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Early Education and Care Awards

Julie Occhiuto AA A

Each nominee in the 2014 Early Education & Care Awards was invited to submit answers to five questions based on ACECQA's 7 Quality Areas, and also to discuss their future plans.  

The following are the answers submitted by Julie Occhiuto and provide a background as to why she was selected as a State Winner and ultimately a National Winner in 2014.

Leonardo1. WELLBEING: Describe a program/project/specific approach that you have put in place that has had a powerful and positive impact on the emotional, social and/or physical wellbeing of a child or group of children in your direct care. What need/s did you identify? How did you measure the progress of this program in terms of its impact on the child/ren? (max 200 words)
A unique program I have implemented with children has been the introduction of Leonardo, a persona doll who was created by Patricia Sciberras. Leonardo was created to promote inclusiveness and support me in exploring a range of topics with children, in particular, death, divorce, relationships, gender stereotypes, feelings, lifestyles and individual differences.

At the time of his introduction we had children who were segregating other children from play. Leonardo supported me in exploring this situation as I created a similar story for children about Leonardo being teased and not allowed to play. Children explored their feelings on how Leonardo may have felt, how they could have helped him, shared their own experiences of being segregated/teased and brainstormed strategies of what to do if/when this happened.

Using Leonardo to explore real life situations supports children’s emotional and social development by giving them a voice to express feelings, emotions and provides strategies to support them. Leonardo has become an integral member of our centre program and has had an obvious positive impact on children. Children shower him with affection, talk to him and add drawings/ pictures to his journal. Children have taken him home to share their home life with him and share him with their families.

2. PROGRAMMING: Describe one innovative change you have made/helped to make to the children's program that has scaffolded learning and provided authentic experiences for the children. Make reference to the particular outcome/s within the EYLF that you based this change on. Why did you decide to introduce this in your service. (max 200 words)
Our service has many families from overseas and they continually express feelings of isolation at not having grandparents close by. With this in mind I initiated an Intergenerational Project for our children and residents at Milford house Aged Care. The aim was for children to be active community citizens and interact with elders in the community. I set yearly goals, liase with staff, set learning outcomes, survey residents/families as well as document and reflect to monitor benefits and challenges.

I feel this authentic project can be related to all EYLF outcomes in particular Outcome 2. Children are developing an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active community participation. Learning has been scaffolded as not only do children write letters and post them to residents, they play bingo, work with clay, invite residents to visit us on their bus and visit residents when they leave us for school.

Children have developed friendships and awareness of our differences by engaging with elders who are in wheelchairs, using walking frames, are unable to hear/ see and are experiencing loss of memory. Children have shown concern for others, recognised they belong to a community and learned to read behaviours of others and respond appropriately.

Library3. SERVICE IMPROVEMENTS: Have you identified in your service an area that you consider could be improved (physical space, operations, structure etc)? How would you go about doing this or, if you have already started, describe your involvement. (max 200 words)
In our service children's literature was previously located in a locked cupboard in a gloomy hallway outside of children's rooms. It was decided to move these books to a foyer area on open shelves where children, staff and families would have easy access to books. I have developed a passion for this space and have worked on making continual improvements to what is now called our library.

I feel it is important that a library appears well loved and is inviting therefore I have added poems, plants and soft furnishings. I have also implemented a book of the week which is on display. This book changes weekly and is accompanied with reflective questions to promote children's critical thinking. Many families now use this space for one on one reading time with their child and answer our reflective questions. I have also begun a library research project with the children. This has included visiting libraries to document the similarities and differences between our library and others. Children are taking photos, recording ideas and drawing pictures on how we can further improve our library space. I look forward to where this research will take us.

4. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Discuss the professional development method/strategy that has had the greatest impact on your career in early childhood and explain how it has changed you (eg mentoring, professional conversations, networking, unit of study or course etc). (max 200 words)
Mentoring has played a crucial role in my career as an early childhood educator. Over the 22 years I have been in the profession I have been privileged to be mentored by two inspiring leaders over the years. These leaders have supported me in being the educator I am today. With this mentoring I have learnt the importance of reflective practices, the importance of networking and the importance of challenging myself professionally.

My centre director is my mentor today and I feel I would not be where I am today without her support and encouragement and belief in my abilities. I had a limited early education and my Director encouraged and supported me in completing a University degree (Bachelor of Teaching Early Education), something I never felt I would be able to achieve.

My mentor has helped me grow from a shy educator into an educator who has presented at 2 conferences and become active in advocating for the early childhood profession. I feel privileged to have now mentored other staff and students and believe as an early childhood professional I have the responsibility to strive to be a leader and inspire other early childhood educators in challenging themselves.

5. FAMILY PARTNERSHIPS: Describe your community of families and the steps/strategies that you have taken to build and encourage interaction between families and your service. What, if any, challenges did you face and were they overcome? What benefits did you achieve? (max 200 words)
Our families are diverse with the majority working on campus at the University of New South Wales where our service is located. Like most families ours are busy juggling work and family life balance. With this in mind I developed workplace visits to further encourage interactions between our service and families. Our centre is unique as our families work within close proximity so it is easy for us to visit them. Our workplace visits have included going to the BlackDog Institute, Science labs, the campus library, local hospital, restaurants and offices. Parents have responded positively and enthusiastically to our visits. I have been told our visits brighten up parent's days as they not only get to see their child whilst at work but can share their work/profession with our children.

A challenge has been that our workplace visits are not for every parent and some families have instead chosen to visit us to share their work or an interest or talent. This has included short documentaries on marine life, musical instruments and insect displays. Other families have chosen not to participate for various reasons such as time constraints and this has been respected and their honestly appreciated.

These awards can create opportunities even for those who do not win (eg networking, PR, reflective practice etc). What opportunities do you see for yourself as a result of being involved in the awards and how might you use these opportunities professionally? (max 200 words)
I am excited and proud to be nominated for these awards, my first ever nomination. I understand that there are a vast range of opportunities available to me and I aim to embrace all those that come my way. As a teacher I play a critical role in ensuring children are involved in real life experiences that provoke their curiosity, encourage them to question the world around them, and experiences that promote a sense of acknowledgement and appreciation of diversity. My Milford House project is my biggest achievement and I am proud to personally share this with the judges and educators at these awards.

Making the "From Tiggers Honeypot to Milford House, with love" movie is a highlight of my career. I feel children and the elderly can sometimes be the 'invisible' members within our communities and that's what makes the Intergenerational project so important to me. I would hope the awards remind me to continue to share this special story. I will inspire other early childhood professionals and fellow team members to become involved in the Australian Family Early Education and Care Awards.

What are your career/professional goals for the next 3-5 years? If you were to win the National Educator of the Year Award, what would you do with the prize ($4000 One World for Children training grant and $4000 professional development grant)? (max 200 words)
I understand the importance of keeping up to date with practices within the early childhood profession and I am committed to continual professional development. I hold an Associate diploma in Child Studies and the Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood Education). My career goals and professional goals for the next 3-5 years include further study and attending conferences.

If I was to win the National Educator of the Year Award I would be grateful to attend any specialised training such as the Effective leaders or Marvellous Mentors training programs. I would like to share training opportunities with my colleagues in my centre if possible.

Julie OcchiutoMy future dream would be to apply for funding to further support and extend curriculum ties between Tiggers Honeypot and Milford House. Funding would enable us to research more closely the benefits of regular interactions between children and the elderly. We could monitor the impact on children's development and learning and the holistic improvements for residents such as feelings of being needed/ sharing their skills/knowledge with younger generations. I would also love to be involved in a centre being built alongside or in the grounds of an aged care facility. Thank you for the opportunity to share my professional journey.