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Paris Attacks: Social-Emotional Learning Helps Students Process Traumatic Events

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As a child in Kansas schools following the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, I sat with classmates in an awkward circle as we discussed our feelings about the event. What did this mean for us? Were we safe? Should we feel bad for feeling curious about how the bombing happened?

I would imagine classes all over the U.S. will have similar conversations about the Paris attacks this week.

Teachers around the country say such conversations are often necessary after these sorts of events, be they local or international. It's difficult for students to learn when their minds are focused on the snippets of scary images they absorbed while their parents watched the nightly news the day before. Such conversations are easier and more natural when students are accustomed to discussing their thoughts and experiences with their peers and teachers in a thoughtful way, they say.

Schools with existing social-emotional learning programs—through which teachers help students learn to identify, process, and regulate emotions—will have a head start in responding to events like the Paris attacks, supporters of such programs say. That's because those  programs often include a familiar format for discussing emotions and a time for open discussion. In Cleveland schools, teachers told me their social-emotional learning programs helped them discuss the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice with students. In a poor part of south Los Angeles, a teacher said her students' restorative circle helped them process gang violence in their neighborhoods.

The same can be true for international events, social-emotional learning advocates say. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, for example, posted today about how schools that use its RULER social-emotional learning program can use its color-coded emotions chart to discuss Paris with students.

"It is important to be authentic and clear about your own feelings," the post says. "You can share with the class how difficult a weekend it was for you and how you kept thinking of the people in Paris and what feelings that raised. Identify and label your own feelings of sadness and anxiety."

The Harvard Graduate School for Education also tweeted out its guide for parents and teachers to discuss difficult events with children Monday.

The authors of the Yale post advise teachers to reassure their students of the following points:

  • Events such as the terrorist attacks in Paris are very rare and unusual.
  • Students are loved and cherished by their families and teachers.
  • It is important to talk about what they are feeling if they are concerned.
  • Their feelings are natural and normal in such a situation.
  • In our country, we are trying to always be prepared for events like this by having drills and using technology to stay aware of what is happening.
  • Adults in the community are trained to keep them safe and will always do their best to ensure that happens.
  • Teachers and school leaders in their schools have a plan for any event that may happen and will keep them safe.
  • There are many more good people in the world than bad and those people are working to make sure events such as this do not happen again.

What is the role of schools at times such as this? If you are a teacher, will you discuss the Paris attacks in your classroom?


Further reading on social-emotional learning and traumatic events:

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