Kids are terrible at apologizing. Heck, adults aren’t much better.
I’m sure, like me, you have found yourself demanding a child say sorry to another child only to have them not show the least sign of remorse.
Putting the words in their mouth doesn’t seem to be working. So let’s try directly teaching them how to apologize. More specifically, teaching them to know what to say, when to say it, and why to say it.
Not every error or offense requires an apology. Different situations will need different sorts of apologies.
In counseling, I find if I can get students more deeply understanding the skill, the more likely it is they will be able to apply it independently.
For apologies, we look at intended or unintended errors and evaluate what the impact was. I give the students three categories and have them sort situations into the categories.
What would an apology for a quick fix be like? What about a major repair?
When students are looking deeper at their mistakes or offenses, we also work on building their empathy and seeing the importance of apologies. We all do things, by mistake or on purpose, that "break" our relationships with others. Apologies are our repair materials. "Sorrrrryyyy!" is not a very effective material to use to make repairs.
Try using reflective discussion questions:
I also think it is important to acknowledge that saying sorry is hard. It is hard because we have to admit we weren't our best selves. We aren't sure if the person will forgive us. If we acknowledge what we did, maybe they will be even angrier.
Before I start helping students write apologies, we look at what fake or empty apologies look like. Why is a quick, monotone sorry not a good way to go? This is a great opportunity to up the dramatics and have students act out fake and real apologies.
For students to craft a real apology, they need to know what happened and why they are sorry.
Sticking with the building theme, I have students act like they are called into evaluate some repairs that need to be made.
We review what happened and why it happened. Did they leave someone out for a reason? Did they bump someone because they were in a rush or because they meant to?
Once we have the facts of what happened, I focus on empathy. Why is the student sorry? I don't want a student giving some empty apology because I'm giving them my best serious look. I want them to understand how others feel and feel sorry for what happened because of that and not because they got caught.
Kids often think a well crafted apology letter will do the trick. And it might. Push them further to consider that real repairs are made through actions, not words.
Think of it like this. Your friend knocks a hole in your wall. They say sorry, tell you how it happened, and tell you how they are going to fix it. That makes you feel better in the moment. What if your friend never follows through and repairs the wall? That apology doesn't mean that much.
Take situations in need of an apology and brainstorm actions that would show the other person you are sorry and working to repair what happened.
Laura is a former school psychologist passionately trying to bring social-emotional learning to every student at every tier. Click here for hands-on resources for the classroom and counseling.
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