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the Five Cups Philosophy at Skippy’s

As human beings, we all have needs that need to be met. When they aren’t met, life doesn’t function the way it should. Our behaviour changes, our mood is affected, and we often feel unfulfilled.

Consider the five cups as basic human life needs. When a person has full cups, they feel good and have a strong sense of wellbeing. When their cups are emptying, a person feels unease and is driven to choose behaviour that will fill their cups.

This is a philosophy that is applicable to adults and children, and is influenced by the work of many guidance practitioners, psychologists, and positive psychology. The cups refer specifically, however, to the needs outlined by William Glasser who theorised that human behaviour was driven by five basic human life needs. Glasser talked about meeting needs. At Skippy’s, we talk about filling cups.

Each cup metaphorically represents a different basic human life need. Those cups are:

1. Freedom

2. Mastery

3. Connection

4. Fun

5. Safety

When a person feels like they have empty cups, they will choose the best behaviour they know to efficiently fill their cups. As children are still developing a repertoire of behaviours, they may choose the same behaviours over and over again, even though these behaviours aren’t expected in the environment in which they are doing them. Children may also choose behaviours that affect other people, however, unlike most adults, children haven’t yet learnt to fill their own cups without emptying the cups of others.

They’re still learning about ways to fill their cups in ways that are expected according to the dominant culture values, rules, and norms of the society they are living in.

What about you? What does your needs profile look like?

It’s important to be aware of your own needs profile because it will influence how you go about your daily life, interact with people, and do your work and other activities. When interacting with children, your needs profile will interrelate with theirs, and as Early Childhood Educators, we need to be constantly mindful of this interaction.

Thinking about your own needs profile will also help you to get a better grasp on what the needs profiles of other people, including children, might look like, and can thus help you to understand their behaviour.

Your biggest cup takes the most to fill. It is important to you that it is filled frequently, and you might even strongly identify with that cup. For example, if your Mastery cup is exceptionally large, you’re likely to be quite aware of your need to be in control and have recognition.

If your Connection cup is your dominant cup, then you probably know that you need a daily dose of love and connection. Friendships, belonging, and even touch, might be more important to you then anything else. Some people don’t identify with any one cup, but rather feel as though their cups are similarly sized.

The size of your different cups is often quite static and may not change much throughout your life, however, whether those cups are full or empty is dynamic, and might change day to day moment to moment. For example, even those with a small Fun cup need fun frequently, however, it takes much less to fill it then someone who has a particularly large Fun cup. It is the same for children.

Let’s take a closer look at the cups

Freedom Cups don't do 'sitting still' well. They prefer to have less demands placed upon them and may often feel restricted by the control of others. They usually prefer the ability to make choices unconstrained by external parties and may be drawn to different modes of creativity. They need the following to fill their Freedom Cup:

  • Autonomy

  • Freedom

  • Independence

  • To explore

  • To investigate

  • Agency

  • Able to participate

  • Be creative

  • Make decisions

  • Speak up

  • Be authentic

  • Movement

  • Self-expression

  • Sufficiency

  • Choice

  • Independence

Mastery Cups are often high achievers who aim to excel at whatever it is they are attempting. They usually don’t shy away from a challenge and don’t necessarily argue with people; they are just really good at explaining why they are right. They have the following needs to keep their Mastery Cups full:

  • Control

  • Validation

  • Recognition

  • Power

  • Competency

  • Acknowledgment

  • Confidence

  • Success

  • To be capable

  • Regulation

  • Predictability

  • Achievement

  • Routines

  • Completion

  • Significance

  • Influence

  • To win

  • Affirmation

  • Take risks

  • Status

Connection Cups seek out relationships with others as a priority. They value acceptance, inclusion, and a sense of belonging. They prefer to be liked and will often connect with the feelings of others, to the extent that they need to take a box of tissues to see a sad movie. To keep their Connection Cups full, they need:

  • Friendship

  • Acceptance

  • Bonds

  • Sharing

  • Connections

  • To be needed

  • Respect

  • Relationships

  • Attachments

  • To feel valued

  • To be nurtured

  • Responsiveness

  • Family

  • Reciprocity

  • Interaction

  • Esteem

  • Belonging

  • To be loved

  • Cooperation

  • Community

There’s never a dull moment with a Fun Cup around. They typically require high levels of stimulation and are usually humorous; sometimes their laughter is funnier than the joke. They never miss an opportunity to play and entertainment is at the core of everything they do. They need the following to fill their Fun Cup:

  • Actualisation

  • Meaningfulness

  • Vitality

  • Fun

  • Happiness

  • Discovery

  • Joy

  • Novelty - newness

  • To imagine

  • Humour

  • Play

  • Learning

  • Involvement

  • To be themselves

  • Knowledge

  • To be creative

  • Wonder

  • Laughter

  • Flow

Safety Cups value stability and usually prefer the comfort of routine or structure. They often value feeling secure and are generally risk averse. They may have even invented the phrase ‘comfort food’ and appreciate the health benefits of a good Netflix binge. To keep their Safety Cups full, they need:

  • Safety

  • Longevity

  • Health

  • Development

  • Physiological needs

  • Food

  • Water

  • To use their sensors

  • A sense of wellbeing

  • Growth

  • Sleep

  • Hunger

  • Shelter

  • The environment

  • Air

  • To survive

  • Their needs met

  • To live life

How do we use this information in our daily practice?

We all know the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our own wellbeing is important, and influences your interactions with the people around you. This is especially true when working with children, so understanding our own needs is an important part of supporting the needs of our children.

Children are like you and me. Their five basic needs must be met, and if they are not, they will fill their cups in the best way they know how. Children learn that their actions will get a specific reaction from another person. Children don’t always know how to ask for what they need and therefore can sometimes choose behaviours that are not socially acceptable.

The theory behind the Five Cups Philosophy is that if you understand which cup needs attention, through observing and reflecting on behaviour, and you keep topping the cup up, you can reduce or eliminate the undesirable behaviour.

The three magic cup questions

As educators, there are three questions that help us focus on, and understand, the underlying reasons for children’s behaviour:

  • Question 1: What behaviours are challenging us?

It is important not to get stuck in complaining about the “problems.” Define the behaviour concisely. When does it happen? When doesn’t it happen? What do we know about the behaviour?

  • Question 2: What cups are these behaviours filling?

Remember that the child is using the best strategy they have, to fill their cups. In some cases, they’re using behaviours that we find challenging. Once we’ve worked out which cup the child is filling, we can support them to find other, better ways to do that.

  • Question 3: What decisions can we make to support the filling of those cups?

When we have worked out what cups the child is trying to fill, we can focus on “cup filling strategies” for all children in the learning environment. We reflect and plan our cup filling strategies, taking into account considerations of the child’s strengths and interests, reoccurring patterns in behaviour, events going on in the child’s life, the social consequences of the behaviour – how peers and adults react – and if there are any consequences that appear to be provoking or reinforcing the child’s behaviour.

The Five Cups Philosophy is a powerful tool for understanding the reasons and functions that drive children’s behaviour as developing human beings, and as such is an integral part of our behaviour guidance approach at Skippy’s.



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