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Children sit next to each other on a classroom carpet. One child has her hand extended, thumb raised.


Paulette Maggiacomo

Paulette Maggiacomo

June 4, 2020

Hi everyone,

Transform Challenging Behavior 2020 was a virtual conference created by Barb O’Neill. She literally went worldwide in search of outstanding presenters in the early education field. Barb was the host for each session. The way she actively engaged with each presenter, I felt as if I was actually there! As I continue to work my way through the conference sessions, I am amazed at the quality of presenters and the knowledge I am gaining. It is so interesting to learn about different behavior management programs and how they align with Conscious Discipline. My toolbox is rapidly filling up and I look forward to sharing my insights with you over the summer months.

Today I will speak about a program that knocked my socks off! Sandi Phoenix is the Director and Principal Facilitator at Phoenix Support for Educators in Australia. She spoke on Children Who Use Behavior When They Want Attention….or Connection. Her framework, The Phoenix Cups (a model for understanding human behavior) is based upon the work of Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory. It states that we are constantly choosing behaviors to meet one of our needs (to fill our cups). These 5 basic needs each have their own cup: Fun, Mastery, Freedom, Safety, and Connection.

Very often the behaviors that challenge us come from a child having an empty cup. Sandi explains that if a child doesn’t eat or drink anything all morning then their safety cup will be empty and they are likely to be cranky and uncooperative by the afternoon. The child will attempt to fill up that empty cup using whatever skills they have at their disposal, including choices you may not like. The role of the teacher is to help a child develop the skills to fill their own cups. When the child has lots of skills at their disposal, then they are able to self-regulate.

I know that I am preaching to the choir when I say that the secret of good teaching is to control the environment, not the child. By observation, you can determine what the dominant cup profiles are of your children and which tend to be empty. How can you use this information to:

  • Alter your classroom environment from cup – emptying?

  • Front load strategies to lead to less stressful days for you and your children?

The Freedom Cup is the most difficult cup to keep full at school. Our children need time to explore and play, especially outside. Barb gave an example of what happens when there is a child who is running around the classroom – the teacher feels this is a sign of disrespect. What if we were able to re-frame this and think of this running around as a sign of a dominant Freedom Cup. How could we address this situation and fill up their cup?

Right now I know that many of you are thinking: No way I am going to let this child run around my room! Have you ever seen a teacher chase a child and try to catch him? We all know how that turns out. How can we give these children more freedom? Sandi provided the perfect answer by suggesting that this child could be the Messenger. With another adult, have him go to Classroom A with a note, ask the teacher read it and send him to Classroom B and so on until the child has walked all around the building and has filled his Freedom Cup.

When a child grows up in a home that has abuse, trauma, or a small number of high quality connections in their life, their Connection Cup is empty. This results in low self–worth. This child will also have a limited selection of skills to choose from in trying to fill that cup. What can we do to help this child?

Sandi turns to Dr. John Gottman's research which shows that you need a 5:1 ratio of positive genuine interactions to 1 negative or 1 corrective one. Instead of saying, “How many times have I told you to not run?” Try this:

  • Julie, you really wanted to be first in line. Remember, Joe is our line leader today.

  • We use walking feet to be safe.

  • I know you can be safe. Show me what to do if I want to get on line.

  • You did it.

  • You used your listening ears.

  • You walked to the line.

  • Sandi also suggests using micro-connections with the child:

  • Giving them a thumbs up.

  • Looking at them like you’re delighted to see them.

  • Greet them warmly.

  • Have a secret handshake.

  • Have a one on one sustained conversation with them.

  • To neutralize negativity, say what you saw and then ask a question. "You pushed Samantha so you could get there first. What could you have done instead?"

The Phoenix Cup framework sounds very familiar to a popular ‘bucket filling strategy’. The belief of The Phoenix Cup is that we are responsible for filling our own cups, and people can’t empty your cups. How often do we hear a child say, "He made me mad!" As a teacher, we can teach the child the skills to fill their own cup, called Skill to Fill.

When an environment fills all five cups there is little misbehavior. The teacher does not have to use stickers, reward charts, or other classroom management systems that reinforce people pleasing and not teaching the skills the children need. The children are able to fill their own cups and self-regulate. Isn’t that what we all want?

As I mentioned in the beginning, this presentation touched my heart. I went to the website and did two things:

  1. I took the quiz to see what my dominant cups were and the results were spot on. Can you guess what mine are? Have fun and take the quiz!

  2. I ordered Sandi's book, The Phoenix Cups – A Cup Filling Story. Don’t freak out when the total comes to $50.00 – that is Australian currency! Based on the transaction rate of the day, my total came to $33 including shipping.

I hope that I have tweaked your interest as The Phoenix Cup framework is another tool you can add to your tool box!

Until next time, I wish you well!

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