Lessons Learned about Effective Meetings and Community Building
I deeply believe that children deserve the same respect as adults, and to that end, I started a learning community where every member has a voice, and we aim to meet everyone’s needs. This alternative to school, Pathfinder, uses sociocracy as our governing process with all members of the community, including children, parents, board members, and staff. In using sociocracy with children, I’ve found some useful tips to help the sociocratic process to be successful.
As you might imagine, meetings with children have their own challenges. I haven’t had a meeting with adults where someone slid off their chair onto the floor because of boredom. On the plus side, children give very truthfully, real-time feedback about how engaging the meeting is to them, from their body language to simply saying out loud, “This is boring!” Adults are usually more polite but may be experiencing similar feelings. I find that as everyone appreciates fun, a sense of belonging, shorter and more enjoyable meetings, the thoughts I’ve gathered below may be useful in using sociocracy with adults and younger people alike.
Simple tools for effective meetings
Short, effective meetings: Honor the meeting timer!
Our community consented to two 7-10 minute daily meetings for a total of 20 minutes. In order to honor our shared agreements, we are very careful to never go over-time without getting consent from everyone for extending the meeting. We might extend the meeting by a few minutes (with a new timer!) to wrap up an important topic, or to let someone finish a thought. However, it is essential in all meetings to consent to the time, set a timer, and stick with it! Keeping the timer and honoring everyone’s time builds a sense of safety around shared agreements and boundaries.
Thumbs up, down, or sideways for quick consent on a simple topic
It’s pretty simple! Thumbs up mean “I like it,” thumbs sideways is “I consent but don’t have strong feelings about it,” and thumbs down means “Objection.” We often use thumbs up/down/sideways even in our board meetings for feedback on altering the agenda to reflect topics that have come up or increasing the meeting time. We especially use thumbs up/down/sideways to indicate consent in large group decisions (30+ people) to save time.
Usually, we do a full round of “objection,” “no objections” for formal governance topics such as role-selection or consenting to a proposal.
One topic per meeting
With children, we found one topic per meeting to be effective. To cover more topics more quickly, at our weekly “Change Up” meeting, there would be 3 breakout groups to choose from, each working on an issue. Each breakout group would form a proposal that has to fit on one sticky note and consent to it. The decision would then be announced to the community, with a one-week timeline to check in on it. If there were objections, members could object to the next week’s check-in and join the breakout group the following week.
We found that members gravitate towards topics that are important to them, and that often a solution consented to by a small ad hoc circle is indeed good enough for now, and safe enough to try.
In meetings at our school, we always use a talking object in circles. It’s both a reminder of who is talking and who is listening, as well as something that can add a sense of ritual, and fun. We’ve used everything from found objects like flowers, feathers, turtle shells, as well as silly toys that are fun to play with. One of the most fun (and effective!) meetings I can recall was done with a “talking toilet” from a playhouse. Each kid said “flush” instead of “check” to indicate when they were done!
With adults as well, I’ve found that having a special talking object that is beautiful and used only in circles imbues the object with a sense of power and ritual that can help set the tone for meetings, especially ones with deep emotional sharing.
Many people listen better when they have something to do with their hands. I like to knit at meetings, or being the note-taker also works for me to be doing something active with my hands. Something to try out might be having coloring paper or modeling clay available for a meeting. Showing what you’ve made at the end of the meeting can be a fun way to connect. Using craft supplies can spark surprising creativity in brainstorming sessions by tapping into your right brain.
Movement and mindfulness
Starting a meeting with a quick stretch can help get everyone’s blood flowing. I know of a design firm where brainstorming meetings traditionally begin with jumping jacks. With children, we often stretch like each person’s favorite animal or even play a quick round of charades to help with engagement and movement breaks. Another technique that can work to encourage mindfulness is taking a timed moment of silence, or deep breathing.
Proactive Community Building
At every meeting with children, we practice the art of rounds and listening as well as working on community building. We have a ritual of drawing a “question card” from a conversational game deck with a get to know you question such as, “If you were a superhero, what power would you have?” “What is your favorite movie?” And so on. In our meetings with parents, we found asking similar questions in the opening round had the effect of loosening everyone up, making people feel more comfortable and connected, and giving reasons to start new conversations after the meeting.
We also had community gatherings such as potlucks and playdates for community members to connect over food and play. With the children, there are daily games organized by children and staff alike. Moments of play and togetherness helped form “glue” to keep the community together.
Proactive Feedback Gathering
Unfortunately, many people are used to being in authoritarian contexts where they don’t have a voice. We found that proactively seeking feedback on issues before starting a proposal making process was very effective for helping children feel engaged and important in the community. We ask in rounds, “What is going well for you in our community?” “What do you think could be improved?” “What are you interested in learning?” “How do you feel about our rules, are they fair?” “Where do you want to go on a field trip?” “How do you want to spend the discretionary budget?” Then proposals would come out of ideas we brainstormed and would go back to everyone for consent. Rather than waiting for children to introduce a proposal themselves, it lowered the bar for participating in the process and created far more engagement. Equally important was staff follow-through on completing tasks related to proposals, for example, quickly purchasing approved items, or scheduling a field trip ASAP to show how children’s voices actively influence the community.
Children are people too!
I hope this article is useful for you in your organization. If you try out one of these tools in a meeting, I’d love to hear about it! Mail me at [email protected].
For more information on sociocracy with children, check out my talk on Sociocracy With Children.
Pathfinder Community School website