This Could Not Have Been An Email: Social Emotional Learning Makes Meetings Meaningful

Filed Under: Expanded Learning - Posted @ 11:38pm

A common complaint heard after many work meetings is, “This could have been an email”. For Expanded Learning providers participating in Tacoma’s Whole Child partnership under COVID-19 conditions, virtual team meetings have been something they actually look forward to. 

After 3 years of providing programs on-site at 12 elementary schools across Tacoma, Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) had to shift to an online format under COVID-19 conditions. This meant that ELO providers wouldn’t see each other, or the kids they were working with, in-person at all. “I have to admit I wasn’t sure it would work,” said Venalin Aguilar, Whole Child Site Director.  


“Just in the same way that kids need to feel safe and seen before they can learn, adults need to feel that if we are going to be at our best too.”


In addition to all the logistics and coordination of figuring out how to make programs available online and inform students and families how to participate, Venalin and her fellow Site Directors had to figure out how to continue meeting the social-emotional learning (SEL) goals which are central to the Whole Child partnership. “A lot of our ELO work is about building community and creating a sense of belonging, so figuring out how to do that online was definitely a challenge.” 

One strategy Venalin and her team used was a daily online meeting with all the ELO providers before their sessions with students. These “huddles,” as they called them, were designed to build connections among providers and help ensure they had the support they needed to make their programs run smoothly.  It was also an opportunity for them to practice SEL activities they would be doing with students that day. 


“The SEL tools have been helpful for me in learning how to deal with the emotions that come from not being able to go out or see family members.


“It’s important for all of us as adults to practice the SEL activities we do with the students,” Venalin said. “Not just so we know how to do them, but because they help create a sense of belonging and connection for us too.” 

Leah Grant, an instructor for Snapology of Gig Harbor, agrees. “As an adult, feeling like you belong is just as important as when you’re a kid.  Just in the same way that kids need to feel safe and seen before they can learn, adults need to feel that if we are going to be at our best too.” 

Having moved to Tacoma just before COVID-19 related health measures required her to work from home, Leah said the SEL strategies she learned in the huddles and the connections she made with other Expanded Learning providers helped her navigate all the changes. “The SEL tools have been helpful for me in learning how to deal with the emotions that come from not being able to go out or see family members. I’m actually almost dreading going back in person because I’m worried I won’t be able to talk to everyone as often as we do now” 


While these meetings were a part of providing online ELO for school students, Venalin and her team see how they can apply to meetings with just adults as well. They shared a few elements that helped make their online “huddles” successful.   


Establish a Routine 

Venalin said one key to making meetings work is to establish a routine.  Their huddles took place immediately before and after each afternoon ELO session and only lasted about 15-20 minutes. The agenda for each meeting was fairly similar as well: community-building activity, updates/announcements, time to talk about solutions for any challenges or questions providers had, and modeling the day’s SEL activity. 

“Sometimes with these types of community building activities it becomes something that we try to fit in when there is ‘extra’ time, but we recognized that if we really wanted to build trust with each other, we needed to intentionally establish a space and time for that each time we met.” 


Ensure Everyone’s Voice is Heard 

While Venalin and her fellow Site Directors usually facilitated the meetings, they based the agenda and structure on what the Expanded Learning providers said would be most helpful for them.  At each meeting there was an opportunity for everyone to share what was working, what wasn’t working, and what other things might be helpful to incorporate into future huddles.  

“A motto we have that informs our commitment to youth and family voice shaping our Expanded Learning programs is, ‘nothing about us or for us, without us’.  We try to model that same commitment when it comes to our huddles and make sure that all the program providers have the opportunity to share what’s important for them and help structure our huddles in a way that supports their needs.” 


Invite Sharing Real-Life Experiences 

One activity Venalin and her team used often was a “Virtual Bonfire”.  They put a picture of a bonfire up on the screen and took turns sharing stories around the fire.  To help get the conversation going they used fun prompts like:  

  • Tell us about a time you met a famous person. 
  • What was the most interesting job you’ve ever had? 
  • What was one of your most embarrassing moments that you’re willing to share?  

“The bonfire activity was always fun. It was an easy way to get to know each other and find things we have in common.  I also learned new things about Tacoma – like where to get the best apple fritters or get help for my pets.”  


Fahren Johnson, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Greentrike (who took the lead on overseeing ELO in Tacoma earlier this year), says they plan to continue the huddles Venalin and her team implemented as they return to in-person ELO in the fall.  

“Building community among all our ELO providers will remain a top priority as we return to in-person learning and expand to more school sites.  We are also excited that Venalin will be leading the charge. She recently joined our team as Greentrike’s OSTI (Out-of-School Time Intermediary) Manager.” 


The Tacoma Whole Child Partnership is a community-wide effort to ensure every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Greentrike, Tacoma Public Schools, GTCF, and numerous community partners are working together to expand this partnership by providing aligned, equitable, high quality social, emotional, and academic development opportunities to students in and out of school.