excellent, and I felt welcomed and included.

I was so excited to learn how to actually use the dolls to create a very real and believable little person who would be able to “visit” our family every week or so initially, to address the topics that arise that need a little extra help. Watching the facilitators demonstrate the technique using their own Persona Dolls was intriguing. It didn’t take long before the soft-bodied, neutral-emotion face became a little person with likes and dislikes, feelings and emotions…within a few minutes, these little dolls had believable “personas” and the use for them with children was quite evidently limitless! The first thing that I noticed was that the technique included the doll “whispering” into the adult’s ear his/her thoughts, feelings and questions which were in turn relayed to the audience. This made the doll very believable. I’d already identified that my first doll would need to be “deaf” in order for my girls to best relate to it. If she can’t hear, how was this going to work? And if her little hands are lifeless (and fingers even fused) how would her communication with me (which would need to be in sign) become believable. Well, I’d just need to adapt the technique, I thought, and make changes as time goes on. Reminding myself, that nothing in our lives will probably ever perfectly “fit the mould”, I sat back in my chair with renewed excitement at the challenge that lay ahead. I couldn’t wait to meet my doll!

On day three of the training we received our little dolls. I had pre-ordered mine, as I wanted a doll that looked like my girls, so that they could best relate to her. It felt like an adoption ceremony. I so looked forward to creating her unique “persona” which I had been musing over for a few weeks already. Her name was a no-brainer – my favourite word, “Hope”. It was fun coming up with her story which sets the scene, and I’ll need to keep a little book to record all the details about her as her persona develops with the life events that happen to her. Keeping her story consistent will keep her believable. So our dear little, Hope, is a 5 year old little girl. She has a 2 year old brother and lives with her mom and dad. Hope is deaf and, Sam, her brother, is hearing. Hope uses hearing aids and attends a school for the deaf. Her favourite food is fish and chips. She loves animals and wants to be a vet when she grows up. We’ll celebrate birthdays with her and talk about issues like, why her brother sometimes irritates her and how she can best deal with her frustrations. I’ll be able to get Hope to share about what makes her feel scared and how she deals with these feelings, what she likes about school and how she feels about audiology visits. Hope will share her feelings about pets dying and kids teasing her about her hearing aids. She’ll also engage with more sensitive but vital issues like “good touch, bad touch.” I’m also thinking of taking her to mainstream environments to teach hearing kiddies who have no contact with the deaf world, that deaf kiddies are normal, just like them. Hope has a little friend called, Jude. Another doll that I bought whose persona I’m still working on. Jude is hearing and has a deaf sibling. I’d love to use Jude to engage with hearing children who have deaf siblings, to give them a safe place to express their own feelings that they experience on their unique leg of their family’s journey.

After some initial hesitation, my three girls were totally taken by this new little friend. They introduced themselves to her and eagerly showed her their hearing aids. At one point I told them that she is deaf, but that her hearing aids hadn’t arrived yet. (I’ve ordered a pair of dummy aids for her which I’ll attach behind her ears.) I then asked the girls if they were hearing or deaf. Each one of them, confidently (and quite proudly) told little Hope that they were deaf. I loved how they were so comfortable with this part of themselves. Tahlita pointed out Hope’s fused little fingers, and asked how her painted mouth would be able to eat. We acknowledged that they looked a little funny, but that she’d try her best. It didn’t seem to make the doll any less “real” to the girls. As far as the technique of communicating with the doll went, I turned Hope to face me directly every time I addressed her and signed slowly to her. I then repeated her answers to me in sign, so that the girls could see her responses. After about 20min, Hope said her goodbyes as her mom was expecting her for dinner. Everyone gave her “high-5s” and Tahlita had a little cry as she didn’t want her to leave. I explained that she’d visit us again next week, and hopefully her hearing aids would be ready so that she could show us. Off she went, strapped in again securely behind the seat belt. Graeme drove off around the block and then quickly took her out and hid her in the car, so that when he returned, the fact that she was no longer there, was believable. We had a bit of a giggle wondering what passers-by must think seeing this grown man belting in a girl doll on the passenger seat. All for the love of our girls! I’ve already thought about one topic that I’d like to address with the girls when Hope visits next week. That’s the issue of wearing her seat belt in the car. They’ve seen her have her seat belt on, so I’m hoping that she’ll influence them positively, as over the past few weeks I have encountered some resistance from the twins on this issue.

During the very last session of last week’s training course, we had to give ourselves a compliment…a “stroke” as they called it. Mine, was that I am quite proud of the fact that I have produced three extraordinary little girls. Children who have challenged every part of me to grow and push boundaries and try new things. Persona Dolls, for me, is really about trying new things. I think that the impact of this approach can be exponential, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with teachers and fellow parents.

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