Wednesday, 26 September 2018 03:48

ECA Conference 2018: An Educational Leader’s Perspective

Our MICCC Team at the ECA Conference in Sydney 2018 Our MICCC Team at the ECA Conference in Sydney 2018

This will be a long one so grab yourself a drink and pop your feet up!

On Wednesday Kerys, Jo, Sarah, Rochelle and myself headed to the airport full of excitement and anticipation ready for the Early Childhood Australia National Conference. We were quickly reminded that this trip was going to be full of great learning moments as we began rote counting, using addition, subtraction and dollars to help one of our team members discover that 10kgs of carry-on does not equal 7kgs. Once in Sydney, we started off with a bang at the welcome evening, heading straight to the PLAYSPACE tent to chat with the inspirational Toni and Robin Christie. The evening was filled with darkness, neon lights, performance art, laughter and conversations with friends old and new.



The sheer number of delegates from all over Australia and Overseas was testament to the early childhood advocacy movement that Australia is leading, over 2000 delegates attended! The outgoing ECA President Ros Cornish summed up our educator role quite simply by saying we are here “to promote the rights and wellbeing of children.” Our new incoming ECA President Chris Leg talked about the release of the new statement on young children and digital technology, highlighting that there is no standard solution.... One size cannot fit all, as there are differing aspects influencing individuals and we need to differentiate digital literacy to meet the needs of everyone. It was evident straight away that these two influential women had a shared passion for children and a noticeable professional and educated presence on the stage.

Our first key note speaker hailed all the way from Canada. Dr Cindy Blackstone had a powerful presence with a confident voice, slightly softened by the fact she was holding a teddy bear. She touched on so many great points and initiatives but what really stayed with me the most was the idea that children are only full of love and kindness, they are fabulous at reconciliation because they aren’t afraid of crossing any lines.... these simply don’t exist in their world. Dr Blackstone has taken many risks with her advocacy for children and warned us that children CAN die from broken hearts. It got me thinking about how prepared I am to get into trouble to do the right thing, especially with government authorities often having different agendas to educators. Dr Blackstone was helping to put some ‘silly’ into reconciliation, asking us to embed fun and meaningful connections and experiences... this will hopefully help children make better commitments to world wide inclusion. I absolutely love that she was continuing the journey of a special man with a great heart who died advocating for children in 1907, combining her passion with his and using research to create a movement, an awareness event and a curriculum for today.

My first concurrent session was ‘Maximising Every Child’s Potential- Promoting Risk After Trauma’ Although Paul Pfeiffer and Roman Sweeney were talking about a program unique to Victoria there were many key points and statistics that I connected with. It was mentioned “the first 1000 days of a child’s life are the most important...” a statement I feel passionately about. What did surprise me was the fact that Australian children make up the largest number in world homelessness and family violence, 1 in 5 Australian children will experience family violence too. The saddest part about this is that the children exposed to this type of trauma are less likely to have their needs met as their primary care givers are less emotionally available. We are always referring to attachment and the circle of security here at MICCC and this is a prime example of where a child doesn’t have a secure base to check-in to. We need to all remember that high levels of parental stress impacts on our children, leading to toxic distress, often children will blame themselves thinking their behaviour has caused the family situation too. Paul showed sincere concern and passion for the children he works with, a true level of understanding about the feelings that are behind behaviors. Children who are exposed to trauma in their early years struggle with self-regulation and it is now a known fact that trauma can effect our DNA impacting on the generations to come, this is why it it is so important to work in partnership with our families to understand their culture and history.

I cried in my next concurrent session delivered by Angie and Shannon from Bubup Wilam with their presentation on ‘Self-determination, strong and proud Aboriginal Identities and resilience: A strength based approach to working through trauma for Aboriginal children.’ The first statement I heard was, “I stand united with all aboriginal people,” it made me sit up taller and it stuck with me throughout the whole presentation. There was a strong focus on trauma from transgenerational experiences, touching on the same idea from the previous session that trauma is embedded in DNA. Angie started by breaking down the word identity... knowing who you are, where you are from and what your responsibilities are. She talked about the Early Years Learning Framework being a ‘Western Curriculum’ that Aboriginal children had a right to learn, but in fact aboriginal children need more than this. The sad reality is that some children never experience calm in their own homes, their lives are continual chaos and unpredictable, this is why our centres and our roles as educators are so important. All children have the right to come to childcare, preschool or school and feel safe, calm and at peace, they have a right to good health, to be educated to their full potential, to learn to self-regulate feel self worth and develop self-determination. All children need to know and understand who they are and feel a sense of belonging. I was in awe of the Bubup Wilam flag raising ceremony where the whole centre moves together to the sound of clap sticks and uses indigenous words for sky, sun and land in their acknowledgement. There was a clear sense of action, of advocacy oozing out of Angie and Shannon. Not only were they being responsive to the children and families in their community but they were fighting for justice too. I loved that they developed their own low ratios based on the needs of their children and they also employed speech therapists and occupational therapists to ensure their children are getting the best chance to reach full potential no matter what it costs the centre. This was advocacy at it’s best and you could feel the emotion fill the air, delegates were putting their hands up requesting to visit and I was smiling from ear to ear thinking about these culture rich children potentially being the future leaders of this world.

My next concurrent session was ‘Supporting the authentic inclusion of marginalised families in early child education services,” by Dr Marianne French. Children from disadvantaged contexts can make the most gains with education and care, however they are often the ones that have less participation in preschool programs. The sad reality is that these children are often exposed to lesser quality services, they have affordability issues, lack of transport, transient lives and beliefs/values that aren’t embraced by services. Sessions like this always have me walking away wondering if there are things we could do better at MICCC, it had me thinking about how we enact social justice to achieve inclusion. I did take away the 5E system that promoted a whole family approach to education and care:

Equity- whole centre philosophy of inclusion and the practices and pedagogy to back that up

Engage- involving families, encouraging participation and developing partnerships

Equip- continuous development of skills and knowledge

Enable- think about affordability and accessibility for all children and families

Entice- build trusting community networks that are evidence of our value for quality education and care

My last concurrent session for Day One was ‘Family violence in a child’s world,’ with Anita Geary and Janette Airey-Graham. This session touched on a child’s brain going into survival mode due to their exposure to physical harm, toxic stress or complex trauma. They presented a powerful and emotional video of children sharing their stories and drawings of family violence, this had me welling up again. The positive to come out of this session is that with some time and loving responsive relationships these children can heal. It was also great to know that pets can protect children during violence exposure/trauma and the idea of possibly having a therapy dog at MICCC in the future is something to really encourage. The common thread across all my concurrent sessions has been that some children come from unsafe and unpredictable homes, where fear impacts their ability to self-regulate. As educators we need to ensure we STOP and LISTEN so children feel connected, included, understood and valued.

Day One finished off with an ‘Ethical Leadership’ panel discussion that shifted my educational leadership mind into another gear. As I was sitting and listening I was scrawling ideas across the page about how to get some valued feedback from staff about my role so I can move forward in a direction to best support everyone’s thinking and reflection. To be honest trying to turn my brain off after a day like this was a real challenge, I was exhausted!



The morning started off with an unexpected highlight, usually when I hear there is a politician approaching the stage I switch off and settle in for disappointment about promises that won’t eventuate. This time around I was in awe of the Hon. Sarah Mitchell, NSW Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Sarah was confident and comfortable on the stage like most politicians, however she clearly shared our passion for early childhood education and seemed approachable and kind with true ties to indigenous culture. I loved her quote, “Education is an enabler for life.” 

Johanna Griggs (Beyond Blue) then stood on stage briefly to mention the National Education Initiative that is soon to be launched, supporting wellbeing, mental health and literacy to all services, primary and secondary schools across Australia. She then introduced the man who would turn out to be my new hero and the most influential key note speaker at the conference, Dr Stuart Shanker. Dr Shanker, a neuroscientist from Canada had a very calming and trusting presence as he sat in his chair. He showed full belief in our role as educators saying, “the early childhood educator is the most important PROFESSIONAL we work with.” In his presentation about ‘Self-regulation and Internalising/Eternalising anxiety behaviours’ he was quick to note that there is no such thing as a bad, lazy or stupid child, however we can make them that way. The fact that children make 700 synapses in their brain per second during their first year of life, says a lot. During the first five years of life children will develop patterns of response to any challenge (social, emotional or learning) and unfortunately these patterns become entrenched, but there is hope. All children’s problems relate to stress and stress constrains a child’s ability to learn. If we can work out what those stressors are we can help release them, then children can re-frame their responses so their intelligence and self-regulation is unlimited. This is all part of having a growth mindset, something that we have all heard of before. What is important to know is that stress can be ANYTHING that requires us to burn energy, it can be positive or negative. Education is a positive stress that drives growth, sugar is a negative stress that wastes energy that could be used for growth. I was deeply saddened to hear that there is an epidemic in Mexico where children under the age of one are showing all the signs of Alzheimers, due to in utero stressors and pollution, which is also a stress on the body/brain. Dr Shanker talked about an experiment where they turned off all the noises/alarms in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and asked nurses to slow down when moving around... the results were undeniable. Instead of using their energy to fight stressors, the premature babies were using that energy to build their immunity and metabolism, enabling them to grow stronger and get out of the NICU in half the time. Dr Shanker had me thinking on so many different levels, as a leader, a teacher, a parental support and as a parent myself... I found myself thinking about certain children and families and listing all of the stressors my own child has been exposed to in her 4 short years that included; being stuck in my pelvis during birth, my own full time university/work loads as a single parent, the fact I broke my leg when she was one month old and I couldn’t attend to her needs as I would have liked for four months and multiple traumatic hospital/emergency/ambulance/surgery experiences just to name a few. I have been working through these experiences with her for a while and Dr Shanker has really given me more ways to move forward and more importantly he has given me hope that her anxiety responses can change.

My first concurrent session of day two was absolutely packed, it seems that a lot of the delegates love Anthony Semann as much as me. ‘Learning to unlead: The practice of love and hope as a revolutionary approach to learning’ started off in true Semann style, demanding the attention of the whole room we engaged in a mindfulness activity together. I’ve never connected to country like this before, most of my mindfulness activities have focused on breathing and awareness of my surroundings but this was different. Anthony asked us to let go of our worries and imagine what this land was like before colonisation, immediately my mind cleared out all of the buildings and presented a clear nature focused view to the coastline. Then I was hit with the reality of leadership, it was nice to know that the most reported thread by leaders was that they were unable to motivate others, a challenge that I have had to overcome myself and continue to deal with. Likewise the common response from followers was that they were unmotivated. I see motivation as such a personal thing and one person cannot be responsible for that weight on their shoulders. Anthony was right when he hinted at removing the leader and follower labels and working together, building relationships and embracing the diversity of our teams. I have been on my own personal journey this year in my educational leadership role, discovering each educator’s strengths and their preferred style of learning to better support them to feel power in themselves, I felt that this was affirmed in the session. There were so many things that Anthony mentioned that validated where MICCC is heading in regards to leadership and taking risks by moving away from individual leadership and working together as a collective.

The next session saw me (and majority of the delegates) returning to see Dr Stuart Shanker in the main theatre. Once again he got straight to the point asking us to ask ourselves, “what is the most important thing I can do to make this child receptive to learning?” We need to ensure that all children are motivated and calm with a normal heartbeat and breathing rate, otherwise they are at a disadvantage with learning. We have all heard about fight or flight mode, which can be ok every now and then, unfortunately for some children it is happening everyday and using so much of the body’s energy that the child is left feeling shattered and exhausted. Freeze mode is an extension of fight or flight when people often think that the child is being compliant but they literally are frozen from fear. Dr Shanker was referring to a diagram of a child’s brain that was split into three main sections, he explained how parts of the brain turn off when a child is experiencing stress and this takes away their ability to think, use language appropriately or self-regulate. We as educators need to become stress detectives, we need to help children turn off their stress alarms by recognising the feelings associated with their stress triggers and showing them what calm feels like. It is so important for children to experience calm and have safe calming spaces to retreat to at home and at MICCC.

Another popular session followed Dr Shanker, it seems that day two was turning out to be an absolute cracker of a day! Maggie Dent was presenting ‘real kids in an unreal world’ and her humour shone through as she captivated another packed audience. Resilience has been a common thread of interest for me at the conference because it really does effect a person’s capacity to thrive. As Maggie put so well resilience is “one’s ability to manage life and adapt to change and stress in healthy constructive ways.” There were two major influences identified that inhibit this ability... relationships and nutrition. At MICCC we can ensure that nutritious meals are being served each day and we eat together so primary carers can build a child’s connectedness and belonging. We also offer a lot of physical experiences to generate feel good brain chemicals and we provide opportunities of risk taking so children learn to navigate the environments presented to them. Spinning is also really good for brain development as is encouraging children to think for themselves. Unfortunately the digital landscape that we live in today is impacting greatly on children’s motor skills, oral language, self-regulation and social skills. As parents and educators we really need to focus on being ‘present’, not just in the room but actually engaging with our children so they can reach their full potential. 

I also went to a session about ‘Professional reading, learning and leading’ by Jackie Brien and Dr Jane Page. This session simply highlighted to me that MICCC is an exceptional centre that strives for excellence, valuing professional development and reflective dialogue.

For the final session of day two I listened to Jenifer Ribarovski and Angie Day discuss ‘The gender elephant in the room.’ This was centre specific study that focused on the greetings educators used with children each day and classified the trends and patterns they noticed that linked to gender. At MICCC we have a neutral approach to gender, however some educators have engrained habits they are working on. What really came across in this study was the number of appearance related greetings given to girls, it is so important for parents and educators to stop commenting on appearance because children are so much more than what they look like or what they are wearing. It was most distressing when my attention focused on the unseen messages... How do you think children feel when they don’t get a glorified greeting about how beautiful they look but they hear it happening to others? The language we use should not be biased towards gender and we must think about the subtle damaging messages we are communicating to all children. After such a big day my brain was truly exhausted!



Keynote speaker and Lego Professor Paul Ramchandani started us off with his presentation ‘Right from the start- Play, relationships and learning.’ He was a very personable speaker that connected to me through his passion for play. Play and relationships are so vital for children yet they can be the first things to disappear in times of pressure or stress. I loved looking at the generational map that Professor Ramchandani provided showing unsurpervised roaming, with the children of today barely allowed past their front fence. It is so important for children to experience regular unstructured and unsupervised play because these are the moments they learn more about themselves and become more creative and resourceful. We watched videos of parents engaging with their children and were reminded of the importance of initial parent/child interactions for pro-social development.

Dr Sandra Cheeseman was up next to accept an award for her doctorate thesis. Matt Shelly and Myself had an opportunity earlier in the year to attend a session with Dr Cheeseman so I was excited to see her rewarded for her research with babies. It was an emotional speech and she was so right in saying, “our babies deserve the best educators” - Go Sandra!

My first concurrent session for this final day was ‘What matters most to parents?” By Derek McCormack. This session highlighted the moments of stress for parents, showing when they accessed the raising children website and what information they were looking for. I wasn’t surprised to see the first trimester of pregnancy and birth/newborns as the most active areas, from my own experience this is when you feel the most clueless as a parent. What I was surprised about was the fact that many parents are simply seeking reassurance to know they are doing an ok job as a parent. Parents want answers and they don’t have much time to research. It was noted that 68% of parents will seek information from educators so we need to be prepared for this with links to relevant and current information, more importantly we need to offer parents reassurance that they are making the best decisions to benefit their child’s development. This may be a role I take on as Educational Leader to create a blog post with links to reliable services and information at hand.

My final concurrent session saw me enter a room of the Early Childhood Australia board of directors. What was quickly evident when each member introduced themselves was the buzz word ‘advocacy.’ This session gave delegates the opportunity to discuss hot topics/issues that they are dealing with. I took this opportunity to bring up something that really matters to me... We all know that MICCC is a centre in the Eastern Suburbs of Adelaide where zoned primary schools fill up quickly. With so many ECA conference conversations and presentations on trauma and resilience and so many delegates and educators passionate about supporting child identity, building hope and confidence, why do some of our children turn into a number as they transition to school?  We talk about the context of a child being so important yet some of our most vulnerable children cannot get into schools in the area.... Our advocacy seems to only get them so far and I will be following up specific cases with ECA.

The Conference was closed with an amazing interactive showcase by NIDA, engaging delegates in some typical service scenarios and encouraging us to stop the production, make the change and show everyone how we can do better in our conversations with educators, families and directors. A big thumbs up to the brave delegates that got up on stage, they were spot on.

This was my own personal journey, there is so much more to be shared by others. Please watch our MICCC front foyer space over the next few weeks as Sarah, Jo, Rochelle, Kerys and myself start displaying photos and information about the conference with you.




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