Sorry! Teaching 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 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.

When Should We Say Sorry

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.

  • Quick fixes are when you cause someone else an inconvenience that wasn't intentional and doesn't happen all the time.
  • Needs attention is an error that bothered someone, hurt their feelings, or cost them time/resources.
  • Major repair is when you 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

Why Do I Have to Say Sorry?

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:

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

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. 

How to Say Sorry

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.

Is it a real or fake apology? Counseling sorting activity

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.

teach students how to say sorry.

Make the Repairs

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.

How do you teach apologies? 

2 girls arguing need to say sorry

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Saying sorry activities for counseling

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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