Sorry! Teaching Why, Why, and How to Apologize 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

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 slightest remorse.

Putting the words in their mouth doesn't work. Let's try directly teaching them how to apologize. More specifically, it teaches them to know what to say, when to say it, and why to say it.

When Should We Say Sorry

Not every error or offense requires an apology. Different situations will need different sorts of apologies. 

In counseling, if you can get students to understand the skill deeply, they will likely 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.

  • Quick fixes are unintentional, inconvenience someone, or are very minor.
  • Needs attention is a mistake that bothered someone, hurt their feelings, or cost them something.
  • A major repair is when your actions are deliberate or callous and cause harm to someone else and your relationship with them.

What would an apology for a quick fix be like? What about a major repair? 

When to say sorry counseling activity

Apologies Lesson

Fantastic Fix-It: Small group or individual lesson on learning when and how to say sorry.

Why Do I Have to Say Sorry?

When students are reflecting on their actions, you can also work on building empathy and seeing why apologies are necessary. We all have done things that harm our relationships with others by mistake or on purpose. Apologies are one way we try to repair that harm. 

If students can see that apologies are a way to fix things, they are more likely to realize that a quick "Sorrrrryyyy!" will not do the trick.

Try using reflective discussion questions:

  • If this happened to me, what would I want the person to do to fix things?
  • How can I repair our relationship?
  • What was it about my actions that hurt them?

It's important to acknowledge that saying sorry is hard. We have to admit we weren't our best selves. We aren't sure if the person will forgive us.

How to Say Sorry

Before you start helping students write apologies, inspect what empty apologies look like. Why is a quick, monotone sorry not a good way to go? It is an excellent opportunity to up the dramatics and have students act out empty and honest apologies.

Is it a real or fake apology? Counseling sorting activity

For students to craft a genuine apology, they need to know what happened and why they are sorry.

Sticking with the building theme, have students act like they are called in to evaluate repairs that need to be made. 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 you have the facts of what happened, focus on empathy. Why is the student sorry? You don't want a student giving some empty apology because you are giving them your best serious face. You want them to understand how others feel and feel remorse for what happened.

teach students how to say sorry.

Make the Repairs

Push students to consider what other repairs need to be made after they have said they are sorry.

Think of it like this. Your friend knocks a hole in your wall. They say sorry, tell you how it happened, and how they will 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 that need an apology and brainstorm actions that would show the other person you are sorry and working to repair what happened.

How do you teach apologies? 

Helpful Resources

Building an Apology Lesson

Engaging counseling lesson to teach students when, how, and why to say sorry. 

Conflict Resolution Lesson

Teach students conflict resolutions skills step by step. This set of materials focuses on the skills that will help students solve problems on their own.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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