Ever wondered what embedding the Phoenix Cups Framework into your service philosophy might achieve?
Written by Mim Brown, Phoenix Support for Educators
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In the steep forests north of Melbourne, on Taungurung Country, Kinglake Ranges Children’s Centre is a learning community with an astonishing story of transformation to share. A wholesale review of the service philosophy, programming and pedagogy has seen the team go from Meeting the National Quality Standards for Early Childhood Education and Care, to Exceeding in all areas, and well on the way to Excellence.
Now there’s also data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to confirm the interventions are working to improve children’s developmental outcomes. In just seven years KRCC has gone from a service barely surviving to one that is today thriving. So how did they do it?
Like any journey of transformation, the solution was unique to the setting, its people and community. And yet, there are common threads in their story which the service Director, Sue Bullock, and Educational Leader/ECT, Linda Price, are convinced are relevant to all educational services, regardless of their context.
‘There’s a bit of a metaphor to be made between our story and the early childhood sector generally right now,’ says Linda, who brings strengths from her previous career in marketing to her role. ‘It’s fair to say the sector is experiencing chaos out there right now. And we’ve been there in that chaos ourselves. But I’m very hopeful for where we are heading. And we’re here to prove that from the greatest lows comes the biggest highs.’
Rewind to 2015 and Linda recalls the service was locked in a mindset of adult-directed control. Access to the outdoor space was restricted, routines were adult-focused and timetabled, and there were limited opportunities for creative play and inquiry. A parent survey from this time identified Quality Area 5: Relationships with Children, as the top concern and rightly so - accident reports from children hurting each other, were a daily occurrence and the relational climate was low.
The situation at KRCC was also captured in statistical data from the Australian Early Development Census, or AEDC, a national assessment of children in their first year of school conducted by the ABS every three years which seeks to track children’s development across five domains. KRCC is the sole kindergarten provider in their AEDC zone, so the data captured presents a very clear snapshot of how their children are tracking developmentally. The 2015 AEDC indicated almost one in four of the children leaving the service for their first year of school were classed by their school teacher as ‘developmentally vulnerable in one or more domain’ (several percentage points more than the state and national averages) (See table 1). In 2016, Sue re-entered KRCC as Director. The service was assessed and rated in November 2016, receiving an overall quality rating of Meeting the NQS, though the team had prepared to receive Working Towards. Under Sue’s lead, a team-wide crisis reflection, dubbed ‘Kinglake Ranges Calmer Centre,’ identified four areas of focus as they shaped their strategic direction and sought to grow from reactionary to visionary. These were:
Improving relationships with children.
Seeking a contemporary, evidence-informed approach to behaviour guidance and wellbeing, led the team to Phoenix Support for Educators and the Phoenix Cups Framework. Embedding the Cups Framework in the service philosophy, and in a series of trainings and coaching sessions inspired a new understanding of all behaviour as being the product of an unmet need. It also gave the team a common language for understanding their own wellbeing as well as that of their colleagues, the children and families with whom they work.
Reflecting on the cortisol-reducing impact of time in nature, led the team to commit to implementing a trail-blazing Bush Kinder program in the nearby Kinglake Ranges National Park (Wurundjeri Country).
Reflecting that, ‘If the environment was our third teacher, she was speaking a language of chaos,’ led the team to research ways to calm the environment, re-painting the rooms in neutral colours, replacing plastic materials with natural ones and embracing the creative potential of loose parts play.
In true commitment to distributed leadership, all leaders undertake continual learning, research and reflection, paving the way for a new culture at KRCC.
As the team embraced the strategy and new understandings of how wellbeing can be optimised so children and learning communities can thrive, tangible shifts took place in their pedagogy and practice.
Partnering with Sandi Phoenix and her team at Phoenix Support for Educators, KRCC began a long and ongoing collaboration to embed the guidance approach to behaviour support and cup filling practices for the entire learning community, to the point that the Phoenix Cups Framework warrants its own place in the service philosophy alongside: Nature, Relationships, Time and Knowledge.
Initially, every member of the team engaged in the Phoenix Cups Quiz, gaining an understanding of their own unique needs profile and their dominant Cups. ‘That really gave us a common language for understanding behaviour and wellbeing – our own and the children’s,’ says Sue.
Since then, Sue has noticed subtle shifts in how the team incorporates the Cups Framework into their programs and practice, much as the Early Years Learning Frameworks have become second nature, she says the team’s thinking when it comes to the Phoenix Cups approach to wellbeing has gone ‘next level’. ‘Where once the main focus of this framework was on understanding how our program can empty or fill a child’s Cup,’ she says, today the Cups awareness is more internalised.
‘The (Cups) language is really noticeable once we start to problem solve. For example, when unpacking dynamics in our kinder room, the conversation centered around the unmet needs of the children and the corresponding cups profiles of their educators. (We’d ask) did the educators also have unmet needs (empty cups) that we also needed to focus on, in order to then better support children to meet their own needs? The Cups Framework provides a much more holistic view to our overall approach to pedagogy.’
Today the service runs a highly flexible, indoor-outdoor program where children of all ages are free to self-select their area of play and engage in healthy risk taking. Children often play barefoot and demonstrate their capacity for traditionally risky play – evidenced on this day when five children of various ages bundle joyfully onto a tyre-swing in collaboration with an attentive but hands-off educator.
In a similarly child-centred vein, the team also embraced progressive meal times, ‘because children get hungry when they get hungry and it is such an easy need to meet. They need that glucose in the brain if they are to function optimally,’ Linda elaborates. This is not to say children do not naturally congregate for meals in large groups, but that food and water is readily available to suit all children’s rhythms and routines.
Linda acknowledges her past career in marketing has informed her approach to quality improvement at KRCC in collaboration with Sue and the team, and suggests some of the standard tools from marketing may be valuable for others in the sector seeking to navigate cultural change.
‘Sue and I have brought a SWOT approach to navigating this journey with the team,’ she says of using the whole-team strategic meetings to assess the service for its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats and seeking ways to ‘change weaknesses into opportunities.’ ‘This has really helped us state very simply our collective goals and hold each other accountable to enacting them.’
Reflecting further, Linda likens pedagogy to the marketing process of branding, with both processes dependent on how we define and understand our identity, strategy and values. Add to that a commitment to generating small, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (or SMART) goals and the SWOT approach to organisational growth, and the team has generated a meaningful and measurable road map to success.
Affirming the changes at KRCC, AEDC data in 2018 and then 2021 traces a powerful tale of improving developmental outcomes. Consistent with the findings of ACECQA, which assessed and rated the service as Exceeding in all areas in late 2022, AEDC data sets from before, during and after the strategic turnaround in practice and philosophy track a statistically significant improvement in children’s learning and development. The percentage of children classed as ‘vulnerable in one of more domains’ in their first year of school has dropped from 24.1% in 2015 (a proportion in excess of the state and national averages at the time) to 17.8% in 2018 and just 7.8% in 2021 (a fraction of the state and national averages). (Table 1 and 2).
Sue is proud of the team and their learning community and acknowledges the process of organisational improvement is always ongoing. The KRCC journey from surviving to thriving took its next big step in 2022 with the second whole team critical reflection day focused on supporting wellbeing through the long, cold, Kinglake winters. The meeting, creatively dubbed, ‘Every Job has an Antarctic Winter’, worked through the concepts described by Rachel Robinson in her 2019 address to the Early Childhood Australia Conference: Respect Trumps Harmony. In doing so the team mapped out a plan that incorporated trialing Positive Psychology Intervention’s, in collaboration with Phoenix Support, designed to lift spirits and maintain perspective with a range of winter focused strategies including educator wellbeing days, room playdates designed to connect children who would normally interact outdoors, gratitude practices and random acts of kindness, social events and special dress up days designed to amp-up the fun and optimism during the KRCC ‘Antarctic Winter’.
While documenting their journey has had huge benefits for the team, and continues to play a big part in their ongoing growth, Linda is adamant: ‘Paperwork will not change a life! I don’t care how good your documentation is. But a relationship will. Everyone needs to be safe, secure and supported. The first place we go when a problem arises is the Connection Cup and (Gottman’s) 1:5 ratio where we focus on five positive interactions for every one negative or neutral one.’
‘When I began in 2016, the culture at KRCC was immensely different,’ reflects Sue. ‘The team was fractured, combative and defensive. In 2023 we are cohesive, reflective and intentional in delivering the best possible education and care for children. A complete overhaul of pedagogy and practice has created a culture of distributed leadership and support where educators are seen and valued for who they are.’
It took time, vision and effort to improve relationships and change some hard-held beliefs about children's behaviour, but the benefits of understanding human beings through the lens of the Phoenix Cups has paid dividends, transforming this learning community for the benefit of all.